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24 November 2021

How a fourth Covid wave is crashing over Europe

As infections rise and new restrictions are imposed, Europeans are divided between the resigned majority and the angry few.

By Jeremy Cliffe

What better tonic for the dark, cold European winter than the Christmas market? Mugs of steaming mulled wine, the smell of grilled meat and woodsmoke, fairground rides, colour, music, light, conviviality. This year it was all meant to be back, the bounty of the Continent’s hard-fought recovery from the pandemic and of its vaccination programmes. Yet now, across Europe, market after market is being cancelled. Those in Ghent, Leuven, Munich, Nuremberg, Vienna and Bratislava have been called off. Elsewhere, in Brussels, Prague and here in Berlin, they will go ahead, but only under joy-sapping new restrictions.

Europe’s new Covid wave began in the early autumn in eastern states such as Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, where vaccination rates are dismally low. Infection numbers are stabilising or falling in many of those places now. Caseloads in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy are still relatively light, thanks to high vaccine uptake. But they are climbing. The UK is an anomaly: case rates have been high for months in comparison with Europe, but they have thus far remained relatively stable, possibly because of greater levels of immunity. (This has, though, come at a significant cost, with the UK recording the highest number of fatalities of any western European state since the summer.)

The new problem zone is central Europe: the region from the North Sea to the Alps, from the Rhine to the Vistula. Austria’s seven-day Covid infection rate is now above 1,000 per 100,000 people. At the time of writing, Germany’s is just under 400, the highest the country has recorded since the start of pandemic. Part of the explanation seems to be relatively low vaccination rates – a product of complacency among governments and vaccine hesitancy among populations. Surges in the German-speaking world have spilled over into the neighbouring Benelux countries. The rates of people fully vaccinated are much higher in Belgium and the Netherlands (74 per cent and 73 per cent respectively), but both are experiencing sudden increases in infections.

Though the death rate remains mercifully lower than in the previous, pre-vaccine waves, hospitals across the region are under strain. Some in the worst affected southern and eastern parts of Germany are at capacity, while Dutch hospitals are reportedly preparing for a “code black” scenario where they can restrict intensive care beds to those patients with a greater chance of survival.

[See also: How strongmen cling to power]

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On 15 November, Austria introduced a controversial new lockdown for the unvaccinated. That helped nudge more people to vaccination centres, but not fast enough. Only a week later, on 22 November, the country entered a full lockdown, with restaurants and cafés, cultural venues and non-essential shops all closed. Even vaccinated citizens are only allowed to leave home for essential reasons. Most contentious of all, the government is imposing a vaccine mandate; from 1 February, unvaccinated adult Austrians without a valid exemption will face fines of up to €3,600.

Meanwhile, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have also tightened rules, limiting opening hours and increasing restrictions on the unvaccinated. That is helping to improve jab take-up. In my Berlin district of Kreuzberg, something of a hot spot for hippy-ish vaccine sceptics, there have been long queues outside vaccination centres in recent days. On 22 November Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn predicted (rather indelicately) that his countrymen would be “vaccinated, recovered or dead” by the spring.

The German government has not ruled out following the Austrian example with a vaccine mandate. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia too, there is talk of a return to full lockdown.

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Another long, gloomy winter lies ahead for much of Europe. Another winter in which economic growth shrinks and businesses go under. The new restrictions have already triggered large protests. The weekend of 20-21 November brought major demonstrations in Vienna, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam as well as some instances of rioting. How much longer will Europeans’ patience last?

The mood among perhaps two-thirds of populations in most of the affected central European countries seems to be “weary acceptance”. In a podcast for the news magazine Profil on 21 November, the Austrian polling guru Peter Hajek was sanguine. Ultimately, the public prefers action to dithering, he said, predicting that there would broadly be support for any new restrictions: “At the end of the day [the hard measures] will help these politicians.” Austria’s ruling conservative ÖVP party has fallen in the latest polls. Yet its voters seem to be turning to the centre-left SPÖ, which supports the new measures.

