Omicron, populism and the future of Europe

By Song Lijue
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 9, 2022
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Riot police confront protesters during the anti-COVID-19 demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Jan. 2, 2022. [Photo/]

On Jan. 5, France broke a record with 264,184 new daily COVID cases, the most significant number in Europe since the pandemic broke out. "Every second, two French individuals are confirmed positive in our nation," said French Health Minister Olivier Véran. 

Records for new coronavirus infections are being established across Europe as the Omicron variant rips through communities at an unprecedented rate. The World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned that Omicron might cause a "tsunami" of illnesses that would overwhelm healthcare facilities when combined with the Delta variant.

With the emergence of Omicron in the fifth COVID wave, several European nations implanted another round of lockdowns. According to WHO, Omicron includes various alterations, some of which are concerning and imply "immune escape potential and higher transmissibility." As a result, it is unknown whether the current COVID-19 vaccines can protect against it. What is certain is that the Omicron will trigger even more restrictions upon European countries already strained by COVID-19. However, will lockdowns stop the virus from spreading, and will the prevention measures be implemented successfully? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. 

In Amsterdam, thousands of people gathered to protest new lockdown measures during the New Year holiday, which came after similar protests across Europe. Protesters built street barricades and ignited fires in Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, battling police in several towns. In addition, protests happened in Italy, Croatia and Germany.

"What unites them is frustration, not only with COVID but also with democracy and political institutions. Anti-modern attitudes also play a role," said Johannes Kiess, a sociologist from the University of Siegen in Germany.

Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of people protested in Brussels, with some shooting fireworks at police officers who intervened with tear gas and water cannons. Belgium introduced new measures in the face of a sharp rise in infections. Protesters are mainly opposed to vaccine passports that ban unvaccinated people from venues like bars and restaurants. 

These protests share something in common: They began as planned peaceful marches and rapidly devolved into violent scuffles. Protesters throw fireworks and rocks at police and their vehicles, and officers retaliate with tear gas and water cannons. In Rotterdam, police even opened fire and shot at the crowd.

Dr. Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer at Liberties, an NGO monitoring human rights across Europe, said, "Certain rights can be restricted in certain circumstances, but only if it is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim."

In some regions of Europe, whether you're vaccinated or not has become a political identifier. Germany's new government intends to impose tighter laws on unvaccinated groups in Germany. For example, one new rule is for unvaccinated people to provide a negative coronavirus test before accessing public transportation. Austria has gone further, limiting the mobility of anybody over the age of 12 who is unvaccinated to employment, school, grocery shopping, and medical treatment and giving police the authority to check vaccination documents on the street. 

Those protests have several causes, including opposition to globalization and immigration, criticism of multiculturalism, and opposition to the European Union. The New York Times alleged, "Vaccine resistance has become the long tail of the populist-nationalist movements that shook up European politics for a decade." 

During the pandemic, economic populism in many European nations morphed into a rejection of multiculturalism international institutions and values. It took the form of anti-elite sentiment, and the public turned into scientific skeptics. Europeans distrust Brussels and government officials, and they are dissatisfied with the governments' ineffectiveness in combating COVID-19. 

The right-wing and far-right media portrayed the fundamental limits imposed in response to the pandemic as a transitional restriction of personal freedom, elevating the wearing of masks to a "violation of human rights." 

European nations have witnessed a substantial rise of radical right parties. The populism represented by the far-right in Europe is a force to be reckoned with and will affect the recovery of European countries from COVID-19. Resistance to globalization is one feature of populist parties, with such opposition advancing up the social ladder in Western countries. If the incapacity of European governments to cope with the growing protests continues, and they cannot alter economic systems significantly or promptly resolve social problems, the future of Europe may be in jeopardy. 

The author is an associate professor with the School of Foreign Studies, East China University of Political Science and Law.

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