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

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FILE - In this March 27, 2020, file photo, a health worker in the intensive care ward observes a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Belgium. Experts say Europe has some of the worlds best health systems, but many hospitals have been overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and are ill-equipped to handle the pandemic. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

LONDON – 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 say 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 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 say 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.

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