Coming weeks 'critical' as Europe's Covid-19 deaths pass 90,000

Medical workers in protective gear sit in a camper van preparing to test people nearing the end of their quarantine period in Turin, Italy, on April 16, 2020. © Massimo Pinca, REUTERS

Europe is in the eye of the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the number of cases nearing a million, and should move with extreme caution when considering easing lockdowns, the World Health Organization's regional director said on Thursday.

"Case numbers across the region continue to climb. In the past 10 days, the number of cases reported in Europe has nearly doubled to close to 1 million," the WHO's European director, Hans Kluge, told reporters in an online briefing.

This meant that about 50% of the global burden of Covid-19 was in Europe, Kluge said.

"The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region," he added.

With a total of 90,180 deaths out of some 1,047,279 infections, Europe is the hardest-hit continent by the pandemic, which has killed a total of 137,499 worldwide, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

The largest number of deaths have been seen in Italy with 21,645 and Spain with 19,130, followed by France with 17,167 deaths and Britain 12,868.

As some countries start to consider whether restrictions may be eased and whether schools and some workplaces might start to reopen, the WHO's regional director said it was critical to understand the complexity and uncertainty of such transitioning.

Companies and politicians across the world are worried about the economic impact of a long shutdown, and some countries in Europe — such as Germany, Denmark, Spain and others — are beginning to think about how to ease some societal restrictions.

Kluge said the WHO recognised that social distancing policies designed to slow the spread of the virus "are affecting lives and livelihoods".

"People are rightly asking: How much do we have to endure? And for how long? In response, we, governments, and health authorities must come up with answers to identify when, under what conditions and how we can consider a safe transition."

Any step to lift lockdown measures must firstly ensure several key things, he said, including that evidence shows a country's Covid-19 transmission is being controlled, outbreak risks are minimised, and that health systems have the capacity to identify, test, trace and isolate Covid-19 cases.

"We remain in the eye of the storm...If you cannot ensure these criteria are in place before easing restrictions, I urge you to re-think," he said, adding: "There is no fast track back to normal."