Across the border in Germany, a poll for Der Spiegel magazine shows that 72 per cent of citizens want compulsory vaccines to be introduced, with 20 per cent against, and a majority in favour even among supporters of the libertarian-leaning Free Democratic Party. So far, the polls are not indicating an increase in support for the far-right parties in Europe opposed to lockdowns and sceptical of vaccines. When, on 22 November, Mark Rutte, the longstanding Dutch prime minister who has a knack for channelling the public mood, condemned violent anti-lockdown protesters as “idiots”, he was doubtless speaking for many. Gloomy, resigned realism, then, sums up the European mainstream, even as new restrictions lead to flare-ups.

Yet that does not mean there isn’t a growing and increasingly hard-line minority opposed to the measures. The German-speaking world in particular has seen the growth, over the course of the pandemic, of the so-called Querdenker (“lateral thinker”) movement. Ostensibly concerned with individual freedom, this catch-all tendency draws on the hard right, hard left and the apolitical, on ordinary citizens, maverick celebrities, conspiracy theorists and out-spoken extremists. The movement has staged major demonstrations against mask-wearing, lockdowns and vaccinations in many German, Austrian and Swiss cities.

It has links on the fringes of politics: on the right, in Germany’s AfD and Austria’s FPÖ (just as in France, where Marine Le Pen has made herself the chief critic of Emmanuel Macron’s remarkably successful vaccine passport scheme), but also on the left, notably among supporters of the post-communist Left party in Germany. Sahra Wagenknecht, the party’s doyenne, recently dominated a major political talk show with her account of why she has refused to be vaccinated.

A deep anti-science seam also runs through the politically Green-ish parts of German-speaking societies – from pharmacists and clinics proclaiming the miraculous powers of herbal teas and homeopathy to Steiner Waldorf schools in Germany preaching mumbo jumbo about the power of nature to cure illnesses. These “anti-authoritarian” impulses are somewhat related to progressive Germans’ sensitivity about civil liberties – shown in an opposition to CCTV, for example – that is understandable in light of the country’s traumatic past.

But taken as a whole, it constitutes a permeable membrane across which conspiracist anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination sentiment can transfer from the extremes into parts of the mainstream. Germany’s tabloid press is channelling the exasperation of many readers: the sensationalist Bild newspaper, the most read tabloid in the EU, is flirting with outright hostility to new restrictions.

Young voters in many of the countries now facing new restrictions are especially fed up – not surprising, given the especially high price they have paid in lost education and other freedoms. According to a new Ipsos poll for the Belgian Het Nieuwsblad newspaper, 52 per cent of over-65s in the country feel “positive” about the government’s new restrictions, whereas just 37 per cent of the 18-24 group say the same. In Germany, support for a vaccine mandate is at 87 per cent among the over-65s, but just 53 per cent among those aged between 18 and 29. If parts of the majoritarian pro-lockdown consensus break down, expect it to happen first among the young.

Although parties on the political extremes have not yet capitalised on the frustration at the new lockdowns, they may still. The general mood by late winter or the early spring – after long months of restrictions many assumed would never again be imposed – will surely be darker. In France, Macron’s successful vaccine policies rest on a fragile compact: many voters got jabbed on the understanding that they would thus be exempt from future restrictions. With a presidential election looming in April, and Le Pen waiting to pounce if a new blanket lockdown is imposed, a lot is at stake.

To be clear, the majority of people in European countries where restrictions are being reimposed grudgingly accepts them, at least in western Europe. Yet the events of recent years have taught us that it is not enough for a majority to be on board. Polarisation is dangerous. Interventions into the everyday lives of voters without very high levels of public consent are dangerous. A more permeable membrane between the extremes and the mainstream is dangerous. A minority that feels excluded from the fundamental political principles of its country is dangerous.

For now, the Christmas markets will be dismantled, boarded up or subjected to strict rules that kill much of the fun. Yet again, it will be a gloomy and lonely winter for parts of the Continent. Europeans will retreat to their homes, keep to themselves, perhaps bend the rules, and muddle through. But the winter will end. Eventually, the spring will come, infection rates will fall, new treatments and better systems for responding to the virus will become available. But to avoid unnecessary and painful political and social scars, European governments will have to navigate their way through the weeks to come very carefully indeed.

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This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos