The frenetic politics of COVID-19 in Europe

From anti-lockdown protests and overburdened healthcare systems to mass labor actions and viral disinformation, from global vaccine apartheid to anti-vaccination movements, politics in the age of COVID-19 has been a frenetic mess that’s brought out the best and worst of our societies. While much attention has been focused on the frenzied divides characterizing US politics over the course of the pandemic, the political scene in Europe also demonstrates how COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated critical tensions between social factions and their competing definitions of freedom and social responsibility. Is this all unprecedented, or are we seeing the kind of politics that have historically emerged during past pandemics? And where is this all headed?

In this interview, TRNN contributor David Kattenburg sits down with Frits Rosendaal and Pawel Zerka to discuss how COVID-19 and the governmental responses to it have shaped the political terrain in Europe. Frits Rosendaal is professor of Clinical Epidemiology and chairman of the department of Clinical Epidemiology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where he researches the causes of cardiovascular disease. In 2003 he received the Spinoza prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and he is an elected fellow of the Royal Academy of Science and Arts, as well as of the German Academy Leopoldina. Pawel Zerka is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, where he contributes to the Re:shape Global Europe project, which seeks to develop new strategies for Europeans to understand and engage with the changing international order. He holds a PhD in economics and a master’s degree in international relations from the Warsaw School of Economics.

Pre-Production: David Kattenburg
Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

David Kattenburg:    Hello and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m David Kattenburg. 2022, the COVID pandemic is now into its third year. The stats are staggering. 300 million have been infected by the coronavirus and almost five and a half million have died. Half of COVID deaths in just seven countries: Peru, Mexico, Russia, India, Brazil, and top of the list, the USA now approaching an astonishing 900,000 dead, 600,000 new cases in the USA every day. Numbers don’t begin to capture the mayhem COVID 19 has caused. Isolation and quarantine, no more hugging, suffocating masks, cotton swabs up the nose, lock downs, jab layoffs, vaccine apartheid, horrid infections that never go away, swamped hospital wards. On top of it all, anger, distrust, fake news, protests, and riots. Joining me today to discuss the COVID pandemic year three are Frits Rosendaal and Pawel Zerka. Frits Rosendaal is a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He is a fellow of the Dutch Royal Academy of Science and Arts and the 2003 winner of the Spinoza prize, the Netherlands’s highest scientific award.

We’re also joined by Pawel Zerka. Pawel is a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He’s been engaged with the council’s Re:shape Global Europe and Unlock Europe’s Majority project. Zerka holds a Ph.D in Economics and a master’s degree in international relations from the Warsaw School of Economics. He joins us from the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Frits Rosendaal and Pawel Zerka, it is a pleasure to have you both with us today on The Real News. Frits Rosendaal, let’s start with you. You’re an epidemiologist. Let’s talk about epidemiology for a little bit. Epidemiology is the study of the dynamics of disease transmission in populations of people.

If you read an introductory microbiology textbook, as I do, truth be told I actually teach microbiology. If you read an introductory microbiology textbook and you’re looking at how diseases move through populations, the dynamics, we read about the general population immunity, we talk about the general health status of the population, educational status, quality of housing, access to healthcare, water sanitation. We talk about cultural mores of given societies, but it seems that now with COVID-19 there’s a whole new panorama of population-wide issues that come to the fore. Like politics and social media, civic alienation, right-wing podcasts, QAnon are now playing a role in the transmission of this infectious disease. My question to you Frits Rosendaal is, has your own understanding of the dynamics of disease transmission through populations from an epidemiological perspective, has it widened since the advent of COVID?

