Is a winter wave of coronavirus infections looming?

TTWELVE MONTHS Not long ago, the northern hemisphere was about to enter its first winter of a covid-19 pandemic. In Western Europe and America, cases were increasing rapidly and dozens of deaths would soon follow. Many countries, including Britain, have entered strict closures for the holiday season.

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Today, there are still few signs that Western governments will reimpose drastic restrictions on behavior. But the covid has not gone away: in Britain, cases are almost as high as in January (although the death rate is only a fraction of what it was). Britain is doing significantly worse than its European neighbors in containing the virus, although if this wave of infections peaks ahead of flu season, the British could still be grateful.

Part of the reason covid is spreading so rampant in Britain is that the government has eased restrictions faster than in other Western countries and has been slower to vaccinate those under the age of 18. It wasn’t until September that Britain started offering jabs to 12-15 year olds; America has been doing this since May. And nightclubs, for example, which include some of the busiest and most poorly ventilated venues imaginable, are open without restrictions. In Italy clubbers are required to present vaccination certificates and in Spain they must dance with their masks on.

As of March 2020, YouGov, a pollster, has asked a representative sample of adults in countries around the world if they wear a mask in public. Even in 2021, as vaccination rates increased, mask wear remained remarkably firm (see graph below). In France and Italy, three-quarters of people say they wear masks, and in Britain and Germany, two-thirds say they do. Even in America, where mask wear has been a partisan issue, compliance increased in July in response to rising levels of infections.

Despite concerns about declining efficacy, vaccines continue to be very effective in keeping case fatality rates low. In Western Europe, people aged 12 and over received an average of 1.5 doses of a covid-19 vaccine. Although in America that number is 1.4, large pockets of unvaccinated people are helping to fuel the virus. Yet, unless he develops a mutation that makes vaccines less effective, the booster doses will help keep the worst at bay. In America, 14% of fully vaccinated people aged 65 and over received a booster dose. In Great Britain, this figure is 25%. Greater awareness of the power of vaccines could also increase vaccination rates against seasonal flu, as they did in Britain last year.

Not all countries can breathe so easily. The Covid continues to kill thousands of people every day. The EconomistThe excess death tracker estimates around 170,000 deaths from the pandemic worldwide over the past week. The pandemic is particularly severe in Russia and much of Eastern Europe, which have been slower to vaccinate. Russia recorded 1,000 deaths from covid on Saturday, the highest single-day figure since the start of the pandemic (although the official toll is almost certainly an undercount). And, covid will continue to kill a small portion of those who were fully vaccinated too, like that of Colin Powell, a former US secretary of state, who died on October 18.

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