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- Belgian doctor, senior official of the WHO
In Europe, where the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus led to 7.4 million new reported cases of COVID-19 this past week, Dr. Hans Kluge, regional director of the World Health Organization Europe, made a startling announcement on Tuesday. Given the “new West-to-East tidal wave” across the continent, his agency believes that more than half of Europeans could “be infected in the next six to eight weeks.”
Even before Kluge’s dire warning, however, harsh COVID restrictions were going into effect in Europe. On Monday, for example, Italians awoke to a new reality: Unless they are fully vaccinated against COVID or recently recovered, they can no longer go to restaurants or bars, nor can they even use public transport — even if they show proof of a negative PCR test. Italy’s government also this week made vaccination compulsory for those over 50.
Vaccines are required in Greece for citizens over the age of 60, and starting next month in Austria inoculations will be mandated for those 14 and up. Noncompliant Austrians face fines of more than $4,000.
For many Europeans, these moves seem downright draconian.
“Now I can’t even go to the bank or the barber,” said Renzo, a 40-something antiques dealer in Florence who has resisted getting inoculated with an mRNA vaccine over fears they were rushed out too quickly. “I can only go out to the supermarket or the pharmacy. It feels like I’m under house arrest.”
But with more countries enacting harsh restrictions to try to slow the spread of the virus, Europe is quickly becoming off-limits for the unjabbed, and sparking a backlash in the process.
“In general,” Finnish sociologist Niko Pyrhönen, a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki, told Yahoo News that Europeans “don't want to see all these regulations and restrictions. They just want to get their vaccines, and then they want it to be done.”
Renzo added that he knows people, including his cousin, who are purposely “trying to get COVID,” solely because being recently recovered allows them to get Italy’s latest health pass without getting vaccinated. “It’s crazy,” he said.
Epidemiologists agree, pointing out that even if the Omicron variant appears less severe than previous strains, it is nevertheless hospitalizing and killing people and may still have long-term consequences. “It’s playing Russian roulette,” said biochemist Salvador Macip, author of the book “Modern Epidemics” and an adviser for Barcelona’s regional health authority.
For others, however, the risks from the virus pale in comparison to the pain of lost liberties.
“For me, Europe has become an oppressive place to live,” said Vicky Veiga, who has lived on four continents and now owns a yoga studio in Barcelona. “It’s shocking to say that.” Now she’s hoping to move “to a country with a wide variety of vaccines but no vaccine mandate.”
“There's a debate in all democracies now about the role of the state and how far this can go,” said Roland Freudenstein, vice president and head of the think tank Globsec Brussels, noting that the same debates being heard before the U.S. Supreme Court about the right of government to mandate vaccines are echoing in Europe’s parliaments and living rooms. As countries keep flexing their muscles and imposing more demands on citizens’ bodies, “a rising number of people are getting fed up — and many people are warning of long-term consequences of a state which to some looks like it's become Big Brother.”
In France, negative COVID tests, which until recently entitled residents to a COVID health pass, no longer grant residents entry to most public places. “I did not want to get vaccinated,” an American businessman living in Nice who requested anonymity told Yahoo News. “Now I don’t have a choice if I want to go out.”
In Germany, where the government is hoping to pass a vaccine requirement, the unvaccinated are barred from eateries and drinking establishments, and even those who are doubly vaccinated or recovered from recent infection must show negative test results. Only those with three COVID shots are exempt.
Complicating matters, COVID passes in use across the 27-country European Union expire after nine months — and in some countries six months — after the second vaccination, requiring booster shots to keep them current.
“When will this stop? How many boosters are we going to need?” asked Justine, a doubly vaccinated software sales manager in Spain who hasn’t had her third shot despite being eligible because she’s worried about having three vaccines in seven months. “Will our rights to travel or even to enter restaurants be affected just because we choose not to have a booster every time the government decides that it’s needed?”
While there is no scientific evidence to suggest that three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine presents a health risk, the ability of the government to impose vaccinations, boosters and restrictions is fracturing European political society, especially on the left, said Freudenstein. Some parties in Germany are likening the current debates to the ones 50 years ago about abortion, when “Our bodies, ourselves” was a well-known slogan.
He is concerned about the growing polarity — the fervor both in the anti-vax protests, where demonstrators are starting to attack police and the media, and in the rhetoric of leaders blaming COVID entirely on those who are unvaxxed. On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi became the latest leader to do just that. “We must not lose sight of the reason for dismay,” said Draghi, “that most of our problems stem from the fact that there are unvaccinated people.”
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated, adding even harsher words. "I won't send [unvaccinated people] to prison, so we need to tell them … you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant … to a café … to the theater … to the cinema," Macron told Le Parisien, adding that when one person’s freedom threatens the freedom of others, that person is irresponsible—and an irresponsible person is “no longer a citizen.”
French sociologist Gwenaëlle Bauvois, a researcher at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism who studies protest movements in Europe, bristled at Macron’s rhetoric.
“It was a pretty strong stance,” said Bauvois, noting that Macron’s words and restrictions triggered demonstrations by more than 100,000 protesters across France this past weekend. Not all those who attended the rallies were hard-core anti-vaxxers, she believes, and her research suggests that group is really quite small. Some people at the protests were vaccinated but “are just fed up with these restrictions,” Bauvois said.
With 66 percent of the population in Europe fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there has been widespread anger at those who have resisted getting inoculated. Increasingly, Pyrhönen said, Europeans “are not at all happy with the people not taking the vaccines.”
“Some, maybe all, of their anger is understandable, but at the same time it’s based on a fantasy that if all just got the vaccine, we wouldn’t have these regulations; that it is only because of the unvaccinated that we have all those problems,” he added. “But as we have seen, Omicron [evades] some of the vaccines — it wouldn’t just go away” even if the whole population were inoculated. Then again, variants are believed to develop largely within unvaccinated populations.
Bauvois worries about societies becoming so divided. “This kind of polarization is really touching people in their intimate life,” she said. “It has created so many tensions, between colleagues, between friends and between family members.” She is concerned that these societal fractures may last long after COVID subsides.
Sociologist Pyrhönen predicts that in response to the growing restrictions, “there will be a backlash” from the most ardent anti-vaxxers, who will “adopt more abrasive rhetoric” and organize more rallies. However, he believes the hard-core anti-vaxxers are a minority and that “when life becomes too complicated without vaccines, the silent majority of the unvaccinated people will just take them.”
In the meantime, the pathogen continues its relentless spread across Europe, with Omicron’s mutations enabling the variant “to adhere to human cells more easily,” said WHO’s Kluge, and proving it “can infect even those who have been previously infected or vaccinated.”
Yet the data is clear in one other respect: Being vaccinated helps protect against serious illness and death from COVID-19, while those risks abound for those who have resisted getting inoculated. Kluge noted that studies in Denmark, hard-hit by Omicron, indicate that the unvaccinated are six times more likely to be hospitalized than those who have been vaccinated.
As of Tuesday, France broke all previous records, reporting 368,149 new confirmed cases, with hospitalizations for COVID — currently more than 22,000 — surging as well.