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French police check motorists' outings authorisation on Paris's ring road on April 11, 2020, during the 26th day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. © Thomas Samson, AFP
Europe braces for more economic damage as countries part of the union go into lockdown, with no signs of the third wave of the virus letting up.
The plan was that mass vaccination programmes would turn the tide on the pandemic, allowing locked-down consumers free rein after months penned up at home.
Instead, the virus has embarked on a third wave which is proving more difficult to bring under control.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned Thursday that the European Union would have to do more and beef up its already massive 750 billion euro ($885 billion) virus recovery fund as a result.
The EU had made a major effort after the first wave last year, Macron said, but "following the second and third waves... we will no doubt have to add to our response".
In September, as the economy picked up sharply after a rapid reverse in the first wave, expectations were high that by the middle of this year it would be solidly back on track, thanks especially to the vaccine rollout.
123 billion euro delay
Just a couple of weeks ago, European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde was even talking about a "firm rebound in activity in the second half of the year".
Now the EU´s strongest economies — Germany, France and Italy — have reimposed restrictions and the vaccine programme in Europe is mired in a blame game over supplies.
Credit insurer Euler Hermes estimates that the EU is now seven weeks adrift of its target to have 70% of the population vaccinated by the end of the summer, compared with five weeks in February.
It estimates the delay will cost the bloc's 27 member states some 123 billion euros this year.
"If you compare us with the US, where the outlook is so much more positive, we are falling further behind on the recovery because of this third wave," said Charlotte de Montpellier, economist with Dutch bank ING.
'Two speed' Europe
ING now expects eurozone growth of 3% this year, down more than half a percentage point from its previous estimate.
Most of the growth will also come from the third quarter, slightly later too, ING added.
Andrew Kenningham, chief Europe economist at Capital Economics, said he does not expect the bloc to return to pre-pandemic activity levels before the second half of 2022, a year behind the US.
"We are revising down our forecast for eurozone GDP growth due to the resurgence of virus cases, slow pace of vaccination and extension of lockdowns," Kenningham said.
"The outlook has deteriorated," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at IHS Markit.
The key Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) compiled by IHS Markit for March showed Germany, Europe´s strongest economy, doing better than France and the northern countries generally doing better than their southern partners — Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal — which risk seeing their key tourist industries shackled for yet another year.
Standard and Poor's however has decided to keep its eurozone growth forecast unchanged at 4.2% for 2021, citing the positive factor of cheap credit.
At the same time, the economy and Europe's people have adapted to the restrictions, lessening the impact, said Sylvain Broyer, chief S&P economist for EuropeLONDON -- Sweden’s novel approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has drawn both praise and fierce criticism, not just inside the Scandinavian country, but across the Western world. The country has so far resisted going into lockdown, unlike the rest of Europe, even during the peak of its second wave over Christmas.
In doing so, Sweden has become a lightning rod for those in favor and against stricter social distancing measures. For some, its significantly higher COVID death rate compared to its neighbors is proof that lockdowns are essential to combat the spread, while for others, the comparative openness of Swedish society proves that a “balanced” approach to the pandemic is possible.
Now, a year into the pandemic, and with a vaccine rollout likely in the near future, their strategy continues to attract international attention. ABC News looked at the pitfalls and merits of their approach in May last year, and a year later, the evidence shows that now, as much as ever, their unique approach offers invaluable lessons to the international community for living in the long term with COVID-19.
The soft-touch approach
PHOTO: Asa Wernsten works at the sampling station for the COVID-19 test at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport, for travellers who arrive with international flights on Feb. 22, 2021.
Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images
Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images
Asa Wernsten works at the sampling station for the COVID-19 test at Stockholm's Arlanda Airpor...Read More
Denmark, Norway and Finland, with a combined population of around 16.75 million, have recorded 4,331 deaths attributed to coronavirus as of Thursday (259 per million). All three enforced lockdowns early on in the pandemic. Sweden, by contrast, has registered 12,798 deaths, and possesses a population 10.2 million, meaning it has a far higher death rate than its immediate neighbors (1,255 per million), according to Johns Hopkins University data.
