In Europe, COVID-19 containment measures that were met with unprecedented compliance last year are facing fierce resistance as the virus once again sweeps through the continent. Large-scale demonstrations have been held in Switzerland, Croatia, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Italy against initiatives to limit the movement of the unvaccinated and encourage vaccine uptake, such as COVID passports. Unrest has been more severe in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, where blanket restrictions have been reinstated.
Initial two-to-three-week deadlines on lockdown measures may prove untenable if infections rise further as the cold weather sets in. If so, the onset of winter looks set to deliver the violence and disruption seen in Brussels and Rotterdam in late November to cities throughout Europe. Far-right groups and parties have simultaneously fed into and capitalised on anti-lockdown sentiment, organising rallies from Zurich to Zagreb. Doing so not only consolidates support among core voters, but may also provide a boost by drawing new sympathisers as popular opinion regarding vaccines and lockdowns diverges.
Opportunities for these parties to translate support on the street into electoral gains are scant: of the countries impacted by protests so far, only Austria has an election in the one-year outlook. New chances may arise, however, if protests place enough pressure on fragile governments in northern and central Europe already battling rising caseloads, high inflation and broader economic uncertainty. And that’s before any impact from the Omicron variant makes itself felt.
The malaise may yet spread further. Slovakia entered into a two-week nationwide lockdown in late November, which is looking increasingly likely to be extended. After Health Minister Jens Spahn remarked that Germans will be either “vaccinated, recovered or dead” by end of the winter, the governent introduced lockdown measures for the unvaccinated. Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary also look vulnerable as they grapple with soaring cases and enduring vaccine hesitancy. As a summer of optimism fades into a winter of discontent, Europe should prepare itself for the turmoil ahead.
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