Trifecta: European Union Struggles with Vaccines, Cases, and Social Unrest

Ever since Covid-19 pervaded northern Italy in January 2020, Europe has remained one of the major recorded epicenters. European nations have suffered the world’s greatest per capita losses to the virus. Although the EU is a highly developed region, its vaccination rate is significantly lower than that of the United States, United Kingdom, and even Israel. Moreover, continued lockdowns interspersed with brief periods of deregulation have ignited unrest in many European nations, such as Germany and Romania. As the pandemic enters its second year, the trajectory of the EU pandemic response appears ever bleaker.

The EU had appeared poised to execute an efficient vaccine rollout. For example, the EU gave the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines emergency authorization and ordered over 550 million doses for distribution. Advance purchases on hundreds of millions of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca doses added to this frontloading of vaccinations. However, the rollout soon faced several structural challenges. The EU faced difficulties with reconciling the disparate interests of its 27 member states. This gridlock contributed to the sluggish vaccine rollout. Production delays from manufacturers such as Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca further hindered vaccine supplies. By contrast, non-EU nations were nimble and decisive in their vaccine authorization and distribution. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, touted the relative success of vaccinations in Britain, which holds significant truth when comparing Britain to the EU. 

Moreover, the EU has allowed individual member states to exert limited control over vaccine policies—a decision that complicated deliberations.

 A patchwork of eligibility requirements, vaccine restrictions, and individual deals with outside suppliers have furthered the divide amongst member states. Nations such as Hungary have followed the Serbian model—Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban received the Chinese vaccine and ordered two million of the Russian Sputnik vaccine. Other member states, such as Austria and Denmark, have begun collaborating on vaccine “booster” shots to combat Covid-19 variants. 

Though international collaboration intensified action, it has not been without criticism. After member states began to float the idea of a “vaccine passport,” the EU parliament approved a similar measure: the “Digital Green Pass,” which contains information on the holder’s vaccine status, Covid-19 tests, and Covid-19 history. However, some have said that the vaccine passport violates the established terms of free movement among EU member states. Others have maintained that the summer implementation is too early; the program’s slow rollout strengthened such claims. 

The recent halting of AstraZeneca vaccinations in many EU member states was an additional blow to the already slowed vaccine rollout. Blood clots among recipients of AstraZeneca doses remain controversial, prompting several nations to suspend the vaccines’ usage. AstraZeneca responded by stating that the number of blood clots remains within what is expected of the general population. Groups such as WHO have supported this claim. Nonetheless, the sudden halt has angered many who were already dissatisfied with what they saw as a slow rollout. The suspension has also exacerbated skepticism surrounding Covid-19 vaccinations—disagreements over the validity of claims, safety for certain age groups, and effectiveness as a whole have caused some Europeans to resist vaccination. 

The result of a slow vaccine rollout and the reopening of society is an increase in Covid-19 cases across the EU—a “third wave.”. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Estonia report 100 new cases a day for every 100,000 residents. The proliferation of Covid-19 variants, including the easily transmitted B.1.1.7. Variant contributed to the surge. In response, some call for the reimposition of previously lifted lockdown mandates and stay-at-home orders. On March 31, French President Macron mandated a month-long lockdown on the grounds of renewed concern towards emerging Covid-19 variants. Other nations, such as Italy and Germany, have extended mandates into April at the earliest.

Many Europeans have responded to the reintroduction of lockdown orders with social unrest. While numerous nations have faced some form of public pushback, Germany has encountered particularly acute outrage. On March 21, some 20,000 people protested lockdown orders across Germany in forceful demonstrations. Lockdowns, mask mandates, and restrictions on business operations were among the protesters’ chief frustrations. The Netherlands faced similar challenges—riot police and water cannons were used to disperse protestors in mid-March. Lockdowns have also catalyzed declining mental health and a rise in negative behaviors among Europeans. Studies have shown that lockdowns have drastically increased substance abuse rates, alcohol consumption, depression, and anxiety. The effects of lost jobs and business operations also exert general strains on the whole of society.

Over a year since Covid-19 first ravaged Europe, numerous locations bear evidence of the collective trauma Europeans continue to suffer. Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is a portrait of grief. Two hundred thousand painted white crosses line the city’s ancient downtown streets, a tribute to those who have died from Covid-19. The memorial visually echoes the white crosses littered in rows across the plains of Belgium and northern France, marking the graves of soldiers who died in battle during World War I. This analogy is as sobering as it is hopeful. Europe has previously fought and recovered from wars of grand scale. The battle against Covid-19 is like the wars of Europe’s past, making soldiers out of citizens. The white crosses are visual reminders of loss, absence. It can only be hoped that the painted white crosses will, like their wooden counterparts in Belgium and France, become a reminder of Europe’s strength and resilience in the face of great evil.