The Irish Times view on Europe’s Covid-19 protests

The battle against misinformation

Police clash with protesters in Rotterdam. Photograph: EPA

Police clash with protesters in Rotterdam. Photograph: EPA

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The weekend riots in Rotterdam, The Hague and cities in southern Limburg province mark an ominous escalation in resistance in the Netherlands to the latest attempts to hold back Europe’s latest coronavirus surge. In Vienna tens of thousands of far-right protesters also gathered – and some clashed with police – in the wake of the government announcement of a further national lockdown and the introduction of mandatory vaccination for all. Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl proclaimed that “As of today, Austria is a dictatorship.”

Similar demonstrations against restrictions took place over the weekend in Italy, Switzerland, and Croatia. Several European countries – including Belgium, Germany and Norway – announced last week their intention to beef up measures to tackle low uptake of vaccines as Covid-19 case rates continue to soar. The World Health Organisation warns another 500,000 people in Europe could die of Covid by March unless urgent action is taken. Slovakia is also banning unvaccinated people from all non-essential shops, while new restrictions are being introduced in Greece. Further afield, Australia saw “freedom” rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide in protest against new local pandemic powers.

Central to many protests has been anger at mandatory testing or increasing use of compulsion in workplaces and social settings. But there is much evidence in the medical literature that compulsion does not actually help to boost vaccination rates and is counterproductive, contributing instead to increasing mistrust in targeted groups.

The World Health Organisation in 2019 listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 threats to global health, while a report from the OECD argues that “gaining – and maintaining – public trust in Covid-19 vaccines and vaccination will be as essential as the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves.” Government communication strategies and building confidence in communities are as important in this struggle as the infrastructure of vaccine rollouts.

Crucial to understanding the political alienation manifest in the riots is that close correlation between declining trust, or persisting mistrust, in government and institutions and low vaccination rates. Mainstream parties throughout Europe have yet to understand how to tackle that.

The undermining of trust is also an important function of the reliance on social media, with 72 per cent of Americans and 83 per cent of Europeans using the internet as a source for health information. Users fall prey to an echo chamber effect where tailored recommendations based on their personal “watch history” feed individuals’ concerns and rarely provide alternative or expert views. One of the challenges of the age is how to provide compelling online narratives to cut through the forest of quack medicine.

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