Many lessons to be learned in fight against COVID-19
At a World Health Organization news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of last year, I asked WHO experts to visualize what 2021 would look like.
Would it be like 2020 with one wave of infections and deaths after another and lockdowns here and there?
The experts weighed in all the scenarios in the balance, with most of them sounding cautiously optimistic given the expected rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and better treatment and testing methods. Some said normal life could resume sometimes in 2022 or 2023.
But the fact that Europe has again become an epicenter of the pandemic has raised new questions including what went wrong and what 2022 may look like.
The WHO warned this week that another 700,000 people could die from COVID-19 in Europe and Central Asia by March 1, 2022, based on the current situation. That would raise the death toll in the region to 2.2 million.
People in the region's richest countries, such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy, are not immune to the novel coronavirus despite 70-80 percent of them being vaccinated. In fact, in some countries the rate of infections is higher than a year ago, with hospitals overwhelmed again by COVID-19 patients.
Austria became the first European country to impose a national lockdown this week, and many other countries have tightened restrictions in a bid to curb the new wave of infections.
It is right to assign some blame on people who refuse to be vaccinated and those who protest against the restrictions, especially those resorting to violence against the restrictions. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that a whole-of-society approach is needed to ensure success in the fight against the pandemic. True, some amount of individual "liberty" will be compromised at times, but that is for the greater good of society, particularly to save lives.
It's not easy for me to say this, because I have not been able to travel back to China for the past two years to see my mother due to the tough mandatory quarantine measures.
But it's still a relief to know that China with one-fifth of the world's population has largely controlled the spread of the novel coronavirus. The question I was asked a few days ago by a German national in Duisburg, Germany, is how China has managed to control the spread of the virus while Germany, with 83 million people, recently reported a record 60,000 new cases a day. Even Belgium, with 11 million people, has reported on average 15,000 new cases a day.
Without strong enforcement of prevention and control measures, the so-called "quarantine" mechanism in Europe has been mostly voluntary and ineffective. Also, there is hardly any contact tracing. This is not conducive to containing the pandemic.
It took several months in 2020 for most Europeans to accept wearing a face mask. I still remember the kind of looks I used to get in groceries and supermarkets in Brussels at the time as I would be the only one wearing a face mask.
Even today many in Europe seem to believe that wearing a face mask and maintaining social distancing are not for the safety of themselves or other people, but simply mandatory government rules. That is why when restrictions are eased, many people quickly return to business as usual as if COVID-19 has become a thing of the past.
True, COVID-19 vaccines are effective, but they are not a silver bullet. Also, vaccine inequality is a serious problem, especially the gap in the vaccination rates even between Eastern and Western European countries, not to mention the worryingly high disparity between rich and low-income countries where only 2 percent of the people have been vaccinated. So there is no reason to lower our guard yet.
The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels.