The Irish Times view on Covid-19 in Europe: the populist surge

Rising infection rates in central and eastern Europe suggest a correlation between vaccine scepticism and populist politics

Surging Covid rates in some of Europe’s central and eastern states are demonstrating a worrying correlation between vaccine scepticism and populist politics. Historic popular distrust of government, it would appear, is contributing to distrust in official vaccine messaging and, inevitably, to higher rates of infection.

The phenomenon is marked in the German-speaking states of Austria, Germany – particularly those parts which emerged from East Germany – and Switzerland, currently top of the European league of the unvaccinated. All three are seeing surging Covid rates. More than 55 million Germans are fully vaccinated, but 22 per cent of adults remain unvaccinated, three times Irish levels. And polls show a strong correlation between refusal to vaccinate and support for far-right parties like Alternativ fur Deutschland and Austria's Freedom Party.

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Switzerland has the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rate in western Europe and polling ahead of November's election shows strong vaccine scepticism particularly among supporters of the populist Swiss People's party, the largest party, half of whose voters are unvaccinated.

Only 23 percent of Bulgaria's nearly 7 million people are fully vaccinated, the lowest level in the EU, and it has the bloc's highest pro rata death rate. In Romania that figure is only 32 per cent.


The Czech Republic and Slovakia also reported fresh surges in coronavirus infections on Wednesday and again have had to start limiting non-urgent hospital care to cater for admissions of Covid-19 patients. With 58.7 per cent of the total population vaccinated, the Czech Republic ranks below the EU average of 64.6 per cent. Slovakia's vaccination rate is even lower, at 44.8 per cent.

The outgoing Czech government of populist prime minster Andrej Babis had rejected imposing lockdowns, saying vaccinations were the way to tame the resurgent pandemic but the installation of the country's fifth minister of health during the Covid pandemic is likely to bring a more proactive approach.