Why Europe’s fight against the pandemic is becoming much more dangerous

Others have made vaccines mandatory for sections of the population and imposed restrictions that are increasingly explicitly targeting the unvaccinated as Europe struggles with the dual challenges of sharply rising Covid numbers and rising vaccination rates.

Almost a year into the EU’s vaccination campaign, and with around one in three Europeans still unvaccinated, it is not so much a hesitation that European governments now face direct opposition, with the danger that as governments get tougher, the anger of the people will increase. against them too.

Only 19% of Europeans include their government among their most trusted sources of reliable information on Covid-19 vaccines, according to a survey conducted in May 2021 by the European Barometer, a collection of cross-country public opinion polls regularly conducted on behalf of EU institutions.

Even before the pandemic, the hesitation with vaccines in Europe was strongly correlated with a populist distrust of mainstream parties and governments.

A study published in the European Journal of Public Health in 2019 found “a very significant positive correlation between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and the percentage who believe vaccines are neither important nor effective.”

What the pandemic has yielded is a real-time European test of this context. Nearly two years in, and where most countries have exhausted the means they had to encourage people to be vaccinated, the map of those who remain unvaccinated shows that where there is distrust of the government and traditional political parties – measured by strength of populist movements – Many people have yet to be vaccinated.

Basically, people who trust institutions do not need to be convinced in the face of a pandemic; people who do not do so are unlikely to be affected at all.

The bodies pile up outside the hospital morgue while Romania battles the fourth wave of Covid
In Eastern Europe, vaccination rates are the lowest. Bulgaria has the lowest rate of all, with only 26.6% of the total population vaccinated according to government data. The country has also been through a major political crisis with three parliamentary elections held this year.

Difficulties in rolling out vaccines and reaching out to more remote and elderly rural populations are also to blame in Eastern Europe, but in some of the countries where vaccine consumption has been lowest, populist parties are either in power or strong in elections.

Further west, lower vaccination rates can also be found in countries and regions with either popular or silent populist or extremist movements, such as in Germany, Austria and northern Italy.

In a paper published in the journal Psychological Medicine in October, Michele Roccato and Silvia Russo of the University of Turin claim that their study shows that “people with a populist orientation tend to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine, according to previous research. , showing that vaccine rejection is often politicized, but that its politicization is not limited to traditional left-right cleavage. ”

A new common enemy

Sophie Tissier, who organizes protests against Covid-19 restrictions and vaccines in France, says these protests have created a new political force that is radical but goes beyond party political lines.

She says her group seeks to “create a civic opposition that is outside of electoral considerations and much more like a watchdog that sits outside the political world to be able to say it:” Look here, you are no longer protecting our rights, you no longer protect our rights under the law. ”

Protesters march in protest of coronavirus measures in Brussels, Belgium, on December 5, 2021.

In August, more than 230,000 people took to the streets across the country in one day, after France became one of the first European countries to announce the use of relatively strict vaccine passports.

“It really set things in motion because people realized that life as it was was coming to an end,” she said. “People would no longer be free or able to go out as they did.”

Since then, the protests have subsided in France, in part because no mainstream party has openly urged its supporters to join them. France’s vaccination rates are among the highest in Europe, suggesting that even in countries where there is strong hesitation about vaccines – as was the case in France even before the pandemic – the attitude of right-wing extremist or populist parties to the vaccine may have an impact.

Elsewhere in Europe, such groups are clearly blowing up the anti-vaccination flames. In Austria, several protests have been planned since the government announced its nationwide vaccine mandate last month, have been planned by the far-right Freedom Party.

The mandate is due to take effect in February 2022.

Even when he announced the move, Schallenberg accused the Freedom Party of being responsible for the country’s low vaccination rates and of having aroused the vaccination dust.

“We have too many political forces in this country who are fighting against it [vaccination] violent, massive and public. It is irresponsible, “Schallenberg said, adding:” Encouraged by these radical opponents of vaccination, of false fake news, unfortunately for many of us have not been vaccinated. The consequences are overcrowded intensive care units and enormous human suffering. “
The world has the tools to end the coronavirus pandemic.  They are not used properly

In other European countries, populist parties have also jumped on the bandwagon.

And the divide of opinion on pandemic measures is no longer about the extreme left and the extreme right, said French political scientist Jean-Yves Camus, but “between the mainstream and the periphery.”

“It’s a lot more about the extreme,” Camus said. “The most extreme fringe groups that take advantage of the pandemic to say, ‘This virus is fake, there is no pandemic, and you are being tricked by your governments. It is a worldwide conspiracy by your national governments. They are using the pandemic to violate your individual rights and use of vaccination cards to have your personal data ‘and so on. ”

In parts of Eastern Europe, but also in and around Germany – from northern Italy to the Netherlands and Austria – parties that once focused on immigration or Europe have taken advantage of the widespread anger of those opposed to vaccines and Covid-19 restrictions to relocate. their attention to a subject that is far more likely to appeal to the apolitical and across traditional party political lines.

Their new enemy is far more federal: the Covid-19 measures and vaccination campaigns that they say threaten their freedom.

A protester wearing a mask depicting syringes claps in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 9, 2021 during a demonstration against coronavirus measures.

Vaccine mandates

The World Health Organization has warned against vaccine mandates because of their potential impact on public confidence and public confidence. Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO’s European Director, said they should be used as “an absolute last resort and only useful when all other possible means of improving vaccine uptake have been exhausted.”

In a part of the world where the fight against the pandemic has already been hampered by hesitation with vaccines, such mandates may provide more resistance.

“The concern is that anti-waxxers may come to hold even more extreme positions,” said Russo, of the University of Turin. “It’s one risk. But we should also consider that where vaccines become mandatory, control will be needed and it could further undermine institutional trust.”

In other words, compulsory vaccination can push people into vaccination centers, but it will also drive some of them down the street, confirming and further nurturing their deep-seated suspicion of the “system”.

The fight against the pandemic may one day end, but the fight against populism in Europe may have just begun.

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