What’s Behind the Global Spike In Coronavirus Outbreaks?

Cases are rising as normal life resumes. But blaming vacationers and partygoers ignores government failures and socioeconomic problems.

In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Greece emerged as a surprising success story. The government’s swift actions to close down the country in February and March helped it avoid the high death tolls that other nations experienced and positioned it well to reopen. The country began lifting lockdown restrictions in early May and started welcoming international travelers again in mid-June, enticing tourists with the promise of a largely coronavirus-free getaway.

Since then, however, the number of coronavirus cases in Greece has risen alarmingly, and scientists say the country is now officially experiencing a second wave. On Sunday, Greece recorded 203 new infections, the highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic.

Much of the blame has fallen on partygoers packing into beach bars and nightclubs. The government on Monday imposed a late-night curfew on bars and restaurants in popular nightlife destinations, including the islands of Mykonos, Santorini, and Corfu.

“Unfortunately, the transmission of the virus is increasing dangerously,” said Health Minister Vasilis Kikilias. “I call once again on the young and those citizens who do not follow the basic measures of personal protection — masks, hygiene rules, safety distances — to consider their responsibilities towards vulnerable groups, the rest of our fellow citizens and the country.”

Young people have become a convenient scapegoat for rising infections in many parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, the city of Preston was placed on local lockdown last week after a significant rise in cases among people under age 30, which health officials linked to people mixing in pubs and homes.

In response, government officials are telling young people, “Don’t Kill Granny,” to try to reinforce the idea that, even if they don’t have symptoms, they could spread the virus to more vulnerable populations.

“Young people are inevitably among the brave and the bold. They want to be adventurous and out and about,” Adrian Phillips, chief executive of the Preston City Council, told the BBC. “But we know that they have the virus, are more likely to at the moment. They often have less symptoms, but they do take it back to their household. And the community spread we are seeing, we believe in many cases, are young people taking it home and catching the virus.”

A waiter serves patrons at a bar in Athens, Greece, Aug. 1. Since the country began lifting lockdown restrictions, the number of coronavirus cases has spiked.
A waiter serves patrons at a bar in Athens, Greece, Aug. 1. Since the country began lifting lockdown restrictions, the number of coronavirus cases has spiked.
Costas Baltas / reuters

The story has been similar in other countries as lockdown restrictions have eased. In early May, South Korea scrambled to contain a coronavirus outbreak linked to several nightclubs in Seoul. In Spain, parties and nightclubs have become new coronavirus hotspots. German health officials have warned that people have become careless about social distancing. And in parts of the United States, as well, officials have pointed to parties as a major reason for rising infection rates.

“We’re finding that the social events and gatherings, these parties where people aren’t wearing masks, are our primary source of infection,” Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department in Washington state, told NPR.

None of this should come as a huge shock. The coronavirus spreads easily when people spend time in close contact with each other, particularly indoors.

“Nighttime venues tend to be poorly ventilated, and the volume of the music means you have to speak loudly, which has been documented as a risk factor,” Joan Ramón Villalbí, the spokesperson for the Spanish Public Health Association, told El País.

Individuals may be faulted for flouting official guidelines on social distancing or mask-wearing, or for attending illegal parties and raves. But many countries have also encouraged patrons to return to bars, restaurants and other establishments in the name of reviving the hospitality industry. In such situations — particularly after months spent in lockdown — appeals to moderation can fall on deaf ears.

When pubs reopened in the United Kingdom last month, popular nightlife areas were quickly packed with merrymakers, and John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, said it was “crystal clear” that drunk people are unable to properly socially distance.

The risk that lifting travel restrictions and reopening businesses could trigger an increase in infections has been known since the beginning — in Greece as well.

“We all knew, both we and our scientists and experts, that with the opening of our borders we would have a partial increase in cases,” Vassilis Kikilias, the health minister, said last month. But “the economy and tourism must survive.”

