Extremes and Tensions in COVID-19 Europe

Extremes and tensions in COVID-19 Europe

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the surface many existing tensions in Europe while simultaneously adding new ones. These tensions clash over many key areas of European life and raise important questions about how to live personally and communally in a pandemic, drawing religion deeply into the nexus of growing tensions.

This article was written in preparation for our round table on digital religion. Please find the full white paper here.

Stress brings out the best and the worst of people, and, we could add, plagues the best and worst of nations and unions. The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe in 2020 is the kind of challenge that will make or break the fate of many. Europe faces COVID-19 as one of the first epicentres of the virus, with some of its countries (such as Italy, Spain, and the UK) facing great numbers of cases, while others like Germany and Norway faring much better. The crisis has brought to the surface many existing tensions in Europe while simultaneously adding new ones. These tensions clash over many key areas of European life and raise important questions about how to live personally and communally in a pandemic, drawing religion deeply into the nexus of growing tensions. We will now consider these four main points of tension as they relate to Europe and religion: Economic, Political, Pathogenic, and Religious.

Economic tensions: will eurobonds unite or divide, bail out or bankrupt? 
Although the tensions to the economic responses and conditions to the COVID-19 pandemic have been graphed to a traditional North-South divide, it is more helpful to recognise that there are dominant orientations towards viewing the nature of the EU represented by different nations that exist on a spectrum of prioritising the collective of nations or the individual nation. Nations like Italy, Spain, and France, which have been especially hard hit by the virus both in terms of economic impact and in terms of terminal cases of the virus, are not simply overwhelmed by the level of economic crisis, they also argue that the collective good of the EU and nations as members of a collective bloc ought to be highlighted. Consequently, they see the economic impact of the pandemic as not simply a varied national one, rather it is one that is shared by all by virtue of their relationship. Alternatively, nations like Germany and the Netherlands tend to see the pandemic as unevenly affecting individual countries. This places the burden of responsibility primarily on the individual nations to care for their own people and recover from the economic impact. These nations are obviously not indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors, nor unwilling to lend some kinds of aid (e.g. Germany receiving patients in their hospitals; or using a pre-established EU fund to lend aid). However, their individualistic inclination does predispose them away from a move towards the eurobonds that collectivists desire.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]
Complicating this picture are the open economic questions about how exactly is the best way to stabilise the economies of the hardest-hit countries: would eurobonds solve the problem, or merely pass it along intensified to a later time? Should aid be given via loans or grants when some argue that loans only add to the financial insolvency of the weaker nations?[19] [20] [21] While the economic questions will continue to be debated by economists, the important point of this tension is that it is not merely a matter of economic response and which countries have been hardest hit (though this has a significant effect, especially given the proportion of tourism’s share of the GDP of southern EU states), rather it is embedded within cultural orientations towards either collectivism or individualism vis-a-vis intra-European economic support. These cultural orientations themselves may have connections with religion,[22] in that Roman Catholicism often serves as the primary religious tradition of nations in the collectivist camp, while Protestantism serves as the primary religious tradition of nations in the individualist camp. Unsurprisingly, then, especially given the true scope of economic threat to so many people’s lives and livelihoods, Roman Catholicism in Europe has largely taken the side of the collectivists, with both German bishops in writing and Pope Francis in his live-streamed sermon urging for the economic crisis to bring Europe together.[23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

Political tensions: is the EU the problem? Will democracy survive COVID-19?
Another tension felt throughout Europe is between those who emphasise values of democracy and intra-European unity and those who increasingly emphasise the value of their national values and independence. This manifests itself in two ways.

First, there is the concern by nations such as Germany, France, and Italy that nations such as Romania, Hungary, and Poland are moving away from democracy and tight integration with the EU to more authoritarian nationalistic structures. The nationalists, however, see this concern less in terms of cultural drift democratic principles as in terms of uneven assessment and the question of the usefulness of unity. Second, there is the turn to nationalism in response to perceived failures of intra-EU unity, specifically as it relates to economic support. Italy, for example, has politicians suggesting continued participation in the EU is pointless, chiefly because when collective support is most necessary, it faces resistance. Paradoxically, this second point reveals the priority of Europeanism as it turns to Nationalism. Nationalism is offered as the alternative, although how much it is the ideal societal structure varies. Moreover, often nationalists deploy a nationalised version of religion to legitimise their move towards authoritarianism and a reimagined national identity, as is particularly the case with Viktor Orbán in Hungary.[30] [31] [32] [33] [34] [35] [36] [37] [38] [39]

