21 March 2021

Weekly Briefing: The perils of Covid schadenfreude


At the moment it feels like Europe’s political class is having a competition to see who can produce the most bafflingly incoherent response to the pandemic. From the beggar-thy-neighbour over-caution of various governments suspending the AstraZeneca vaccine, to Ursula von der Leyen’s threats to block exports of medicines, even as those individual governments decline to use the ones they already have. At the same time, the UK has gone from ‘plague island’ to vaccinating over 700,000 people in a single day.

For hardened Europhiles this is most disconcerting. A certain type of self-hating Brit is so used to assuming that things are better on the continent that the idea we might be doing something better than them verges on incomprehensible. But even die-hard ‘British-Europeans’ will find it difficult to defend politicians who have stoked vaccine hesitancy by repeatedly questioning the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca jab.

Emmanuel Macron in particular has not so much blotted his copybook as torn the pages out, set them on fire and danced a merry jig around the smouldering ashes of his own credibility. First the French president called the vaccine ‘quasi-ineffective’ for older patients, then his government followed Germany and others by suspending vaccinations altogether over a tiny number of blood clots. Now we have the absurd situation where the vaccine is allowed, but only for French citizens over 55.

France, cradle of the Enlightenment and homeland of Louis Pasteur, has become a hotbed of anti-vaccine, anti-science sentiment, where 50% of people now say they will not take the Astra vaccine. That a safe, effective treatment is being ignored like this is difficult to fathom, but Oxford University’s Professor of Medicine, John Bell, put it pithily:“If you want to die of a clot, get Covid”.

With Brexit Britain marching on and Europe floundering, it might be tempting to indulge in schadenfreude. But keen linguists will know that the ‘schaden’ bit means ‘harm’ or ‘damage’, and in this case that’s not limited to the continent. When Europe catches Covid, Britain wheezes too.

While the papers fret about scuppered holiday plans, the bigger concern is that a spike in cases over there will lead to further mutations and derail our own hard-won exit from lockdown. Combined with a mini-slump in vaccine supply in the UK, we ought to be wary of too much triumphalism, even with 27 million people having had their first dose.

It’s not just about self-interest either. Whatever your view on Brexit, I see little reason to take the slightest comfort from the fact French pensioners or Polish asthmatics risk contracting the disease thanks to the bungling of both their own governments and the European Commission.

And if, as our politicians forever assure us, we want Britain to be a front-rank nation, we ought to learn from the countries that have handled the pandemic most effectively – Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, for instance – rather than just despairing at the antics of our neighbours.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.