While there is no doubt that the pandemic has created fractures in the social structure, their depth and damage are open to interpretation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only caused illness and death in Europe as elsewhere, it is also generating conflict.
The masked and the unmasked sometimes look at each other suspiciously in growing distrust that can erupt into open hostility when civility becomes another casualty. Shopkeepers must be on the front line enforcing a series of warrants as police wonder how much pressure they can put on unmasked people simply walking down the street.
The problem was recently brought to our attention where we live. We never imagined that an elevator could become controversial, but it is. Our quaint, vaguely Art Deco elevator is just big enough to comfortably transport one person at a time. The size of a large refrigerator, it is indeed an enclosed space requiring those who use it to wear a mask to protect themselves and respect the well-being of those who will then use it.
In fact, one of the local doctors told us that elevators in Italy turned out to be the main culprit in the spread of Covid-19. The conscientious management of our building posted a sign that masks are required in the elevator, notices that were repeatedly defaced with a Nazi symbol. It’s a building full of adult residents.
It hit a flashpoint a few days ago as a family of four exited the elevator, pulling off their masks as they left, so a waiting – and masked – resident began ventilating the door to get fresh air in the enclosed space. The family matriarch took this as an insult and therefore launched an intense verbal assault on the poor boy.
The pandemic is also creating a much wider fault line in segments of the population – between people and with various forms of government. French President Emmanuel Macron last week used colorful slang to swear he would make life miserable for the unvaccinated, while Austria, Greece and Italy said they would require vaccination by law in certain age groups.
Is progressive governance also a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic? Difficult times have brought to light the limits of personal freedom, democratic principles and the right to protect oneself from others, including protection against infection.
All of these issues were in 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 its first reading by the French parliament on Thursday would remove the ability to show a negative Covid-19 test to access a host of public places, instead requiring people to be fully vaccinated to visit a range of places, including bars and restaurants.
Italy has already approved a similar measure which came into force on Monday, which no longer accepts a negative Covid test to use public transport, eat in restaurants as well as to access hotels, gyms and other places.
A patchwork of so-called green passports and passes are now required across Europe, their diversity creating a nightmare for travellers. Mask mandates vary from country to country.
But the strictest rules to date are set to come into force in several European countries. Italy has made vaccination compulsory for people aged 50 or over
Greece already bans unvaccinated people from indoor spaces, including restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms, and now plans to make vaccination compulsory for people aged 60 and over from of the next week. More than half a million people in this age group are still unvaccinated.
Those who do not comply are liable to a recurring monthly fine of 100 euros. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said it was a tough but necessary move to protect older people who failed to get the shot. “It’s the price to pay for health,” he says.
In Austria, vaccination should become compulsory for everyone over the age of 14 from February 1.
While there is no doubt that the pandemic has created fractures in the social structure, their depth and damage are open to interpretation. Polls and studies prior to the latest outbreak largely caused by the Omicron variant in Europe found that the south and east felt much more affected by the pandemic than the north and west.
Economic victims are more likely to say the restrictions have been too harsh and they tend to be more skeptical of the government’s intentions behind the closures.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank that conducts research on foreign and security policy, says that “confident people trust governments, suspects think leaders want to cover up failures and accusers think that governments are trying to increase their control over people”.
The ECFR found that there is a stark contrast of opinion between those who believe that during the pandemic the greatest threat to their freedom comes from governments while others feel most violated by the behavior of their fellow citizens. .
Yet there is surprising support for strong government action, even among the unvaccinated, according to a recent Ipsos media-funded poll of around 2,000 people in France and Italy.
Among unvaccinated adults polled in France, around 23% said they would support Macron’s introduction of a compulsory vaccine for those over 50, while a further 16% were neither for nor against the idea. . Some 70% of respondents in Italy and 67% of respondents in France said they would receive a vaccine within the next 30 days, including many from these booster shots.
Perhaps the differences are not 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 he was a shining example of what many seek: widespread consideration, compassion for others, and harmony among the populace. Despite its long history of philosophers, saints and social progressives, Europe remains a work in progress.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are seasoned international journalists based in Milan