Pathogenic tensions: should we actively fight COVID-19 or let it run its course?
The pathogenic response to the coronavirus illustrates a further tension. On the one hand, some nations imposed active countermeasures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Others, conversely, took a more passive response, with the approach known as ‘herd immunity’ (e.g. Sweden and initially the UK) representing the extreme form of this approach. On the active end of the response, we have Italy who locked down the Lombard region before the full threat of the pathogen to Europe and the world was fully understood. Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and other EU nations did impose strict self-isolation measures fairly quickly. Meanwhile, on the passive end of the extreme, the UK initially underestimated the severity of COVID-19 and chose to adopt a ‘herd immunity’ response. It would eventually have to change course to impose very strict self-isolation measures, though its delay may relate to it recently having taken the lead for the most deaths due to coronavirus in Europe. Sweden maintains the furthest extreme of the pacifist response, as it still has not imposed strong isolation countermeasures, leaving its economy and schools open.[40] [41] [42] [43] [44]

Tension has also arisen between religious communities and the wider society they inhabit. For example, tensions have appeared when a religious community refuses to abide by the lockdown measures imposed or by the imposition of active measures itself or when a religious community’s response to the pandemic is deemed suspect or insufficient.[45] [46] [47] [48] [49] [50]However, it has also happened that the religious communities impose countermeasures without an external demand from the government.[51] [52] [53] This illustrates that the spectrum of responses to the pathogen exists from active to passive. A further tension exists in the treatment of the bodies of victims of the virus, with especially Muslims objecting to cremation.[54] [55] However, there is also tension rising as restrictions start to lift, due to governments delaying the opening of churches and other houses of worship.[56] [57]

Religious tensions: tradition vs. accommodation
Negotiating the COVID-19 pandemic, the major world religions have their own internal tensions over how to respond to the pandemic, especially in relation to how much to alter standard rituals and practices given the transmissibility of coronavirus. Tensions mainly feature between hardcore traditionalists and accommodationists. However, there is also a subtheme of those who deny the virus can even be transmitted through religious ritual and those who think it can. Thus, the spectrum runs from those who deny the virus is a threat and therefore traditions should remain intact, to those who reject the digitalisation of the religion on the basis that the traditions and rituals cannot actually be replaced by a digital means, to those who recognise the virus is spreadable through ritual and contact and so accommodate to the temporary situation as best as possible through digital means, to those who see digitalisation as the future of religion.[58] [59]   

The key role of religion
With COVID-19, tensions have risen throughout Europe. These tensions are entangled with religion on several levels. On the one hand, religious people are caught up in the crisis along with everyone else and are seeking to have their voices heard in light of the four main areas of tension described. They face economic, political, pathogenic, and religious questions that in many cases seem to be and in fact are matters of life and death. On another level, however, religion is often entangled with these concerns on the societal level. Economically, religion seems to play a part in the kinds of solutions cultures find most convincing. More Protestant countries usually prefer a more individual responsibility for economic concerns, while cultures with more Roman Catholic religious backgrounds opt for a collective economic response.

A politicised take on religion, as seen especially in Hungary, has been used to leverage the populace towards a more autocratic and nationalistic culture, an outcome that concerns more democratic and pan-European nations. The tensions surrounding the pathogenic response to the virus, meanwhile, as much as they are exhibited in the political responses they also express themselves in relation to religious responses. Sometimes it is local religious communities rebelling against or insufficiently fulfilling the lockdown measures, leading to tension between religious groups and the local populace. Other times it is the tension of religious bodies taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 even when the local political authorities have not, leading to a different kind of tension between religion and the political establishment, as in Hungary. Finally, there is tension inside religions themselves as traditionalists oppose accommodating religious practice to avoid the transmission of the virus, usually at odds with official policies of the religion’s authorities. In reflection, however, while religion is entangled with these tensions, it might also be entangled with their remedies.

Anthony Buck

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[1] Expressing “closeness and solidarity” to COVID-19-hit Spain, German Bishops’ head shows up “pettiness” of Chancellor Merkel

[2] La Iglesia italiana echa un pulso a Conte por la misa

[3] Religieuze leiders: Help in coronacrisis arme landen – Kerk & religie

[4] Coronavirus, Papa Francesco: “Sfida epocale per l’Unione europea. Dia prova di solidarietà anche con soluzioni innovative”

[5] Il gran peso delle parole. Debito e colpa, Europa e nostro domani

[6] Call for EU to issue ‘coronabonds’ for member states

[7] Ireland may need limited access to new EU Covid-19 rescue package, minister says

[8] COVID-19 Costing Cyprus 660 Million Euros Monthly Losses

[9] Cyprus among EU countries facing greatest external sector risk, says Scope Ratings

