Civility, progressive governance new Covid casualties in Europe

While there is no question the pandemic created fractures in the social structure, just how deep and damaging they are is open to interpretation

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Mon 10 Jan 2022, 10:08 PM

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only caused illness and fatalities in Europe as elsewhere, it is also generating conflict.

The masked and unmasked sometimes warily eye each other in growing distrust that can erupt into open hostility as civility becomes another casualty. Merchants are required to be on the frontlines enforcing a range of mandates while police wonder how much they can pressure unmasked people who are simply walking down the street.

The issue was recently brought home to us where we live. Little did we imagine that an elevator could become controversial, but it has. Our quaint, vaguely Art Deco lift is only big enough to comfortably transport one person at a time. The size of a large refrigerator, it is very much an enclosed space requiring those using it to wear a mask to protect themselves as well as respect the wellbeing of those who will use it next.

In fact, one of the local doctors told us elevators in Italy have been found to be a prime culprit in the spread of Covid-19. The conscientious management at our building posted a sign that masks are required in the elevator, notices that were repeatedly defaced with a Nazi symbol. This is a building filled with adult residents.

A few days ago it reached a flashpoint as a family of four piled out of the elevator, pulling up their masks as they left, so a waiting — and masked — resident began fanning the door to get some fresh air in the enclosed space. The family matriarch took this as an insult and so launched an intense verbal assault on the poor fellow.

The pandemic is also creating a much wider fault line in segments of the population — between people and with various forms of government. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron used colourful slang to vow he would make life miserable for the unvaccinated, while Austria, Greece and Italy say they will require vaccination by law among some age groups.

Is progressive governance also a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic? The trying times have placed a stark spotlight on the limits of personal freedom, democratic principles and the right to protect oneself from others, including freedom from infection.

All of those issues were at play again last weekend as more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets in France in response to Macron’s comments and plans to increasingly exclude the unvaccinated from public life.

A bill passed on first reading by the French parliament on Thursday would remove the option of showing a negative Covid-19 test to gain access to a host of public venues, instead requiring people to be fully vaccinated to visit a range of places, including bars and restaurants.

Italy already approved a similar measure that took effect on Monday, which no longer accepts a negative Covid test to use public transport, eat in restaurants as well as have access hotels, gyms and other venues.

A mosaic of so-called passports and green passes are now required across Europe, with their very diversity creating a nightmare for travellers. Mask mandates vary from country to country.

But the most stringent rules yet are scheduled to take effect in several European countries. Italy has made it obligatory for people aged 50 or older to be vaccinated

Greece already bars the unvaccinated from indoor spaces, including restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms and is now planning to make vaccinations mandatory for people aged 60 and over starting next week. More than half a million in that age group are still unvaccinated.

Those who fail to comply face a recurring monthly fine of 100 euros. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it was a tough decision but was needed to protect elderly people who had failed to get the jab. “It’s the price to pay for health,” he said.

In Austria, vaccination is due to become mandatory for everyone aged over 14 from February 1.

While there is no question the pandemic created fractures in the social structure, just how deep and damaging they are is open to interpretation. Polls and studies before the latest surge largely driven by the Omicron variant in Europe found the south and the east felt much more affected by the pandemic than the north and the west.

Economic victims are more likely to say restrictions have been too severe and they tend to be more sceptical about government intentions behind lockdowns.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank that conducts research into foreign and security policy, says “the trustful have faith in governments, the suspicious believe rulers want to cover up failings and the accusers think governments are trying to increase their control over people”.

The ECFR found that there is a sharp contrast in opinion between those who believe that during the pandemic the biggest threat to their freedom comes from governments while others feel most infringed upon by the behaviour of their fellow citizens.

Yet there is surprising support for strong government action even among the unvaccinated, according to a recent media-funded poll by Ipsos of about 2,000 people in France and Italy.

Of unvaccinated adults polled in France, about 23 per cent said they would support Macron introducing compulsory vaccine for those over 50, while another 16 per cent were neither for nor against the idea. Some 70 per cent of those polled in Italy and 67 per cent of respondents in France said they will get a vaccine jab within the next 30 days, many of those booster shots.

Perhaps the differences aren’t as stark as some think. After all, it is the rebels and scofflaws who stand out, not the quiet majority who behave with care and thoughtfulness.

Yet two years have shown how difficult cooperation can be in Europe. Few would say it has been a shining example of what many strive for: widespread consideration, compassion for others and harmony among the population. Despite its long history of philosophers, saints and social progressives, Europe remains a work in progress.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan

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