France, Italy impose Easter lockdowns as COVID cases surge

Millions of people across Europe are set to mark Easter Sunday under new coronavirus restrictions.

Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit leads the annual procession of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at the Sacre-Coeur Basilica of Montmartre in Paris, France [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

France and Italy have reimposed lockdowns as European nations struggle to contain a rising number of COVID-19 infections, with millions across Europe set to mark Easter Sunday under the new restrictions.

The European Union’s largely slow vaccination rollout and rising infections are forcing some governments to reinstate full lockdowns.

Many people in Paris left the French capital ahead of restrictions as France enters its third nationwide lockdown.

The government closed all schools and imposed new rules taking effect nationwide on Sunday.

In Paris, police say they are deploying 6,600 officers to enforce the new restrictions, which include a ban on travelling more than 10km (6 miles), a ban on outdoor gatherings of six people or more and a continued nationwide 7pm-6am curfew.

Daily new infections in France have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. On Friday, France reported its biggest jump in the number of intensive care patients, leaving hospitals overwhelmed.

France has registered 4.8 million COVID cases, the most in Europe and fourth globally. It has confirmed more than 96,000 deaths, the eighth highest number in the world.

A limited number of worshippers, due to COVID restrictions, watch the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession led by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, during Good Friday celebrations [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Meanwhile, Italy has imposed a strict three-day lockdown during the Easter weekend, with all non-essential travel banned.

However, churches are allowed to open and people are allowed to share an Easter meal at home with two other adults.

Even though the health ministry says the rate of infections is coming down, all regions were placed into the strictest “red zone” lockdown through Monday as a precaution.

Italy has recorded 3.6 million cases and more than 110,000 deaths from COVID-19, more deaths than any other European country except the United Kingdom.

Italy has administered 10.8 million vaccines, though only 3.3 million of the country’s 60 million people have received both doses.

‘Crisis of trust’

Germany’s president said the country is enduring a “crisis of trust” as it weathers a second Easter under pandemic restrictions amid dissatisfaction over the government’s response.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday conceded “there were mistakes” regarding testing, digital solutions and vaccinations. He urged Germans to pull together and trust approved vaccines.

Germany, along with the EU as a whole, has lagged some countries in the speed of its vaccination effort amid the slower procurement of vaccines because of supply and distribution issues from the vaccine companies.

He pointed out vaccine deliveries would increase sharply in the coming weeks and both citizens and government had to pull together and not “outdo each other in pessimism”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel ditched a plan for a five-day shutdown over Easter to try to contain a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic after the hastily-conceived proposal triggered a backlash.

Germany has reported nearly 2.9 million COVID-19 infections and more than 76,000 deaths.

Thousands of people marched through the German city of Stuttgart on Saturday to protest against continuing coronavirus restrictions.

Protesters held placards reading “there is no pandemic” and “vaccination kills”.

Only a few of the participants were physically distancing or wearing face masks – as is required by the authorities – but police allowed the rally to continue.

‘Detrimental effect’

John Ryan, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Al Jazeera that the pandemic will have a lasting “detrimental effect” on European economies, and that new restrictions will further hit growth and productivity as factories and supply chains will be disrupted.

“That all will have a negative economic impact, especially when it’s countries like Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria – all interconnected with each other.”

“The economic impact for France and Germany as opposed to the United Kingdom was less up until now, but there’s maybe a catch-up in that economic damage with these types of lockdowns and unfortunately the deaths that will come with the high rates of infection,” he said.

Vaccination drives in Europe and elsewhere have taken a hit due to concerns surrounding the safety of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, after blood clots were reported after inoculation.

Earlier this week, Germany and the Netherlands said they would temporarily stop administering the AstraZeneca jabs for people below the age of 60.

Ryan said that while countries like the UK and US were steadily inoculating their populations, and at a higher pace than the EU, the new COVID-19 variants meant that boosters were likely needed.

“It’s very difficult to make a prediction … but I would say that we are nowhere near out of this particular predicament at the moment.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies