Europe is living a coronavirus flashback, plus a backlash

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Lockdowns are back, but there’s a big difference this time.

As countries across Europe adopt stricter measures to slow the pace of the second wave of the coronavirus epidemic, Europeans are experiencing a sense of flashback to the spring. But besides the change in season, there is something else: a growing backlash against the restrictions.

“This time we are dealing with two enemies: the coronavirus itself and a corona fatigue,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week.

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As contagion curves veer upwards across Europe, with critical care units risking or reaching overload in many countries, governments are adopting more measures, including new lockdowns in Belgium, France, Germany and the U.K., and tough restrictions in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Austria. But this time they’re not as well received, as people struggle with economic hardship, and many see the current situation as avoidable — a sign of government inefficiency.

Italy is the most blatant example. The country was the first and among the hardest hit in the spring, and enjoyed a summer hiatus during which most activities resumed. But a spike in cases forced the government to adopt strict new measures, including closing bars and restaurants at 6 p.m.

Over the past week demonstrations broke out in the city of Naples, following the announcement of a regional lockdown, later retracted by the regional governor. In Rome, a group affiliated with Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist party, clashed with police as it protested a nighttime curfew and the “sanitary dictatorship.” Scores were arrested in Milan at a protest against new restrictions, including the early closure of bars and restaurants.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he understood the new restrictions “provoke rage and frustrations,” but warned against the risk of “infiltration” of protests by “antagonistic groups who try to fuel clashes.”

While a majority of Italians support the new measures adopted Sunday, or even stricter ones, a quarter of Italians think they’re excessive, according to a poll by SWG.

The protests are feeding on a growing sense of illegitimacy among those bearing the brunt of the economic costs of the pandemic, according to Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University and a member of SAGE, a body advising the British government on the pandemic.

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The economic ills are “hitting society unequally and this is creating a context of increasing disenfranchisement from those who are suffering the greatest harm,” including the poor and the young, Stott said. “The realization that this is going to get worse is creating a context where conflicts become more likely.” 

Italy’s not alone in facing social unrest. In Spain, protests against coronavirus restrictions turned violent in several cities for a second night on Saturday. Dozens of people were arrested and about 30 officers injured in Saturday’s altercations, media reported, after clashes erupted in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities.

In Brussels, police dispersed an unauthorized anti-lockdown protest on Oct. 25. Belgium, which now has the highest number of infections per capita in Europe, announced a second lockdown on Friday.

In Berlin, police reported an arson attack on Oct. 25 on the Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency advising the government on the pandemic, suspecting a political motive. The same day a few thousand protesters marched against coronavirus restrictions in the German capital — a heterogeneous crowd that’s been gathering since the summer, including both far-right extremists, vaccine skeptics, and people believing in conspiracy theories crediting 5G technology with spreading the virus.

“You can see the protests and, let’s say, incomprehension … That will continue to occupy us a lot,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday, after announcing a new lockdown starting Monday.

Falling out of love

The anxiety reflects a growing sense of dissatisfaction with how leaders in Western Europe are handling the pandemic, as the “rallying around the flag” effect that boosted their approval ratings during the first wave of the pandemic wanes during the second.

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The most marked decline in fortunes is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s, who enjoyed a peak in popularity with 67 percent approval rating in April, and is now down on his luck as more than 55 percent of Britons disapprove of his crisis management, according to a POLITICO Poll of Polls based on all available polls tracking the job approval question.

Johnson last month engaged in very public spats over coronavirus measures with cities in northern England, particularly Manchester, which complain that London’s restrictions unfairly penalized the North without sufficient financial support. With infections still rising, Johnson on Saturday announced a month-long nationwide lockdown to begin on Thursday. More anti-lockdown protests were held in London and other U.K. cities over the weekend.

Italy’s Conte, enjoying record popularity for his handling of the pandemic with 70 percent approval in March, in September was supported by slightly less than half of Italians polled.

Even in Germany, where Merkel continues to enjoy high levels of support, 51 percent of Germans back the measures adopted by the government, according to an Infratest dimap poll conducted in the second half of October — but this down 8 percentage points compared with the beginning of October.

The far right, which took a beating in the polls during the first wave of the pandemic, is seeking to capitalize on the growing discontent. In Italy, far-right political leaders have been arguing against a second lockdown, which would be a “defeat for Italy and the economy,” said League’s leader Matteo Salvini. 

The politicization of public health measures decreases their acceptance in the wider population, according to Fabio Ciciliano, a medical doctor with the Italian police and a member of the scientific body advising the Italian government in the pandemic.

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“This kind of information can gain the upper hand, and in certain contexts, it can be a fuse that sets off social protests,” he said.

Cornelius Hirsch contributed reporting.

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