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COVID-19 Surge Forces European Countries To Reintroduce Restrictions

NOEL KING, HOST:

Health experts in Europe say the continent is being hit by a third wave of coronavirus infections. It's being made worse by highly contagious variants of the virus and also a slow vaccine rollout. And so, once again, European politicians are trying to persuade people to accept more lockdowns and more restrictions. With me now, NPR correspondents Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Good morning to you both.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Eleanor, I know it is a large continent, but - big picture - what is the state of the pandemic in Europe?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the state of the pandemic is not under control. The virus is still spreading, and as you said, it's because of new variants which are much more contagious and also because the lack of vaccines. The vaccination rate is not high enough yet to make any kind of difference. It's below 10% in the EU, and compare that to around 25% of people being vaccinated in the U.S. and heading towards 40% in Britain. And the biggest countries right now - France, the U.K., Italy and Germany - are in some form of lockdown.

And it's even worse in Eastern Europe, which is being severely hit because it was very ill-prepared for these new highly contagious variants. And I spoke with Jacob Kirkegaard with the German Marshall Fund, and here's what he said about that.

JACOB KIRKEGAARD: Once the share of the new British variant, the more contagious one, reached, you know, 30% to 40%, it very, very quickly becomes the dominant one. And if you then do not adjust your lockdown intensity, then you run the risk of having, you know, a lot more new infections.

KING: OK, so lockdowns are being reinstituted. Is it all of France or just parts of the country? And where else are you seeing new lockdowns?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Yeah, it's not all of France. It's 16 regions, which are mostly all grouped in the north, including Paris, and then one area in the south on the Mediterranean. It's about 21 million people. A third of the population were essentially put into a new lockdown this past weekend. And last night, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany extended her country's lockdown measures, which were supposed to loosen on Sunday.

KING: We are now a year into this pandemic, a year into this crisis. How are people reacting to these new restrictions?

BEARDSLEY: Well, there's huge fatigue. And the French government doesn't want to call it a lockdown, so it hasn't. It's just calling it a tightening - let's put brakes on it. And, you know, indoor gatherings, they're restricting. And actually, there are so many exceptions to the business closures, Noel. Like, hairdressers are open to keep up people's spirits, bookstores because you got to read, florists because Easter's coming, cobblers and the bike aisle - just the bike aisle - in sporting goods stores. So it actually feels like it's a loosening of restrictions in many ways because the nationwide curfew has also been extended one hour to 7:00 p.m.

As newspaper Le Monde put it, the French are being asked to stay home while being authorized to go out. But at the same time, ICUs are at capacity with COVID patients, and polls show a majority of the French actually feel the new restrictions are coming a little too late.

KING: OK. And, Rob, in Germany, we know that Chancellor Angela Merkel was in a high-level crisis meeting with German leaders. What came out of that meeting?

SCHMITZ: Well, Noel, they were supposed to be talking about loosening restrictions at this meeting, but due to the exponential rise in coronavirus cases in the past two weeks, they've done the opposite. They've extended the current lockdown until April 18, and from April 1 to the 5, which is the Easter holiday here in Europe, they've asked churches to hold off on in-person services, and they've asked everyone to stay home for what Merkel called a resting phase. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: And, Noel, she's saying here that, basically, there's a new pandemic. The British variant is now dominant in Germany, and that means we essentially have a new virus. Of course, it's the same strain, she said, but its effects are very different. It's much more deadly, more infectious and infectious for longer.

KING: A new pandemic - those are terrifying words. Are there reasons that the virus has come back in Europe other than the highly contagious variants?

SCHMITZ: Well, as Eleanor says, vaccination rates in the EU are low, and that's because the EU took an overly cautious approach to the vaccine rollout. The U.S. partnered with drugmakers in both producing and testing the vaccines, but the EU instead focused on bargaining with drug companies to try to secure the lowest possible cost for the vaccines. And at every step of the way, instead of taking risks and moving forward, as if this were a wartime effort, the EU did the opposite. It took too long to approve vaccines, and it often hesitated. And even last week, many countries suspended the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe, which they're heavily relying on, because a handful of people suffered blood clots.

Here in Germany, many people are furious with how the German and the EU governments have managed this. And meanwhile, roughly 20,000 Europeans are dying of COVID-19 each week.

KING: And now the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is talking about export controls on vaccines to keep them in Europe. Does she have support there?

SCHMITZ: Well, this has to do with the AstraZeneca vaccine. The drugmaker has delivered just 30% of the vaccine doses it promised to deliver by now to the EU, and von der Leyen has threatened to block exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the U.K., U.S. and other countries from production facilities inside the EU to force the company to make good on its promise to the EU. European leaders are holding a summit on Thursday where they're going to discuss this. And last night, Chancellor Merkel said she supports von der Leyen on this issue.

KING: Eleanor, in the meantime, there is still vaccine hesitancy. Polls show that many Europeans are reluctant to get vaccinated, especially the French. Do we know why that is and whether or not that's changing?

BEARDSLEY: It's a very bizarre thing, and the government is working on it. This morning, President Emmanuel Macron visited a vaccination center and said, France is going to be vaccinating morning, noon and night. The army and firefighters are going to be brought in this week to operate what they're calling vaccineodromes (ph). These are stadiums and sports arenas devoted to vaccinating people.

But, yeah, there's still a high level of vaccine skepticism in France for the coronavirus vaccine and others before it, like measles, and I'm always surprised to hear people more worried about the vaccine than, you know, the virus, which has now killed millions of people. And like this woman, 25-year-old Marjorie Pirot, who was eating a crepe on a bench by the Eiffel Tower, lowering her mask each time to take bites.

So many French people still don't want to get the vaccine. Does this worry you?

MARJORIE PIROT: Yes and no. I'm worried very because we want to travel. We want to see our grandparents. But I don't trust about the vaccine. I want to know the consequences of the vaccines.

KING: She's saying she doesn't trust the vaccine and wants to know the consequences. Interesting. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, and we were also joined by Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thank you both for your time. We appreciate the reporting.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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