Frits Rosendaal:       Well, yes and no. Maybe it’s good to first explain a bit what epidemiologists do. I think that the whole phrase obviously comes from epidemics, probably from the Spanish flu, now a hundred years ago, then epidemics disappeared until recently. Epidemiologists focus more on chronic diseases and all kinds of diseases basically, and are sort of the methodologists of medical research. I, myself, I’m a cardiovascular epidemiologist by nature, what I do. It’s good to, when you look at epidemics, there are three types of people involved. There are the virologists, those are the ones who understand the virus. They’re usually not doctors. There are infectiologists, they’re doctors, they treat people who are sick and they are the epidemiologists who study transmission, as you say. If you compare it to a war, a virologist knows everything about the kalashnikov, can get it out and put it in again. The infectious disease doctors treat people who have been shot, and the epidemiologist is sort of the general, looks at the whole.

Now your question, so we study the transmission. Why do people get sick? Who gets sick? Who has the highest risk of getting sick? And everything you mention plays a role. Genetics, the virus itself, obviously the host genetics, the environment, and the environment is everything that you mention: podcast, politics, housing, poverty, everything. Some of those are quite new, obviously podcasts and social media didn’t exist a hundred years ago or almost a thousand years ago when the black plague raged through Europe, but many things are the same. Civil unrest is the same. The unbelief in science is the same. Alternative medicine use increased enormously after the Spanish flu. The societal response seems, to some extent, quite similar to what happened in the past. The medical disease, well, this follows exactly the pattern of the Spanish flu. If you look at it, there are three waves. Now this is, in all likelihoods, the last major wave. Of course, the difference is there was no vaccination. There was no treatment. There was nothing in the past, but many, many things are similar to my feelings.

David Kattenburg:     I mean, looking back to the Spanish flu, and perhaps more recently to the polio epidemic – I realized polio wasn’t a pandemic but it did surge all around the world. A couple of vaccines were introduced to treat polio and everybody got vaccinated. I remember, well, I don’t remember getting vaccinated myself, but I did. I mean, was there as much a public protest and controversy over vaccines back when polio was a problem and the polio vaccine was being promoted as there is today? All the brouhaha about vaccination, was there this much discord over vaccination back then?

Frits Rosendaal:        I think there was much less about polio. Polio was really a disease that only started becoming epidemic in the last hundred years. It’s a viral disease that comes around in summer, not in winter, and 1% of people or one in thousand to get it get these horrible paralysis. There were major epidemics in the ’40s and ’50s that led to quick development of a vaccine, took a bit longer than the COVID vaccines, but quite fast. There were two of them and they’ve been used extensively. If there’s one successful vaccine, it’s polio, it’s almost disappeared, there are only two countries in the world where it still exists. Those vaccines took hold.

In some countries like my own there is a very Orthodox religious group, which is not so small, who believes that vaccination is going against God’s will, like also insurance, they don’t vaccinate. That’s why we still get polio epidemics now and then. The last one was in 1992 and there might well be another one soon. We’re expecting it, basically, because herd immunity goes down. For instance, if you look at the first vaccination, because against smallpox, there was major opposition to that. There were authors who wrote long poems even, a Dutch guy wrote a poem why vaccination would be so bad. Everything that we see now in the opposition against COVID vaccination we saw then too. In a sense, there’s, again, not so much new.

David Kattenburg:      Pawel Zerka, you’re with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and back in September a policy brief was published by the council authored by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. I believe you were involved in this. It talks about Europe’s invisible divides, how COVID-19 is polarizing European politics. The report talks about, in the context of the disease here in Europe, it talks about a tale of two pandemics. Can you talk about this?

Pawel Zerka:      Yes. Thanks for flagging that publication. Since I’m speaking from Paris today, maybe I’ll start by saying, recalling to you that the motto of the French Revolution was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I think that what we are seeing right now is a clash between two of those three elements at least. Mainly the liberty, freedom, and fraternity which is about social responsibility, about brotherhood. What we are seeing right now is that different understandings of freedom are emerging. If I can allow myself such a reflection, yeah, of course COVID is a thing which requires a discussion about most urgent things, treating those who are infected, providing people with vaccines, et cetera. If we have this discussion to allow ourselves a more long-term perspective on those things then I believe that this is the moment when the understanding of freedom is coined anew.

