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As the virus increases in Europe, resistance to new restrictions is also increasing

LONDON – France has placed cities on “high alert” and ordered many to close all bars, gyms and sports centers on Saturday. Italy and Poland have made masks compulsory in public. The Czech Republic has declared a state of emergency, and German officials fear that new epidemics will soon develop beyond the control of their much-vaunted tests and tracings.

Across Europe and beyond, the Covid-19 has made a comeback and, as happened last spring, officials are citing restrictions to try to remove it. But this time it’s different.

Still reeling from the economic, emotional and physical consequences of the nationwide lockdowns that have virtually crippled the continent, government officials find the public might not be so docile the second time around.

In some places, new restrictions are being accepted, albeit reluctantly, as the alternative – new nationwide lockdowns – would only be worse. But there is growing skepticism that the public would accept even such a drastic measure.

Instead of, As exhaustion and frustration over the pandemic restrictions sets in, governments are trying to narrow themselves between controlling the virus and what their public and economy will tolerate. This is especially the case in democracies, where governments are ultimately accountable to voters.

“It will be much more difficult this time,” said Cornelia Betsch, Heisenberg professor of health communication at the University of Erfurt, Germany, citing “pandemic fatigue”.

As the crisis deepens, the once strong consensus in many countries to join the sacrifices to fight the virus shows signs of fracturing. The new rules are being challenged in court. National and local leaders argue.

In Spain, the government on Friday declared a state of emergency in the Madrid region. The step was taken over the heads of the highest regional court and opposing local politicians, and within hours the main opposition leader in the country called on the prime minister to appear in parliament to justify it.

The intense feud in Spain reflects a wider political resistance facing national leaders around the world.

Business groups are issuing dire warnings that entire industries could collapse if restrictions go too far. Sporadic demonstrations, usually but not always limited to a political fringe, have broken out. Public skepticism is fueled in many countries by the failure of governments to deliver on their big promises on measures such as contact tracing, testing and other measures.

In perhaps the most telling indication that people are confused or have finished listening to advice, cases continue to explode, including in places where new measures have already been enacted.

Portugal ordered new restrictions last month, but on Thursday recorded more than 1,000 daily infections for the first time since April. In the north of England, where new rules have come and gone, the most tangible result has been to create confusion, not slow down the contagion. Officials now warn hospitals could face a larger influx of patients than at the height of the pandemic in April.

The World Health Organization on Thursday announced a record one-day increase in global coronavirus cases. Europe, as a region, now reports more cases than India, Brazil or the United States.

The pitfall of imposing new, tougher measures has already been seen in Israel, the only country to order a second nationwide lockdown. This has led to chaos and rampant protests.

“People view the decisions as political and not based on health,” said Ishay Hadas, an organizer of the protest in Israel, arguing that masked gatherings in the open carried minimal risk. “The main problem is the lack of public trust.”

While issues of mask wearing and other cautious measures remain much less politicized in Europe, especially compared to the United States, the prospect of a winter with tight restrictions or even lockdowns sparks further frustration. and divides political parties.

While Britain is expected to announce even more drastic measures on Monday, many of which have focused on curbing alcohol consumption and insanity, opposition Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has put the government challenged to produce scientific evidence showing early pub closures help slow transmission. .

Even those charged with advising the UK government cannot keep pace and are unable to explain some of the measures.

“People are very confused,” said Robert West, professor of health psychology at the University of College London. Mr. West is a member of the SAGE subcommittee, a scientific body that advises government on policy.

“I couldn’t lay a hand on my heart and say I knew the rules,” he said.

In a part of the eurozone region that the WHO team has studied in detail, around half of the population is experiencing pandemic fatigue, Betsch said. These people were looking for less information about the virus, less concerned about the risks and less willing to follow recommended behaviors.

Slowing the spread of the virus, which develops through human contact, always depends on changes in people’s behavior.