MORE: Sweden stayed open during the coronavirus pandemic: Is it a model for the future?
For critics of the light touch approach, such as Stefan Hanson, a Swedish infectious diseases expert, such a high death rate is evidence of the failure of an overall strategy.
"The basic problem is there are no clear plans,” he told ABC News. “From the start, there never as have been. Normally when you run a public health project, you have some aims and strategies, you have some goals and you follow up, you have a monitoring system to see how things are going. But in the case of Sweden there has been nothing like that."
"It's all about having a low transmission. And Sweden hasn't put that forward as a very important thing,” he added. In April 2020, Hanson was co-signatory to a letter from several top Swedish scientists criticizing the approach to the pandemic, which they said would cause “many unnecessary deaths.”
Yet even throughout Europe’s "second wave," which saw Stockholm’s intensive care units almost run out of beds over the Christmas period, the country has resisted the temptation to lock down, being the only country in Europe to do so. December saw a very rare intervention from King Carl XVI Gustaf, who said the country had “failed” in its approach. The strategy, pioneered by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been heavily criticized, not just at home, but abroad as well. False optimism that the capital, Stockholm, would reach "herd immunity" by fall has compounded that criticism.
Herd immunity occurs when there are enough people who have either been vaccinated or exposed to the virus that it can no longer spread in the population. Critics say that doing so by exposure to the virus creates unnecessary risk.
MORE: WHO on a coronavirus second wave, lockdowns and how the world responded to the pandemic
Yet as with so much of the data relating to COVID-19, proponents of the policy say that reading the data is a matter of perspective.
Sweden may be faring comparably better in terms of excess deaths -- those greater than the usual number of deaths expected in a certain time period. Experts say excess deaths can indicate whether policies intended to combat the pandemic have unintended consequences, such as delaying treatment for other ailments and is an important measure of the overall efficacy of policy.
While still performing worse than other Nordic countries on data from Eurostat, the official European Union statistics agency, and the University of Oxford, shows that Sweden recorded 7.9% excess deaths last year compared to the years 2016-19, according to the independent health news site Dagens Medicin.
That means that the country had the 23rd lowest annual excess deaths out of 30 European countries -- lower than the U.K. (15.1%), France (10.4%) and Spain (18.9%). Sweden also has a lower number of coronavirus deaths per million than those countries, all of which have gone under strict lockdowns during the pandemic. Pointing to the recent excess mortality studies, Nils Karlson, an economist and political scientist who jointly wrote an op-ed last year in Foreign Affairs entitled “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s,” is more optimistic.
“There was some recent figures showing that if you count excess mortality, Sweden is one of the best countries in Europe,” he told ABC News. “And one of the reason is, of course, that we didn't get the flu, just the ordinary flu, because we wash our hands. We have social distancing. We didn't have as many car accidents. You know, all kinds of other stuff that that affects us didn't happen this year.”
The resistance to lockdown, he said, is based on the idea that they are “unsustainable,” he said, and Sweden’s strategy takes into account not just economic factors, but all aspects of public life. While acknowledges the COVID death toll was too high, he said: “You have to keep society open not only for economic reasons, but also for critical public functions to to function, like hospitals, schools and so on. Schools are still open for younger kids... Otherwise, it's remote learning. But I think it has worked fairly well.”
PHOTO: People enjoy a sunny winter day in Malmo, Sweden, on Feb. 14, 2021.
Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via Reuters
Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via Reuters
People enjoy a sunny winter day in Malmo, Sweden, on Feb. 14, 2021.
The care home crisis
One area where there has been consensus, however, is the crisis in the Swedish old age care sector, where the crisis has taken a terrible toll.
Care home residents have made up around half of the country’s total death toll, with a further quarter of the deaths being seen amongst over 70s who receive care at home.
“The big thing was that the whole pandemic we know that old people, like in old age care, were the people who were really the people who were mostly going to die and the people who mostly went to hospitals,” Ingmar Skoog, a Swedish psychiatrist who specializes in studying old age, told ABC News. “Despite that, they didn't take in any expert in old age.”
The Swedish government introduced more protective equipment and testing, as did other countries and restricted care home visits.
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