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The end of the corona pandemic is in sight thanks to mass vaccinations. Although the bulk of the population still has to wait for their vaccine, there is much speculation as to how societies will eventually return to full restaurants, concert halls, vacation flights and festival grounds. Still, it will be several more months before that happens. Millions more jabs will have to be made before this can actually happen without the same misery as what we endured last year.

Where do European countries stand in the first week of March? Many countries have had fairly severe restrictions in place for months, although the inoculation rate is starting to pick up. Still, the percentages of EU countries pale in comparison to countries that have procured vaccinations on their own. The number of Member States in the global top 10 has now shrunk to just Denmark in spot eight.

Nations such as Chile, Serbia, Turkey and Morocco have purchased liberally from Russia and China are noticeable in the upper rankings. In the case of vaccine world champion Israel, almost half of the population has now been vaccinated twice – and thus fully – against COVID-19.

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Switching up a gear

Is the European Union still vaccinating at too slow a pace? The short answer is yes. Even though the pace has been picking up since the beginning of this year, there are still some gears that need to be switched up if we want to have a corona-free summer here. What exactly underlies this pharmaceutical soap opera was the focus of a previous Corona in Europe installment.

Nevertheless, ministers from several countries have promised to speed things up even further. So, a carefree summer without a nasty autumn wave as an unpleasant vacation souvenir should actually be feasible this year. According to the Dutch Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, the supply problems must be resolved by this spring and capacity must be increased to as much as 2.5 million per week through so-called “injection events.”

How are things going at the moment? That becomes clear with the map and updated country race shown below. Here, Hungary’s interim sprint sticks out like a sore thumb. That country found the EU’s procurement process too slow and, on its own, flew in a batch of Sputnik vaccines from Russia. Elsewhere, supply shortages are still hampering the pace.

More shots ≠ fewer infections (not yet)

The difference between the leaders and the laggards is widening. The Netherlands has not switched up a gear and in the second week of March, is at about the same level as Romania, Germany and Sweden. Not bad, but certainly not impressive. The recent catch-up efforts by Hungary – and to a lesser extent Norway – are clearly visible.

Will Corona Liberation Day arrive this spring? Unfortunately not. The first groups of mostly vulnerable and elderly people have now been vaccinated, but at the same time, in the average EU country, more than 90 percent of the population is still unprotected against the virus. Throwing society completely open is therefore out of the question in the short term. If you allow the coronavirus to run its course unchecked among the non-vaccinated part of the population, new peak hospitalizations in the ICUs seem inevitable.

Yet the law of vast numbers must not be lost sight of in the process. The really screwy thing about a pandemic is the exponential element. As long as this is allowed to run its course, even the best health system in the world will eventually collapse. Suppose that 2 percent of 100,000 corona patients need ICU care. This still means that 2,000 hospital beds must be available.

Help from abroad

The fact that the corona pandemic can still be very dangerous in this phase is proven by the Czech Republic, which also suffered the full brunt of the second wave last autumn. The situation there is now so critical that help from abroad is essential, otherwise hospitals will collapse under the pressure. 1,538 Czechs died of the disease in the first week of March.

The map below shows the progressive weekly average of the number of infections. The buttons at the bottom allow comparison between the past seven days and the previous two weeks. Despite the severe restrictions, a steady downward trend would appear to be far off for a lot of countries.

The Green Certificate society

Israel featured earlier in this story. If there is anywhere where the positive effects of mass vaccination can be seen, it is there. This week, the country’s government announced that the Pfizer vaccine, which has already been administered twice to more than half the population there, has led to a huge decline in hospitalizations. Of the 6,095 corona patients hospitalized earlier this year, only 175 of them had been vaccinated twice. Moreover, a quarter of all admitted patients there were under the age of 50, an age group that was also later in getting vaccinated than older people.

The 95 percent efficacy rate of the Pfizer vaccine does not just materialize overnight. Not only does the serum have to be administered twice, but it also takes three weeks for the level of protection to be optimal. Yet even before that time, the chance of someone becoming seriously ill after an infection is already considerably lower. Since the acute pandemic threat is now out of the picture, restaurants, event venues, hotels and tourist attractions reopened in large parts of the country this weekend. These places are only accessible to those who can show a ‘green certificate’ on their smartphone. This proof of vaccination is provided via an app two weeks after receiving the second shot.

All restrictions are lifted

Once admitted, all restrictions concerning keeping a distance are lifted. This rule should especially encourage young people to vaccinate against COVID-19. Because even here, despite the wide availability, there is still a segment that does not want to be vaccinated for religious or virus-denier/anti-vaxxer reasons. Despite the high vaccination coverage, corona is still spreading rapidly among the part of the population that has not (yet) been vaccinated. In order to protect the entire society, Israel still needs a higher vaccination rate. Nevertheless, this seems to be just a matter of a few months.

The future for Europe?

Israel’s green certificate system is being closely watched by countries around the Mediterranean who are looking to re-admit international tourists this way over the next few months. In Greece and Cyprus, vaccination passports are now a reality. This subject was also put on the agenda in Brussels last week. If all 27 countries agree on the precise ground rules, a EU version of the Israeli ‘green certificate’ system should also be introduced for international travel by the end of this month.

The biggest advocates of this proposal, besides countries that are considered tourist destinations, are Estonia, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Germany, France and Romania still have the most reservations. They doubt the effectiveness of the system. They also wonder whether it might create an unwelcome division between groups and whether the system complies with privacy regulations. These EU rules only apply to international travel. National governments decide for themselves whether or not, and to what extent, they will introduce such a passport system within their national borders. Like the corona rules, this could lead to significant differences between countries later on in the year.

Mandatory proof of vaccination?

In any case, it is far too early for a state of affairs like the one in Israel. At the moment, a mandatory proof of vaccination would lead to unworkable situations because too high a proportion of society would be left out. In order to avoid this, such a system is only realistic once everyone has had the opportunity to go and get a shot (or two). But if the promises of several ministers are to be believed, this will become a reality just before or at the beginning of the summer.

Nevertheless, not everyone is enthusiastic. Critics claim that the plan is on the brink of, or already overstepping, ethical boundaries. Privacy experts also doubt the safety of the app on which biomedical data is stored. Anti-vaxxers are definitely not enthusiastic either.

Mandatory requirement or house rule?

There does not seem to be much support anywhere for a mandatory vaccination requirement. Refusing a vaccine on medical and non-medical grounds remains a legitimate option. It is anticipated that for closed venues such as concert halls, festivals, stadiums or cultural occasions, a negative corona test may serve as an alternative. In such places, house rules already apply concerning prohibited items such as personal drinks, representative clothing and bags larger than an A4 sheet. This is different for public places without entrance tickets. Restaurants and pubs are a bit in between.

How the next few months will look exactly remains guesswork. Although far-reaching easing of restrictions seems almost impossible to achieve for now, the vaccinated part of society will most likely be the first to be able to enjoy travel and recreation without restrictions. The more people who decide to vaccinate, the sooner the flag can fly for Corona Liberation Day. Depending on the willingness to be vaccinated and available supplies, this should still take place sometime this year. It is estimated that this will be attainable with a herd immunity of around 70 percent.

In any event, the EU is receiving hundreds of millions of doses in March and April, which means that widespread vaccinations are finally on the way and the frustrating corona marathon is drawing to a close. No matter what risk or age group over 18 you belong to, soon you too will receive an invitation on your doormat.