This is also where a divide has been emerging between those who understand liberty in a more libertarian way, as something individual and something that you cannot accept compromises on. Whereas others also understand this liberty as related with social responsibility and therefore requiring some compromises sometimes, such as about getting vaccinated or staying at home in order to not to infect others or wearing masks. In the report that you mentioned, we draw attention to several divides that are emerging in European societies, which we analyzed. I think that this divide, from my perspective, is the most important one. We are living at the moment when the understanding of liberty will be developed for the next decades, but probably we will not develop the same understanding for entire populations. Because what we can see right now is that there are parts of the population which have grown very used to an individualistic understanding of liberty and therefore cannot accept that the state requires them to wear masks, get vaccinated, or stay at home.

David Kattenburg:     Getting a little bit more concrete, Pawel, it seems that COVID has affected Northern and Western Europe to a different extent than it has Southern and Eastern Europe, with the latter suffering more. Just looking at world-o-meter the other day I see that ranked by deaths per million, 15 out of the top 20 countries in terms of deaths per million are in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former USSR. It seems that just really concretely, Eastern and Southern Europe have suffered more from COVID than have Northern and Western Europe. Can you talk about this?

Pawel Zerka:          Yeah, of course, this picture keeps changing as the pandemic develops. At the beginning of the COVID-19 story it looked like it was mostly something suffered by Southern Europe whereas the Central and Eastern Europeans felt like they had managed the crisis quite well. This was the picture in 2020. But then when vaccination came it turned out that many of those countries, including the one that I’m coming from, Poland, did not deal with the vaccination campaign as well as countries in the West and in the North. Sometimes pure politics had to do with it. For example, in Poland, the current government is not very courageous trying to convince people to get vaccinated because it knows that part of the electorate which is hesitant is largely their potential electorates.

This is a pity. I think in many of those countries, apart from Poland, also other countries of Central and Eastern Europe and farther east, those anti-vaccination groups used to be influential over the past decade already but it concerned different sorts of vaccinations, so mostly towards children. Because that was the discussion before COVID. Also, these are societies where trust towards the governments can be much weaker than in the North or in the West. It turns out that levels of trust matter when you have to introduce difficult measures which would naturally provoke controversies. Because, as we discussed earlier, when there is a measure to forcing people to stay at home or to wear masks or to get vaccinated, whether it’s compulsory or whether it’s semi-compulsory like with the COVID pass, which in the French context means that you cannot get into a restaurant or to amusement without having gotten vaccinated, the state is not forcing you to go get vaccinated, but informally it is.

With such measures you will inevitably provoke a resistance of a part of a society because democratic countries are not used to compulsory measures which seem to clash with the liberty, which the democracies were supposed to defend. As I was saying earlier, we are living in a moment when that meaning, understanding of liberty or freedom is getting redefined.

If you allow me one final comment to put it in a balanced picture. We talk a lot about people protesting in different countries against the various restrictions. We should not forget that the broader picture is one of a large acceptance of those difficult measures introduced by governments. In France, 90% of the society has been vaccinated already. There are countries like Sweden where plenty of people are vaccinated, even if the government didn’t necessarily encourage people so actively to do so, even if the lockdown measures were kind of loose. This social responsibility does not have to be forced upon societies, it can already be there as something existing in a society.

Just let me quote one number. Last year, before the summer, in one of the public opinion posts that we conducted in the European Council on Foreign Relations, we asked people in 12 European countries whether the restrictions that have been introduced by the governments were too strict, just enough, or too loose. Only a quarter of respondents were saying that they were too strict. Which shows that much more people were feeling that the restrictions were just right or even expected them to be even stricter. We should obviously talk about the misgivings of those citizens who feel uneasy about the different restrictions, but we shouldn’t focus only on the loudest part of the societies.

