It turns out that a massive increase in cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus.
“Pack your bags, Europe is opening back up!” That was the message sent out, to great fanfare, just a month ago. Many Northern Europeans, starved for the best part of two years of sun, sea and sand, flocked southward. But unfortunately, it turns out that cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus. The Covid-19 pandemic is once again raging in many of Europe’s vacation hot spots, from Portugal to Spain, to Malta and Greece. Catalonia, from where I am writing this article, is one of the worst hit.
For the first time in over a year and a half, Barcelona, the region’s capital, is crawling with tourists (albeit, thankfully, not nearly in the same numbers as before). But it’s unlikely to last, given that the number of Covid cases is surging to dangerous levels. With an infection rate of 1,160 per 100,000 over a 14-day period, Spain’s north-eastern region boasts one of the five worst rates of contagion in mainland Europe. Infections are expected to peak at the end of this month, by which point the region’s hospitals anticipate having as many as 500 patients in critical condition, said Gemma Craywinckel, the director of public health.
As recently as two weeks ago, the local government’s health secretary, Josep Maria Argimon, was blaming the rising cases on two factors: the “more contagious” delta variant and a surge in social interaction among local people, particularly the young as they embarked on their end-of-school-year trips and made merry during the Sant Joan midsummer festival (June 23). But last week he finally admitted that the recent surge in overseas arrivals had also played a part: “Catalonia’s position as an important tourist destination makes it more likely that an explosive situation can occur.”
It’s impossible to know how many of the incoming tourists have been vaccinated and how many haven’t. Based on my own on-the-ground observations, most of them are in their twenties, thirties or forties. Quite a few of them are not wearing masks as they pour into shops and other indoor settings, even though their use indoors is mandatory here in Spain. My wife, a jewellery designer who works in a craft jewellery store in the tourist-heavy barrio of El Borne, has to stop roughly one out of every three tourists that comes through the door. She respectfully but assertively asks them to don their mask. Many are happy to oblige, others somewhat less so.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said one happy-go-lucky American yesterday, as he sauntered into the store. “I’ve already had both jabs,” he said, with a touch of pride, to which my wife replied, again respectfully but a little more firmly: “I’ll ask you again: please put your mask on. In Spain it is the law. And just because you’ve had the vaccine doesn’t mean you can’t catch it and spread it to others.”
The fact that this is news to many of the shop’s customers is testament to just how poorly informed some vaccinated travellers appear to be. They genuinely seem to believe that the vaccine grants them total protection from contagion. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the overly simplistic, often confusing messages they are receiving from their respective health authorities. That includes the absurd notion being broadcast by the US government that the current pandemic is exclusively a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.
Recent weeks have produced more than enough evidence of breakthrough infections to dispel this idea. In early July, Israeli Health Ministry data suggested the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing infection had fallen as low as 64%, from over 90% pre-Delta. By this week that number had apparently nosedived to 39%. Two possible reasons cited for this are that delta is better than previous variants at evading the vaccine’s immune protection and the rapidly diminishing effectiveness of the vaccine over time. There’s also, of course, another possible explanation: the manufacturers over-egged the vaccine’s effectiveness.
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