Coronavirus: Europe’s young hit hard, reeling from Covid-19 impact

Stuart Lau
·6-min read

This is the fifth story in a 15-part series on the Covid-19 disease, one year after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It explores how people in Europe paid a personal price for a pathogen that initially seemed so far away. Please support us on our mission to bring you quality journalism.

Death felt so close to Max Sprick, whose coronavirus test result came as a bit of a surprise in mid-October. After all, millions of his fellow Germans had been told that it would be safe to dine out with friends as long as they observed the rules on social distancing – which he did.

When he was confirmed as a Covid-19 patient six days after an evening out with three friends, he said: “I felt exhausted in a way that I didn’t know.

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“I had to breathe in very hard, to have the feeling that the air came into my lungs. This was also the worst moment: fearing that there wouldn’t be enough breathing before I went to sleep.”

Before falling sick, the 33-year-old from Munich had good reason not to be too worried about the virus, as doctors had been saying from the beginning that older people were more vulnerable.

But Sprick found himself unable to walk uninterrupted from one room to another in his home, which was a big shock to a man used to running up to 130km (80 miles) a week.

“I have to confess – I underestimated the virus,” he said. “I was running so many kilometres before, but now every step was challenging. I couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, without having to sit down, rest and take some deep breaths.”

Sprick is one of more than 20 million people infected with Covid-19 in Europe, or just over a quarter of the global total.

Many of the first cases were traced back to the Austrian skiing town of Ischgl, where hundreds of tourists were thought to have been infected, spreading the virus across the continent when they returned home.

German book editor Elisabeth Schmitten got infected in the nearby town of Tyrol.

“On the fifth day of our holiday, [my sister and I] started to feel like we had caught a cold, we both had a cough and a runny nose, but nothing more serious, so we did not worry. Covid-19 still seemed very far away at that time,” she said.

She tested positive back home in Germany and it took her five weeks to recover. Like many, where she got the virus is as uncertain as how her health might be affected in future.

“We suppose we caught the virus in an après ski bar, but we cannot tell for sure. What does make me worry is that now, seven months later, I still have moments of breathing trouble, my breathing seems to have changed, lightly but noticeably.

“And I am not as fit as I used to be in sports.”

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Even in Bavaria – where the state leader Markus Soder is seen as having done such a good job that he is widely considered to be the favourite to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor next year – the unpreparedness was shocking to Sprick.

“When my friend got his positive test, he told the health department that he was with me before, [but] it took them four days to call me with this information. So I could have spread the virus for four days, if I wouldn’t have stayed at home already on my own,” he said.

And while he was almost running out of breath or suffering intense headaches, Sprick was further annoyed by Germany’s Covid-19 reporting app.

“I wasn’t able to report my positive test in the app. It just didn’t work, though I tried it on several days,” he said.

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As the European Union is still awaiting approval of the few vaccines available in the market, Sprick said all he could do was to remind people of his ordeal.

“During the first lockdown in spring I followed all the rules, stayed at home, and didn’t meet anyone. But then, in summer, when the cases went down and life was full of heat and sunshine, I cared less,” he said.

“Since I was infected myself, I try to tell everybody about it and to raise awareness for the danger of this virus and for the importance of following the government’s rules.”

Even for those with only minor symptoms, like Tilly and her four roommates at the University of Exeter in England, 2021 will be a year of changes.

“When hopefully we are out of this we are more appreciative and grateful. I think I’m far more appreciative of the small things. It’s made me see the lovely side of society as a whole,” she said, recalling neighbours’ emails asking if she needed help when she was quarantining.

“People really pulled together. All my friends outside were sending us messages asking if we needed food.”

A stronger sense of community, a lasting awareness of society over individuals at a time of a global crisis will be Europe’s defining features of this year for sociologists and public officials alike for many decades to come.

From expressing disbelief at the mass wearing of masks in Asia to fully accepting the practice, from drinking at pubs to finding recipes for cocktails on YouTube, from daily commuting to working on Zoom to businesses cutting down office space next year – changes are everywhere, across generations, across different parts of Europe, and the world.

“Social norms are changing in the light of the pandemic – even shaking hands as the agreed upon greeting is not possible any more,” Schmitten said.

“I feel that distances between people are getting bigger, we’re getting used to being suspicious of each other, which I don’t think is a healthy development.”

For others, the changes brought about by the year 2020 come at a higher cost.

When Pedro got a call in late March from his father who told him about breathing difficulties and a fever, he rushed to his home in Barcelona.

Forty-five minutes later, he saw his father one last time in his life, as the 76-year-old was taken on to an ambulance by medical staff wearing full protective gear, heading to hospital.

He was soon diagnosed with Covid-19 and pneumonia in both lungs. Two weeks before Easter – just six days after he made that call to his son – he died, without a chance to say goodbye to his family in person, nor his family knowing how exactly he got infected in the first place.

“I constantly thought of dying alone in the room of a hospital without any option to say goodbye to your loved ones,” said Pedro, who asked to be referred to by a single name.

“News and TV didn’t help,” he said. “They were talking the whole day about the same: infections, deaths, hospital collapses, etc.”

“All the fears that we’ve seen in the films for years about viruses killing people have become a reality in 2020 worldwide.”

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