David Kattenburg:    Frits Rosendaal, tell me about the situation in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a country renowned for its sense of liberty, individual and public, and its exceptional degree of tolerance for those who wish to follow their own path. At the same time, it’s a country where people are very much used to being civically responsible. I live in the Netherlands now. After several months, I’ve got four different government numbers. There’s this kind of a dichotomy in the Netherlands. How do we see COVID playing out here in the Netherlands? I remember when I arrived here in the Netherlands towards the end of the summer, it was as if the pandemic didn’t exist here in the Netherlands. I was the only person wearing a mask at the Albert Hayn. Everybody was just going around as if there wasn’t any pandemic at all.

Frits Rosendaal:     Yeah.

David Kattenburg:     Then, with the rise in the incidence of cases suddenly everybody’s wearing masks. Tell me how the pandemic has unfolded in the Netherlands, given this kind of two-sided nature.

Frits Rosendaal:       Yeah. I could talk about that for hours, which I won’t do, but a Belgian colleague of mine once called the Netherlands a slightly over-organized country, which I believe we are, so that explains your four government numbers. It’s true, we have a history of tolerance which came out 500 years ago from civic [strike] over religion. Then again, people have to have a driver’s license to drive and they’re not allowed to drive when they’re drunk and things like that. We have lost that curb freedom obviously. I think what you find here is that to some extent, and I don’t know exactly why that is but I think that was communication by the government, there was this feeling now and then that it was over, that was after the first wave in the summer of 2020.

It was again this summer. Well obviously, certainly in 2020 when only 5% of the population has been exposed, there’s no vaccine, how on earth could it be away. It’s still there. This has surprised me. I think a lot of the response is probably also psychological, that you see people going somewhat into a [realistic] path, to put it that way. Others have become very over optimistic and wanting it to be away and that explains it maybe, that people want it to be away. On average I think exactly what Pawel said is true. We see protests and we see the police against protestors, but this is a small minority. 90% of people have been doubly vaccinated. People are standing in lines to get their booster. At the same time, there’s a lockdown here, but it’s open in Belgium. There are hordes of people going to Belgium to shop and to go to restaurants. There is an irrationality which I cannot grasp, but which I guess is part of human nature. People are not always acting in their own best interest, let alone in the best interest of their companion residents of the country.

Pawel Zerka:       If I can just add onto this. In Poland, since the government is so timorous towards those who don’t want to get vaccinated. Actually, the discontent that you can see is now largely on the other side of the debate, among those people who are dismayed that the government is doing so little and reacting so weakly towards people who are posing other people in danger, contributing to the overwhelming of the hospitals. Therefore, yeah, this discontent can be located in several places. In general, the picture is one of broader acceptance and minority still resisting the social responsibility element of the pandemic.

Frits Rosendaal:      I agree [crosstalk] –

David Kattenburg:      The European council –

Frits Rosendaal:      I think –

David Kattenburg:     I’m sorry. Go ahead, Frits.

Frits Rosendaal:    Yeah, I agree completely, Pawel. I think if you would go back over those two years and do polls of the Dutch population, on television you see the protestors who think the measures are too strong, but I believe in a poll, probably many people would’ve said that the measures were too weak and that we started too late with vaccination, we started too late with the booster. The lockdowns weren’t strict enough. We didn’t have face masks till very late in the pandemic because the advisor of the government didn’t believe in it. Of course, their effect is overestimated, but still they might do something. I believe we have a bit of a skewed few, because we see the loudest people.

David Kattenburg:      The European council report, Pawel points out that the most affected, the most disenchanted, seemed to be the younger generation.

Pawel Zerka:            Yeah, this is kind of clear, but it’s always good to get confirmation in a poll and in the results. This has been an event, this pandemic when for many months when we had the strictest lockdowns, the oldest, the most vulnerable, were kind of privileged over the youngest, who were not as vulnerable. The students had to stay at home and there are many reports showing that psychological effects of that homeschooling might be devastating for the young generations. They had to do something in order to limit the spread of the virus and to save the older ones, especially before the vaccines were developed. If we can have this discussion in a more-long term reflection on it, I wonder whether the COVID-19 will become a sort of a generational event, a formative event, in the same sort as we talk about generation ’68, which were associated in the US anti-war protests, but elsewhere in Europe also university protests. Also in Czech Republic and Poland. ’68 was a year of protests of mostly young people across the world.

