The response from EU leaders earlier this week to Europe’s current surge of coronavirus cases came across as blithe and blasé. Their reaction to the pandemic’s ongoing stranglehold over the continent could not be more different from the sentiments of many citizens across the bloc.
A statement from Council President Charles Michel gave the reason that the EU’s “hospitals and health workers are again under pressure,” as justification for why certain additional lockdowns had been unveiled recently – almost as if imposing restrictions required some sort of a qualification, in the current context.
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But indeed, Michel does recognize that there is a manifest resentment in Europe towards further lockdowns. “In such hard times, cohesion and solidarity matter more than ever. We call on all Europeans to take care of themselves and of each other,” he said on Thursday evening.
This week, anti-lockdown protests have emerged most evidently in Napoli, with demonstrations turning violent and discontent directed towards the President of Campania, Vincenzo De Luca. But since the virus first imposed itself on Europe, citizens have taken to the streets across many nations to air their grievances to what they regard as a grossly disproportionate intervention of the state on their daily lives.
At Berlin demonstrations in August, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, part-time anti-vaccine and anti-5G campaigner, told protesters that new coronavirus restrictions would lead to global totalitarianism based on mass surveillance.
The Madrid regional government came under fire in September for a partial lockdown that impacted many of the area’s poorest. Demonstrators accused the Madrid Community President of pursuing a ‘segregationist’ approach to the management of the pandemic.
The backlash against government-issued orders to remain isolated is, of course, not a phenomenon specific to the current pandemic. History teaches us that plague and protest are often rather comfortable bedfellows.
As is highlighted in recent academic research, the 1348 Black Death in England indirectly led to the subsequent Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, in which the balance of power and influence was tipped in the favour of labourers, whose services were in more demand following the death of nearly half of the English population.
What the protestors wanted, in this context, was a reduction in taxes, an end to serfdom, and the removal of the King’s senior officials. And that which they did not acquire through diplomatic means, they simply took for themselves – executing members of the royal government and destroying public establishments.
As part of later outbreaks in Europe, rulers became more adept at issuing quarantine orders. With the 1563 London plague came a series of commands from Queen Elizabeth I, instructing citizens to board up their doors and windows and have no contact with other people outside for a period of 40 days.
This particular quarantine period saw immediate benefits, with recorded deaths from the plague dropping rapidly.
Despite this, however, opposition to the Queen’s orders was widespread, and accounts from Europe’s second-cycle of plagues evidence a startling parallel with some of the more recent unrest across Europe.
In this vein, Professor Emma K. Atwood and researcher Sarah Williamson draw our attention to a short verse penned by poet George Wither in 1625, in which he laments:
So when our Sickness, and our Poverty
Had greater wants than we could well supply;
Strict Orders did but more enrage our grief,
And hinder in accomplishing relief
In many cases, such lamentation led to eventual fatigue with confinement orders, as citizens wilfully flouted the restrictions – regarding them as disproportionate encroachments on individual liberty. The popular narrative of the time was that the governing rulers were enacting a form of punishment against citizens.
Alarmingly, contemporary members of the anti-lockdown class share many a thought with our historical forebears – viewing the quarantine orders in a similar light and asserting reactionary and dissident proclamations against political representatives.
In the light of common day and rational thought, however, all the pandemic does is reveal the profound fallibility and vulnerability of the human organism, not the totalitarian tendencies of our political leaders.
In essence, quarantine orders extend the often-petrifying choice of ultimate free-will unto the citizen: do you rebel and potentially perish while also possibly causing wider harm to others, or do you acquiesce with the governing powers against your own sentiments?
These are two options, sadly, that more and more people in Europe simply do not want to weigh up against one another. The freedom to make this choice intimidates people. It is this discomfort in deciding whether or not to comply with the quarantine, which is provoking the modern protests, not the quarantine itself.
How on earth would we have the gall to take to the streets, as our ancestors did, amid our ivory towers of lockdown luxury? We are simply not used to our individual liberty being presented to us in such a stark light, and it scares us.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.