Revelers socialize on Old Compton Street in the hospitality and nightlife hotspot of Soho in London on July 18, 2020.
Revelers socialize on Old Compton Street in the hospitality and nightlife hotspot of Soho in London on July 18, 2020.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Young people going to parties and bars are hardly the only cause of the coronavirus outbreaks. There are many other situations in which people also spend time in close proximity to each other. Around the world, outbreaks have been linked to senior care homes, meat processing plants, warehouses and distribution centers, public housing and other high-density living arrangements.

In the United Kingdom, the city of Leicester was the first to be placed on local lockdown at the end of June following a surge of coronavirus cases. While public health officials have not identified a specific cause of the outbreak, officials have raised concerns about the city’s garment factories and food processing plants, where workers have complained of poor conditions for years.

In July, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “very worried about the employment practices in some factories.”

The situation is similar in Germany and other countries, including the United States, where laborers ― often immigrants or people of color ― tend to work in dangerous conditions and live together in crowded dormitories or multi-generational housing.

A boy jumps into the sea from the rocks of Magaluf beach on July 30 in Mallorca, Spain. The area is a popular tourist destination, particularly for British travelers.
A boy jumps into the sea from the rocks of Magaluf beach on July 30 in Mallorca, Spain. The area is a popular tourist destination, particularly for British travelers.
Clara Margais via Getty Images

Government failures also play a part in the coronavirus resurgence.

In Australia, the hotel quarantine system implemented in the state of Victoria is likely responsible, at least in large part, for the spike in cases there. Other parts of the country relied on the police and military to enforce the quarantine of returning travelers. Victoria, however, contracted private security firms. These companies reportedly didn’t have adequate training or personal protective equipment, and guards would reportedly do things like carpool to work together and interact frequently with the quarantined guests.

A government inquiry into what went wrong with Victoria’s hotel quarantine system is scheduled to begin next week.

New Zealand is also rushing to identify the cause of a new outbreak there, after four people in one Auckland household tested positive for the virus, the first reported cases of local transmission in the country in 102 days. The reemergence of the virus caused the government to place Auckland, the nation’s largest city, on lockdown, to allow health officials to investigate the source of the outbreak and attempt to limit its spread.

France, too, tightened restrictions on social gatherings and encouraged more widespread use of face masks this week, after the daily tally of new coronavirus cases increased by 785.

As many as 10,000 people attended a rave in the Cevennes National Park in southern France, Aug. 10.
As many as 10,000 people attended a rave in the Cevennes National Park in southern France, Aug. 10.
PASCAL GUYOT via Getty Images

Finally, data shows that poor and minority communities in many countries are most at risk from coronavirus — a consequence of systemic racism and economic inequality. In June, an official report from Public Health England found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic, or BAME, people are more likely to die of coronavirus than their white counterparts.

But critics say government officials have been slow to acknowledge the challenges and provide the support these communities need. In the U.K. and Australia, for example, government officials have been criticized for failing to communicate health and safety guidelines to people for whom English is not their native language.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting a clear scientific explanation instantly as to why there were such high numbers of BAME deaths to coronavirus,” Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the council at the British Medical Association, told HuffPost U.K. in June. “But what we were expecting was some practical action to protect those that we know to be at risk.”

“I don’t think the older generation, like my mum’s around 60 but her parents’ generation, would have any access to the internet,” Huong Truong, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, told HuffPost Australia. “It’s word of mouth and family connections, and younger people like myself letting them know what’s going on or clarifying misinformation that’s been around.”

It’s not wrong for government officials to remind the public of the need to remain vigilant and act responsibly. In the absence of a vaccine, following official guidance about hand washing, social distancing, the use of face masks, and other safety measures will play a large role in helping to keep infections at bay.

But that guidance has often been poorly communicated to the public, and the failure of some government figures to follow the rules themselves has undermined official measures to contain the coronavirus. In the United Kingdom, for example, researchers identified a “Dominic Cummings effect,” in which the decision of Boris Johnson’s top adviser to travel outside London with his family, in apparent violation of the country’s lockdown restrictions, damaged the public’s trust in the government and may have reduced compliance with lockdown measures.

In the end, drunken partygoers shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for the surge in coronavirus cases. Much of that blame still rests with government officials themselves.

With reporting from HuffPost U.K, HuffPost France, and HuffPost Australia.

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