Confirmed coronavirus cases in the US hit 5 million on Sunday – a bleak milestone met with astonishment and alarm in Europe.
Perhaps nowhere outside the US is America’s bungled virus response viewed with more consternation than in Italy, which was ground zero of Europe’s epidemic.
Italians were unprepared when the outbreak exploded in February, and the country still has one of the world’s highest official death tolls at 35,000.
After a strict nationwide, 10-week lockdown, vigilant tracing of new clusters and general acceptance of masks and social distancing, Italy has become a model of virus containment.
“Don’t they care about their health?” a mask-clad Patrizia Antonini asked about people in the United States as she walked with friends along the banks of Lake Bracciano, north of Rome on Sunday.
“They need to take our precautions. … They need a real lockdown.”
That the most powerful nation on Earth could be found wanting has led to complete bewilderment on the other side of the Atlantic.
Much of the incredulity in Europe stems from the fact that America had the benefit of time, European experience and medical know-how to treat the virus that the continent itself didn’t have when the first COVID-19 patients started filling intensive care units.
Yet more than four months into a sustained outbreak, the US has reached 5 million cases, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Even so, health officials believe the actual number is perhaps 10 times higher, or closer to 50 million, given testing limitations and the fact that as many as 40 per cent of those infected have no symptoms.
“We Italians always saw America as a model,” said Massimo Franco, a columnist with daily Corriere della Sera. “But with this virus we’ve discovered a country that is very fragile, with bad infrastructure and a public health system that is non-existent.”
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza hasn’t shied away from criticising the US, officially condemning as “wrong” Washington’s decision to withhold funding from the World Health Organisation and expressing amazement at US President Donald Trump’s virus response.
After Trump finally donned a mask last month, Speranza told La7 television: “I’m not surprised by Trump’s behaviour now; I’m profoundly surprised by his behaviour before.”
With America’s world record death toll of more than 160,000, its politicised resistance to masks and its rising caseload, European Union nations have barred American tourists and visitors from other countries with growing cases from freely travelling to the bloc.
France and Germany are now imposing tests on arrival for travellers from “at risk” countries, the US included.
“I am very well aware that this impinges on individual freedoms, but I believe that this is a justifiable intervention,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said last week.
Mistakes were made in Europe, too, from delayed lockdowns to insufficient protections for nursing home elderly and critical shortages of tests and protective equipment for medical personnel.
The virus is still raging in some Balkan countries, and thousands of maskless protesters demanded an end to virus restrictions in Berlin earlier this month. The UK, Spain, France and Germany have all seen infection rebounds with new cases topping 1000 a day, and Italy’s cases inched up over 500 on Friday.
Europe as a whole has seen over 207,000 confirmed virus deaths.
In the US, new cases are running at about 54,000 a day – an immensely high number even when taking into account the country’s larger population. And while that’s down from a peak of well over 70,000 in July, cases are rising in nearly 20 states – and deaths are climbing in most.
Many Europeans point proudly to national healthcare systems that both test and treat COVID-19 for free – unlike the American system, where the virus crisis has only exacerbated income and racial inequalities.
“The coronavirus has brutally stripped bare the vulnerability of a country that has been sliding for years,” wrote Italian author Massimo Gaggi in his new book Crack America (Broken America).
Gaggi said he started writing the book last year and thought then that the title would be taken as a provocative wake-up call. Then the virus hit.
“By March the title wasn’t a provocation any longer,” he said. “It was obvious.’
Second wave fears sweep across Britain
Britain reported 1062 new positive tests for coronavirus on Sunday, the highest daily rise in new COVID-19 infections since late June.
The rise coincides with new local lockdowns and worries over a second wave of infections.
Sunday’s figure was 304 higher than the 758 new cases reported on Saturday, and the first time the increase in cases has eclipsed 1000 since June.
There is now a widespread belief – pushed by scientists advising the government – that pubs may need to close again to curb the spread and allow schools to reopen in September.
The pandemic has hit all areas of the country’s economy, with the aerospace industry the latest to take emergency measures to safeguard jobs.
The Sunday Times reported on Sunday that the industry was creating plans for a £1 billion ($1.8 billion) fund to prop up suppliers as production cuts hurt small businesses in the wake of the aviation downturn.
The UK government is being urged to match any private-sector pledges, the paper reported.
The aviation sector is a cornerstone of the UK manufacturing industry, with Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Bombardier all drawing on local suppliers.
Tom Williams, a retired Airbus executive who is chairman of the UK Aerospace Supply Chain Task Force, said in July that 20 to 30 British suppliers were at risk and that the industry could shrink as much as 40 per cent over the next three years.
AP, Reuters, Bloomberg