The continent thought it had the coronavirus beat—and had its guard down when it mattered most.
In this most unusual of years, Europe’s summer offered the strangest feeling of all: normality. While the United States was struggling through a scary second wave of coronavirus infections, Europe was celebrating the subsiding of its first. Tourism was still dampened, and masks were still a must. But schools mostly ended in a typical fashion, commuters returned to public transport and office life, and social life resumed in most of its forms, from dinner parties to after-work drinks.
It didn’t last. By fall, it was clear that a new wave of infections had arrived on the continent. By year’s end, it was clear that outbreaks had slipped far beyond most governments’ capacity to control. And by late December, dreaded national lockdowns had returned in Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and beyond as policymakers tried to buy time for the arrival of vaccines.
Yet even as the pandemic has pushed Europe to its limits, it has revealed the diversity contained in its political unity: The continent’s response to the coronavirus has followed a common pattern, but each country has done so in its own way and under its own constraints. Sometimes those differences have been windows into national cultural curiosities. Other times they have meant the difference between life and death on a vast scale.