It contributed to the emergence of a generation for whom civic liberties were important. I wonder what will be the generations emerging from this pandemic. I hope that this will be a formative experience in understanding that freedom needs to have its limits in order to be really a freedom, because there is also social responsibility. I wonder what will be the conclusions that people draw from it when it comes to their appreciation for democracy, for example. Our polls, a different thing that we found is that people understand that this is a particularly tricky challenge for the democracies. We asked people whether democracies like the US or Germany or autocracies like China or Russia are dealing better with different challenges. For people in European countries, it’s clear that democracies are better equipped to deal with climate change or to provide global security, but when we ask them who is dealing better with COVID pandemic then people are strongly divided, almost 50/50 on that question.

There are countries in Europe, such as Italy for example, where a clear majority is thinking that autocracies are actually dealing better with the COVID pandemic. Maybe it’s partly justified, because democratic governments have made many mistakes in Europe. The fact that they need to compete in the electoral context is partly to blame. They are looking for quick and easy successes, whereas the pandemic did not allow for that. The Netherlands is one of the examples, when the government wanted to say that it’s over as quickly as possible. Then, it turned out that it was not over yet. But still, I wonder what conclusions people will draw from it when it comes to their appreciation of democracy. I hope that the conclusions would not be that actually we need less democracy in order to be safer.

David Kattenburg:     Frits Rosendaal, I’d like to put a final question to you focusing on this notion of herd immunity. Do you see this diversity of public and civic and governmental responses, popular responses to the pandemic which some view as being problematic, as actually contributing organically to the development of herd immunity? The different approaches that different societies in Europe and globally are taking to dealing with the pandemic.

Frits Rosendaal:       Well, herd immunity is not something that’s good. It’s not something you want because it takes a big death toll to reach it. Of course, you can reach herd immunity if you let it go. If you let the epidemic go freely through your population you’ll get herd immunity at an enormous price. All Western countries, I think, have been on the flatten the curve mode, which is to at least keep the number of cases at such a level that we can handle it in the hospitals. That of course will postpone herd immunity because then you make people not get sick, not to be exposed to the virus. This Omicron variant is of course different again, it’s very, very, very infectious, so that may lead to herd immunity. Then again, herd immunity is not black and white. There’s also a semi-herd immunity where if enough people in the population have had it, it’s difficult to encounter someone who’s still vulnerable. You’ll get a lowering, which maybe you now see in some countries. Many of the things, even corona [inaudible] that you’re looking at, we don’t really know. The counting systems are different in many countries. In Belgium they counted suspected deaths as death by COVID. In the Netherlands, only proven COVID.

It will take years before we really can compare and, and see all these questions but I’m convinced there will be a lasting influence. Like my parents spoke about before and after the war, I speak about before and after COVID. If you look at previous epidemics, Spanish flu changed culture in a lasting way. It changed politics, the predecessor of the World Health Organization was started, there were censuses of health status in populations, but it also changed art. Which, we went to much more abstract art afterwards. It changed everything. So I believe it will be a lasting influence. That will be interesting to see and I do hope with Pawel that in the political sense it will point the right way towards more democracy rather than the other way, but I’m not a born optimist about it.

David Kattenburg:     Frits Rosendaal is a professor of clinical epidemiology and chair of the Department of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Pawel Zerka is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Frits and Pawel, thank you so much for joining us today.

Frits Rosendaal:     You’re welcome.

Pawel Zerka:       Thank you David.

David Kattenburg:      Before you go, please don’t forget to subscribe to The Real News YouTube channel and head on over to www.therealnews.com/support to become a monthly Real News sustainer. Your contributions help ensure that we keep bringing you important coverage and conversations like the one that you’ve listened to today. Thank you so much for watching. Take care.

David Kattenburg

David Kattenburg is a journalist, human rights advocate, and science educator based in Breda, Netherlands.