BERLIN/PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered their countries back into lockdown on Wednesday, as a massive second wave of coronavirus infections threatened to overwhelm Europe before the winter.
World stock markets went into a dive in response to the news that Europe’s biggest economies were imposing nationwide restrictions almost as severe as the ones that drove the global economy this year into its deepest recession in generations.
“The virus is circulating at a speed that not even the most pessimistic forecasts had anticipated,” Macron said in a televised address. “Like all our neighbours, we are submerged by the sudden acceleration of the virus.”
“We are all in the same position: overrun by a second wave which we know will be harder, more deadly than the first,” he said. “I have decided that we need to return to the lockdown which stopped the virus.”
Under the new French measures which come into force on Friday, people will be required to stay in their homes except to buy essential goods, seek medical attention, or exercise for up to one hour a day. They will be permitted to go to work if their employer deems it impossible for them to do the job from home. Schools will stay open.
As in the darkest days of spring, anyone leaving their home in France will now have to carry a document justifying being outside, which can be checked by police.
Germany will shut bars, restaurants and theatres from Nov. 2-30 under measures agreed between Merkel and heads of regional governments. Schools will stay open, and shops will be allowed to operate with strict limits on access.
“We need to take action now,” Merkel said. “Our health system can still cope with this challenge today, but at this speed of infections it will reach the limits of its capacity within weeks.”
Her finance minister, Olaf Scholz, posted on Twitter: “November will be a month of truth. The increasing numbers of infections are forcing us to take tough countermeasures in order to break the second wave.”
The new restrictions reflect alarm at the pace of the pandemic from Spain, France and Germany to Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. More than 2 million new confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported globally in the past week, the shortest time ever for such an increase, and 46 percent of those were in Europe.
France has surged above 36,000 new cases a day. Germany, which was less hard-hit than its European neighbours early this year, has seen an exponential rise in cases.
Both Italy and Germany set records for new infections Wednesday, with Italy reporting nearly 25,000 in a single day and Germany logging almost 15,000. Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Spain and the Czech Republic are also seeing alarming rates of infection.
European stock markets closed at their lowest levels since late May on Wednesday. In an effort to blunt the economic impact, Germany will set aside up to 10 billion euros ($12 billion) to partly reimburse companies for lost sales. Italy has set aside more than 5 billion euros.
Countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria and Greece have closed or otherwise clamped down again on nightspots and imposed other restrictions such as curfews and mandatory mask-wearing. Madrid and other parts of Spain banned all but essential travel in and out of their regions.
“We are deep in the second wave,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “I think that this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas.”
The latest figures from the World Health Organization on Tuesday showed Europe reported 1.3 million new cases in the past seven days, nearly half the 2.9 million reported worldwide, with over 11,700 deaths, a 37 percent jump over the previous week.
France reported 523 virus-related deaths in 24 hours Tuesday, the highest daily count since April.
The European Commission’s von der Leyen said Europe is being confronted with “two enemies.”
“We’re dealing with the coronavirus—the virus itself—and also corona fatigue,” she said. “That is, people are becoming more and more fed up with the preventive measures.”
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said on Wednesday that hospital beds were at 90 percent of capacity in 16 regions of the country, while officials have warned that even well-equipped health systems like those in France and Switzerland could reach breaking point within days.
Hopes that new treatments might curb the spread were dented when the head of Britain’s vaccine procurement task force said that a fully effective vaccine may never be developed and that early versions were likely to be imperfect.
Since the weekend, police and protesters have clashed repeatedly in Italian cities from Naples to Turin. Restaurant owners and business groups have been critical.
“At 6 p.m. public transport is often crowded. You take the risk because you have to get to work. You wear a mask, you take hand gel with you,” Elio Venafro said after getting off a bus in central Rome on Wednesday. “It’s the new normal.”
Talk of new lockdowns also prompted unrest in Germany, where thousands staged a protest at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to demand more financial support from the government.
Even Sweden, which avoided a national lockdown and generally imposed far lighter measures than other European countries, is now urging people to avoid stores and public transportation.
With reporting from The Associated Press.