“The only other option is to lock us up again,” said Francesca Del Gaudio, 24, as she and a friend, wearing masks like almost everyone around them, walked through Rome’s Piazza Trilussa. Thursday, the first day of Italy’s expanded measures. “And we don’t want that.”

But if people choose not to listen to the advice, it remains to be seen whether harsh punishments will punish them. Violators in Italy now face a fine of 1,000 euros.

Surveys carried out in European countries by health officials show that a clear majority of people are willing to comply with regulations if they are well explained and easy to follow.

People may also be more willing to submit to new restrictions if they see hospitals filling up and the death toll rising, Ms Betsch said.

But the European regulatory landscape is changing so rapidly that governments risk undermining basic guidelines in their contortions to avoid further lockdowns Some measures have seemed simply absurd.

In Spain, restaurants in Madrid have been ordered to stop serving after 10 p.m. and close at 11 p.m. – when many people are simply considering sitting down to eat.

“Everyone knows we dine in Spain much later than in other countries, so not being able to stay open until midnight is sheer economic nonsense,” said Florentino Pérez del Barsa, a restaurateur from Madrid.

While public attention often focuses on those who shout the loudest – such as the thousands of people who recently demonstrated outside the Reichstag in Berlin and Trafalgar Square in London, calling the pandemic a hoax and government plot – they represent only about 10% of the public. , according to a German study.

About 20% of people are against the regulations, possibly for personal, emotional and financial reasons.

But Ms Betsch, who has worked with the WHO research group, said the biggest concern is around half of the population – the “fence guards”.

They are open to regulations but need to be listened to and educated, she said, and new fragmented government policies only add to the frustration.

The choices facing national governments are difficult.

The French government, watching with concern the filling of hospital beds, has extended its maximum alert “ red zone ” to many large metropolises, including Lyon, Grenoble, Lille and Saint-Étienne, in addition to Paris, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. . Residents of Toulouse demonstrated on Friday fearing their city would be included.

Xavier Lencou, an engineering student queuing for a coronavirus test near Les Halles in central Paris, said more people around him were complying with measures like wearing masks, unlike in spring.

But he feared that tougher measures would push people beyond their limits.

“If we have a new lockdown it could be worse because people would not respect it.” he said.

Jérôme Fourquet, political analyst at the IFOP polling institute in France, said that managing the economy and the epidemic amounted to “crisscrossing the circle”, especially since “our room for maneuver is not at all what it was last March ”.

He said the French government now has less to spend to support businesses and people are accepting fewer new restrictions.

For German Chancellor Angela Merkel too, fears that a second lockdown will doom the fragile economic recovery have led to increasing repression of citizens and businesses.

Ms Merkel said this week she “did not want a situation like spring to repeat itself” – meaning another lockdown – and warned on Friday that the next 10 days would be critical.

But the country’s mainstream newspaper Bild reflected the sentiments of many Germans in its editorial on Friday, warning that a lockdown would lead to “mass unemployment, bankruptcies and endless strain on families and children.” .

“This is not a case of what Merkel wants, however – she MUST, along with states and cities, prevent a second lockdown!” Bild’s editors have warned. “In a free country, you can’t force the majority to pay for the behavior of a few idiots.”

In Germany, as in other countries, the focus is on changing the behavior of young people.

“Isn’t it worth being a little patient now?” Mrs Merkel begged them. “Everything will come back – partying, going out, having fun without corona rules. But right now, something else matters most, being mindful of each other and staying together.

But public patience, in Germany and elsewhere, is precisely what is diminishing.

It is important to follow rules such as wearing a mask and washing your hands, said. June Nossin, 32, therapist of Belgian origin sitting on the terrace of a Parisian café. But there was a limit to what people could take.

“If everything is forbidden,” she said, “people will go crazy.

The report was written by Raphael Minder from Spain, Christopher Schuetze and Melissa Eddy from Berlin, Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Antonella Francini from France, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem and Elizabeth Povoledo and Emma Bubola from Italy.

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