The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that Europe remains “in the grip” of the coronavirus pandemic and that the continent’s death toll could peak at 2.2 million this winter if current trends continue.
Another 700,000 Europeans could die by March 1, the WHO said on Tuesday, in addition to the 1.5 million already succumbing to the virus.
It expects “high or extreme stress in intensive care units (ICUs) in 49 out of 53 countries between now and March 1, 2022”.
Europe’s return as the epicenter of the pandemic has been blamed for sluggish vaccine uptake in some nations, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder weather moving people indoors again and the easing of restrictions.
The rise has seen Austria return to lockdown this week, while Germany and the Netherlands are ready to announce new restrictions.
In the European Union, 67.7 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
But rates vary widely between countries, with low levels in many eastern countries. Only 24.2 percent of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated, compared to 86.7 percent in Portugal.
According to WHO data, COVID-related deaths in its European region rose by 53 countries last week to nearly 4,200 a day, doubling from 2,100 deaths a day in late September.
It said there was growing evidence that vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild disease was declining.
Several countries, including Greece, France and Germany, are on track to require a third shot to be considered fully vaccinated.
Austria, meanwhile, closed shops, restaurants and festive markets on Monday, the most drastic restrictions seen in Western Europe for several months.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Germany is not doing enough to curb its “highly dramatic” fourth wave of the pandemic.
With intensive care beds filling up quickly and its weekly incidence at a record high level of 399.8 new infections per day. 100,000 people, Germany’s worst affected regions have ordered new closures, including the closure of Christmas markets.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, who reports from Berlin, said there are two milestones in people’s minds in Germany.
“The first one has already been exceeded,” he said. “More than five million cases in this country since the pandemic began. The second, which is perhaps psychologically much more significant, is going to happen within the next two days potentially: 100,000 people have died in this country from coronavirus.”
The number of COVID deaths in the country currently stands at just under 99,000, but with 300 people dying every day from COVID, Kane said.
‘Challenging winter ahead’
The WHO said a large number of unvaccinated people, as well as “reduced vaccine-induced protection”, were among the factors promoting high transmission in Europe, along with the dominance of the Delta variant and the easing of hygiene measures.
The regional director of WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, said that Europe and Central Asia “are facing a challenging winter”.
He called for a “vaccine plus” approach, consisting of a combination of vaccinations, social distancing, the use of face masks and hand washing.
The WHO said face masks reduced the COVID frequency by 53 percent, according to a recent study, and “over 160,000 deaths could be prevented (by March 1) if 95 percent universal mask coverage was achieved.”
But the prospect of a winter under renewed restrictions has sparked unrest in several countries.
Belgium, the Netherlands and the Caribbean islands of France, Guadeloupe and Martinique, were still on Tuesday hit by violent protests against new anti-COVID measures.
Dutch police arrested at least 21 people during a fourth night of clashes, which Prime Minister Mark Rutte called “pure violence” by “idiots”.
Dutch coronavirus infection rates hit a new weekly record on Tuesday, rising 39 percent, while hospital admissions and intensive care units also rose sharply, prompting the government to make social distancing compulsory again for all adults.
The Dutch government has also introduced legislation that will pave the way for restricting the access of unvaccinated people to indoor venues such as bars, restaurants and museums if infections continue to rise. The bill is expected to be considered in the Folketing next week.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, who reports from Rotterdam, said the increase in cases was “alarming” and that there were also deep disagreements about the prospect of social restrictions becoming law.
‘There is still concern about restrictions here because the level of restrictions is reasonably high. Now taking steps to make some of these restrictions into law, some people are really worried. There is a division. ”
“The amazing fact is that 84 percent of the people here are vaccinated. So it’s a high vaccination rate and a high infection rate. This is a situation that is alarming to everyone involved.”
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