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European Countries Are Bracing Themselves For The Next Wave Of The Pandemic


Think of the coronavirus less like a single hill, more like a roller coaster. We may get to the top of one peak only to find we are hurtling straight on to another. That is the view of epidemiologists who have warned of a second, even a third wave of the pandemic, waves that could be worse than the first.

This is something on the minds of Europeans this week as most countries on the continent begin to emerge from lockdown. There are already worrying signs in Germany. The government says infection rates may have increased since it loosened social distancing rules. Well, let's check in with how it's going with three of our correspondents in Europe - Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Hey, Sylvia.


KELLY: Rob Schmitz in Berlin, welcome back.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, welcome to you, too.


KELLY: De rien. All right. Rob, I'm going to give you the opening words here because you have been reporting for weeks. You've been telling us how the German government has done so well, has gotten high marks for handling the pandemic. It sounds as though there may be a bit of a stumble with this reopening. What's going on?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, talk about roller coasters. You know, last Wednesday when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to ease lockdown measures, the transmission rate here was low enough to feel good about reopening shops, restaurants and schools. But now six days later, as they're all reopening, the transmission rate has been steadily climbing back into uncomfortable territory. Christian Drosten, the German virologist who invented one of the first COVID tests, has weighed in on Germany's reopening. He advises Merkel on corona-related policy. And a few weeks ago, he took the unusual step of using his very popular podcast to criticize the government for opening too fast. Here's what he said.


CHRISTIAN DROSTEN: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: So, Mary Louise, he's saying here that regrettably he has to warn that Germany is in danger of jeopardizing the head start it had on containing the virus. He says we're among very few countries in the world with a decent hold on COVID-19, yet now shopping malls have reopened and they're full. He says for the first time, he feels compelled to make an exception to not expressing his opinion. And he's calling into question whether this decision to open up again was a sensible one.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's contrast that to what is happening farther south in Italy. Let me turn to you, Sylvia. Italy, of course, being the first country in Europe that was just walloped by the pandemic, Italians are now slowly emerging from their homes. When you were out and about talking to people, what do they say? How worried are they that the virus will flare right back up again?

POGGIOLI: Well, first of all, you don't see too many people out, at least certainly not in the center of Rome where I live. And, you know, the government is taking this very slowly. They don't want to move fast and see a surge as in Germany. So as of next Monday, regional governors will be given the responsibility on what sectors to open up. But there are going to be very strict protocols. And, you know, apart from some happy hour crowds in Milan over the weekend, Italians are following the rules and showing much more caution than some of their regional politicians who were pressing to open up very fast.

KELLY: So does the Italian government in Rome have a plan for what happens if new cases do start emerging and those numbers shoot up again?

POGGIOLI: Well, very they're simple. They say if - first of all, the governors will be required to monitor closely. If they see a surge in cases, any kind of abnormal increase, the government will intervene directly and reimpose local lockdowns. So we're back to square one.

KELLY: Eleanor, let me turn to you in Paris. Y'all are having a monumental day in France. I know kids are back in schools as of today, at least the younger kids. The country is divided into different zones that are opening at different rates according to different threat levels. What are people there saying? Are French people worried about a new flare-up?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. Mary Louise. I mean, they're looking at Italy, which is about 10 days ahead of France and Germany, closely watching things. They're not completely convinced that this can be done without, you know, a second wave. But they want to try. I was at a school this morning. I spoke with Jean Paul Coudray, who's a lawyer. He was bringing his 7-year-old to school for the first time in two months. He said it's better if his son can be in school. And he said he and his wife had decided that it was safe enough to try. Here's what he told me.

JEAN PAUL COUDRAY: First of all, they said that they will split the class in two parts. So instead of being 30, there would be 15. And in this group of 15 or 16, they would cut into two groups of eight children per class with one teacher. And they will wash hands - I don't know - 10 times a day. So that's why we say, OK, let's go to school.

BEARDSLEY: So, Mary Louise, I think this attitude sort of sums it up. You know, there are a lot of rules now, and people are really trying to abide by them. You don't see anybody without a mask, really. People are trying to social distance. Cafes and restaurants aren't open yet. And as you said, the country is divided. There's green lesser affected zones and red zones that have been hard hit like Paris. And in Paris, parks will not be opening yet because of that.

KELLY: OK. I mean, it sounds like all three of you are saying that the governments in France, in Italy and Germany are prepared to reimpose more strict lockdown if necessary. But, I mean, back to you, Rob, I know that the Germans are anticipating their soccer league is going to restart soon, the Bundesliga. So I wonder how realistic is it to think that once you've loosened things up, you can put the genie back in the bottle?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Health authorities aren't panicking yet about the rise in Germany's transmission rate because the rising rate reflects data from more than a week ago. But if it continues to climb in the following days, then it's likely politicians will be pressured to reimpose lockdown measures. And Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has said it's crucial for Germany to keep the transmission rate below what it is now because anything above the current rate could lead to a collapse of the country's health care system. She is expected to address the criteria for reintroducing lockdown measures tomorrow during question time in Germany's Parliament.

KELLY: Such a delicate balancing act. Eleanor, a last word from you. I was just noticing on your Twitter feed today street markets have reopened. And it's so hard for people to socially distance in the way that they're being told to do with that under way. What is the plan in France for if there are flare-ups?

BEARDSLEY: You know, France only opened yesterday, and they waited so long because, you know, it's hard sometimes to social distance on a thin sidewalk. They're going to be testing 700,000 tests a week. They're going to be contact tracing rigorously. And they've got thousands of hotel rooms available for people just to pull them out literally of circulation and quarantine them. They're going to really try to stop this thing from spreading.

KELLY: I want to end where the coronavirus really began in Europe, and that's back with you, Sylvia. So many Italians have experienced the horror of the coronavirus up close. And I imagine as well that after two months really locked in houses, they're ready to come out. You know, what happens there? How will it play if lockdowns are reimposed?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, Italians have stunned the world and themselves by how diligently they've observed these really tough measures. Everyone here saw the images of army trucks picking up hundreds of coffins, you know, piling up day by day in northern towns when there wasn't enough room in the morgues. Those images left a mark. And I've seen the reappearance on walls recently of a phrase written in the 1930s in a fascist prison by Antonio Gramsci. He was the founder of the Italian Communist Party. It pretty much sums up the current mood here. The old world is dying, the new one is late in arriving, and in this chiaroscuro, monsters are born. In Italy, there's very much anxiety about what's next.

KELLY: A fascinating portrait there of how life is unfolding in three corners of Europe. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Rob Schmitz reporting from Berlin, thanks to all three of you.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.