Europe’s hospitals among the best but can’t handle pandemic

LONDON (AP) — As increasing numbers of European hospitals buckle under the strain of tens of thousands of coronavirus patients, the crisis has exposed a surprising paradox: Some of the world’s best health systems are remarkably ill-equipped to handle a pandemic.

Outbreak experts said Europe’s hospital-centric systems, lack of epidemic experience and early complacency are partly to blame for the pandemic’s catastrophic tear across the continent.

“If you have cancer, you want to be in a European hospital,” said Brice de le Vingne, who heads COVID-19 operations for Doctors Without Borders in Belgium. “But Europe hasn’t had a major outbreak in more than 100 years, and now they don’t know what to do.”

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) scolded countries for “squandering” their chance to stop the virus from gaining a foothold, saying that countries should have reacted more aggressively two months ago, including implementing wider testing and stronger surveillance measures.

De le Vingne and others said Europe’s approach to combating the new coronavirus was initially too lax and severely lacking in epidemiological basics like contact tracing, an arduous process where health officials physically track down people who have come into contact with those infected to monitor how and where the virus is spreading.

A health worker in the intensive care ward observes a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Belgium. PHOTO: AP

During outbreaks of Ebola, including Congo’s most recent one, officials released daily figures for how many contacts were followed, even in remote villages paralysed by armed attacks.

After the new coronavirus emerged late last year, China dispatched a team of about 9,000 health workers to chase thousands of potential contacts in Wuhan every day.

But in Italy, officials in some cases have left it up to ill patients to inform their potential contacts that they had tested positive and resorted to mere daily phone calls to check in on them. Spain and Britain have both declined to say how many health workers were working on contact tracing or how many contacts were identified at any stage in the outbreak.

“We are really good at contact tracing in the UK, but the problem is we didn’t do enough of it,” said Dr Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Exeter in southwestern England.

As cases began picking up speed in the UK in early March, Pankhania and others desperately pleaded for call centres to be transformed into contact tracing hubs. That never happened, in what Pankhania calls “a lost opportunity”.