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Delta Variant Risks Spoiling Europe’s Hope of a Return to Normality

People gather in front of the Trevi fountain in Rome, June 28, 2021.
People gather in front of the Trevi fountain in Rome, June 28, 2021.

The three women were enjoying their time together, having lunch near the beach at Capalbio on the Southern Tuscan coast just over an hour’s drive from Rome. A long winter and spring of lockdowns and restrictions in their northern alpine town of Bolzano had kept grandmother, mother and daughter apart for months on end.

“Can I tell them how you are the brightest in your class, the most beautiful and the kindest?” the grandmother asked her 17-year-old granddaughter.

“The lockdowns were hard — I didn’t see them for months on end. At least I have a beautiful view of the mountains from my apartment, but it was hard. I live alone,” she added. Now reunited, the three generations of women were delighted to be sharing each other’s company once again on a vacation they hope will exorcise the ghost of the pandemic past.

Italy’s coastal beaches are now packed again — so too are the lake shores — with vacationers breathing a sigh of relief at their escape from pandemic confinement.

There is a sense of normality now, boosted by the Italian government’s decision last month to drop most coronavirus-related rules and to lift rules on mask-wearing outside, although masks are still required on public transport and indoors in stores. A nighttime curfew has been phased out; and al fresco dining is allowed with few restrictions at restaurants.

With more than 30% of Italians fully vaccinated, confidence has returned. The seven-day average of new cases is below 700 a day. Twenty-four Italians died Thursday because of COVID-19, the illness triggered by the coronavirus.

That is a far cry from the daily death toll at the height of the pandemic, when Italy became the first Western country to be hit with the full impact of the coronavirus.

Youngsters are partying again — possibly too much. Across the country, from small towns to large, complaints have risen about the after-dark carousing by young and drunk post-pandemic revelers. Newspapers have nicknamed the phenomena malamovida, or bad nightlife.

“Old people complain, but they don’t understand, we have been locked up for months and now we want coming-out parties,” Ricardo, a 19-year-old, from Viterbo, a town on the outskirts of Rome, told VOA. Older people say they do understand, but that they need undisturbed sleep.

Two women take a selfie at the Spanish Steps in Rome, June 28, 2021.
Two women take a selfie at the Spanish Steps in Rome, June 28, 2021.

Behind the vacationing and partying, though, there are fears that the feel-good narrative could be undermined by the delta variant, a coronavirus strain first identified in India.

Speaking in Rome on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi issued the latest in a string of cautions, saying, “After months of isolation and separation, we have resumed much of our social interactions. The economy and education have restarted. We must be realistic, however. The pandemic is not over.”

Like his counterparts in neighboring European countries Draghi, is watching a ‘delta’ wave of infections, fearful that numbers will rise exponentially, much as they have in Britain, which has seen a remorseless increase in new cases. The number of daily and weekly cases in England has hit its highest level since January, and Thursday saw another 27,989 new coronavirus cases across Britain, according to health authorities.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson still plans to drop most remaining pandemic restrictions on July 19, having delayed a planned full reopening by more than two weeks. Because so many Britons have been vaccinated, the relationship, ministers say, between cases and worse-case outcomes and deaths has improved dramatically. So far, more than 44.8 million Britons have had a first vaccine dose — about 85% of the adult population — and more than 33 million have had both doses.

While infections in the U.K. now match the tally of January, deaths do not. COVID-19-related deaths in January were running at more than 1,000 daily, but in Britain on Thursday there were just 22 deaths. Nonetheless, there remains nervousness, and the government’s scientific advisers are urging caution.

Visitors ride a roller coaster at Cinecitta World amusement park in the outskirts of Rome in the day of its reopening, June 17, 2021.
Visitors ride a roller coaster at Cinecitta World amusement park in the outskirts of Rome in the day of its reopening, June 17, 2021.

Johnson said Thursday he was still aiming to remove nearly all lockdown restrictions. On July 19, “we'll be wanting to go back to a world that is as close to the status quo, ante-COVID, as possible. Try to get back to life as close to it was before COVID,” he said. “But there may be some things we have to do, extra precautions that we have to take.”

The government is likely next week to announce more countries Britons will be allowed to travel to without having to quarantine on their return. However, several of the countries already on Britain’s green list of “safe” countries to visit aren’t enthusiastic about admitting British travelers, with even some tourist-dependent southern European countries insisting only those double-vaccinated will be allowed in.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Merkel has been calling for European Union member states, which are far behind Britain in terms of their vaccination campaigns, to agree to a ban on travelers from Britain entering the bloc regardless of their vaccination status. Merkel has blamed British tourists for the jump in delta variant infections in Portugal.

The World Health Organization has also highlighted the danger of a delta wave engulfing Europe.

On Thursday, Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, warned in a press briefing that a decline in the number of infections in the region is coming to an end.

“A 10-week decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in the 53 countries in the WHO European region has come to an end. Last week the number of cases rose by 10%, driven by increased mixing, travel, gatherings and an easing of social restrictions,” he said.

Kluge warned that millions of unvaccinated Europeans remain highly vulnerable to the delta variant, which data suggests is far more transmissible than other strains. He said by August the delta variant will be the dominant strain in Europe, where 63% of people are still waiting for their first shot.