Health first, freedom second? How Covid is changing democracies
Paris (AFP) – From a litany of lockdowns to mandatory mask-wearing and Covid passes to access entertainment and sporting venues, the pandemic has led to sweeping restrictions on civil liberties in some of the world's oldest democracies.
Among Western countries, European nations particularly have been quick to crimp basic freedoms in the name of fighting the virus.
French President Emmanuel Macron caused a furore this week by saying he wanted to "piss off" those who refuse to get vaccinated by "limiting as much as possible their access to activities in social life".
The remarks from the leader of a country that sees itself as a global beacon of liberty underscore the extent to which the pandemic has changed national priorities.
The United States has also taken aggressive steps, including closing its borders to most of the world for 20 months and making vaccinations mandatory for all federal employees and staff of big companies.
The Berlin-based rights watchdog Civil Liberties Union for Europe warned in a report last year that measures targeting the unvaccinated could "exacerbate existing inequalities".
"(They) may create a two-tier society where some people may enjoy an extensive set of freedoms and rights while others are excluded," the report said.
Persecution or protection?
At the start of the pandemic, governments used sweeping lockdowns and curfews to try to contain the virus.
But in the past year, most countries began refining their strategies, rolling out digital passes allowing people to show they are vaccinated.
Faced with the Omicron variant, some governments, notably Austria and the Netherlands, reverted to one-size-fits-all tactics and ordered people back indoors during the end-of-year celebrations.
But worldwide, many countries are now turning the screws on citizens who are refusing to be jabbed.
Austria kept the unvaccinated confined to their homes last month after lifting a partial lockdown. In February, the country will be the first in Europe to make vaccines compulsory for most people.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says his country also needs to have a "national conversation" about mandatory vaccinations, echoing similar comments from the German government.
The French government meanwhile has proposed to follow Germany's lead by barring the unvaccinated from restaurants, cinemas and leisure facilities.
While public acceptance of Covid restrictions was high at the outset of the crisis, pandemic fatigue is fuelling growing resistance to new curbs.
The unvaccinated complain of discrimination, with some going so far as to compare their treatment to the persecution of European Jews during World War II.
And from the Netherlands to Austria, Germany, Belgium and France, thousands of people have taken to the streets -- sometimes clashing with police -- to protest Covid rules and health passes.
The grievances are being exploited by parties on the far-right, far-left and those opposed to interventionist policies.
In Germany, the pro-business Free Democrats made strong gains in September's general election after campaigning against strict lockdowns.
In France, which will hold presidential elections in April, far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour have come out swinging against Macron's proposed vaccine pass.
"Coronavirus restrictions are necessary; but concerns about how they are framed and imposed are not and should not be the preserve of libertarian zealots and Covid deniers," Britain's Guardian newspaper warned in March 2021.
For the most part, Europe has avoided upheaval by maintaining a balance between the need to protect public health and defend civil liberties.
Raul Magni-Berton, a French political scientist who studied the Covid restrictions imposed in around 40 European countries, cited France and eastern European countries as having the strictest curbs.
His study showed that the countries with the greatest respect for individual freedoms were the oldest continuous democracies, such as Britain or Switzerland.
His research also concluded that restrictions tend to be lighter in countries with coalition governments like the Netherlands or where power is shared between the central government and regions like federal Germany.
"How many people are you forced to negotiate with? That's the question," Magni-Berton said.
© 2022 AFP