U.S. isn’t only place to suffer COVID polarization: New study shows EU more divided too

September 1, 2021, 3:22 PM UTC

The European Union and the United States have handled the COVID-19 pandemic very differently, but the two have something in common: They’re both leaving the pandemic more divided than they were before it.

Across the EU, people in various countries have had very different experiences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and are pointing fingers in different directions on whom to blame, new research from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has found.

It is a split that bears a striking similarity to one seen in the U.S., where states that began the pandemic with higher levels of poverty experienced far higher COVID-19 case numbers—and had far lower levels of vaccine uptake once the jabs became available.

A key point of divergence among EU respondents in the ECFR report was whether they saw the pandemic as an economic or a public health crisis. Residents of Northern and Western EU countries were far more likely to not have been affected by the pandemic at all, while those in countries in the South and East reported greater economic and health impacts.

For residents of countries like Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, the virus for many has been “more of a gruesome spectator sport than a shattering lived experience,” according to the survey, which interviewed more than 16,000 respondents in June. The majority of the people who replied from these countries noted they had not been personally impacted by serious disease, bereavement, or economic hardship. Leading this group is Denmark, where 72% of respondents said they had not been affected at all.

Meanwhile, more than half of the people from countries in the South and East—like Bulgaria, Poland, Spain, and Portugal—said they had been personally affected by COVID-19 economically or in terms of health. In Spain and Hungary, almost two-thirds of the population reported direct impacts.

“Europe’s COVID-19 experience has been a tale of two pandemics,” the researchers noted in the report.

This split of countries has been seen repeatedly in the EU. It is largely the same difference as the one between the creditors and the debtors during the euro crisis, and it is the same divide between countries that saw an influx of refugees in 2015 and those that did not. More recently, the split can be seen in the uptake of vaccines, with inoculation much higher in Western European countries over Eastern European countries.

And as has been seen in the U.S., another major trend is clear in the EU: People left poorer by the pandemic are more angry at the government that locked them down.

Poorer and pointing fingers

This regional skew has had great political consequences.

The economic victims of the pandemic tended to be more skeptical about their governments’ intentions behind lockdowns and were more likely to accuse them of using COVID-19 as an excuse to control the public. Economically impacted people also tended to say that the restrictions were too strict. In Poland, the most distrustful country, only 38% of respondents trusted their government’s intentions.

People were also divided on whom to blame. People from Northern and Western countries were more likely to blame individuals who didn’t follow the rules—the Netherlands led this group, at 63%—while residents in Southern and Eastern countries blamed those up top, focusing on the actions of their national government, the European Commission, multinational companies, vaccine nationalism, or China. Poland, at 58%, led this group, followed by France and Spain.

The study suggests this may be why many mainstream parties are re-embracing government action, while more populist parties have become more libertarian.

The age gap

There is also a major generational divide.

While the oldest members of society were most in harm’s way of catching COVID-19, the study found that young people felt they were the major victims of the pandemic.

And the two groups placed blame in different places. Europeans age 60 and over were more likely to blame individuals, while Europeans under 30 tended to blame governments and other institutions.

This adds to the growing cynicism among young people about government intention. The poll found that young people didn’t accept the claim that government’s main reasons for introducing pandemic-related restrictions was to limit the spread of the virus.

Of the respondents under 30, 43% were skeptical of government motives; 23% thought that the government just tried to create the appearance of control; while 20% went as far as to say government used the pandemic to increase the control of the public.

The news isn’t new. Even before the pandemic, research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University found that today’s young people are the generation most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. 

But as the EU prepares to exit the pandemic, disgruntled youth whom the EU has pressured into vaccinating will have to be reckoned with.

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