[10] EU edges towards joint financing for coronavirus recovery

[11] EU lays out trillion euro escape route from coronavirus pandemic

[12]  If coronavirus sinks the eurozone, the ‘frugal four’ will be to blame

[13]  Il Papa: “L’Europa sia unita, andiamo avanti come fratelli”

[14] La telefonata. Il Papa e Macron: annullare il debito dei Paesi più poveri

[15] Papa Francesco scrive ai movimenti e propone stipendio di base per tutti i precari del mondo

[16] Reddito universale, Grillo rilancia le parole del Papa: “Garantire a tutti lo stesso livello di partenza”

[17] President of Pontifical Academy for Life: “The virus of individualism and loneliness radically weakened society before COVID-19”

[18] Coronavirus: German, Austrian cardinals warn of growing social inequalities

[19] Eurobonds are not the answer

[20] Macron: we need EU coronavirus rescue package worth 5-10 points of GDP

[21] EU agrees first part of coronavirus economic rescue, but job not done yet

[22] Cf. Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann, ‘Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124, no. 2 (May, 2009): 531-596, in which they argue that the greater economic prosperity of Protestant nations over Roman Catholic nations traces back to the Reformation’s increase in literacy rates of men and women. While this may explain the economic inequality it does not suggest the sources of the differing approaches to solutions. Others argue the economic growth in Protestant areas was related to the change in costs for secular rulers to receive legitimacy from religion (The religious roots of the secular West: The Protestant Reformation and the allocation of resources in Europe). While still others suggest the roots are cultural but owed to a Roman Catholic order that spread centuries before the Reformation (The Catholic work ethic: Weber may have been wrong in linking hard work to Protestantism). Regardless, it does show that even 500 years after the Reformation, the economic consequences of the religious orientations likely continue into the present. Cf. also Protestant v Catholic: which countries are more successful?

[23]  Expressing “closeness and solidarity” to COVID-19-hit Spain, German Bishops’ head shows up “pettiness” of Chancellor Merkel

[24] Il Papa: “L’Europa sia unita, andiamo avanti come fratelli”

[25] La telefonata. Il Papa e Macron: annullare il debito dei Paesi più poveri

[26] Papa Francesco scrive ai movimenti e propone stipendio di base per tutti i precari del mondo

[27] Reddito universale, Grillo rilancia le parole del Papa: “Garantire a tutti lo stesso livello di partenza”

[28] President of Pontifical Academy for Life: “The virus of individualism and loneliness radically weakened society before COVID-19”

[29] Coronavirus: German, Austrian cardinals warn of growing social inequalities

[30] Coronavirus – EU Commissioner Raises Concern about Hungary’s ‘Coronavirus Law’

[31] Coronavirus – EC Vice-President: Hungarian Measures in Line with EU Regulations

[32] Coronavirus: Von der Leyen Apologizes for EU Lateness, Warns against Populists Pointing Fingers

[33] ‘Special Times Call for Special Measures’ – House Speaker Kövér Defends Coronavirus Law in Letter to 60 Senior European Politicians

[34] House Speaker Kövér: Trust in Democratic Institutions Eroding

[35] What is the fate of religion in Europe?

[36] Orbán deploys Christianity with a twist to tighten grip in Hungary

[37] VATICANO Papa: nei momenti di crisi i governanti superino i contrasti tra di loro

[38] Påskekrisen 1920 og 2020. Krisen vil være begyndelsen på afglobaliseringen

[39] Pandemic Boosts Support for Europe’s Autocrats

[40] Aftenposten: Direktestudio: Koronaviruset

[41] Svenske myndigheder trækker kontroversiel corona-rapport tilbage

[42] Lukashenko against discouraging people from going to church

[43] Coronavirus Update: Restrictions on movement now in force

[44] Romanian parties say interior minister should resign after agreement with Church

[45] Direktestudio: Koronaviruset

[46] Priest ‘fined for walking streets with his cross’ in Italy during lockdown

[47] Archbishop urges bishops to back decree compliance | in-cyprus.com

[48] “Alabado sea Jesuscrito, ¡qué pollo se ha montado!”

[49] Reinsalu: Rights guaranteed by the ECHR can be restricted in an emergency

[50] “Non possiamo chiuderci dentro come la Chiesa delle catacombe”

[51] Churches Introduce Preventive Measures for Coronavirus Outbreak in Hungary

[52] Coronavirus: Orthodox Easter weekend marked under lockdown

[53] Vatican to let more employees work remotely as coronavirus ravages Italy

[54] Over 137K sign petition to protect Muslim coronavirus victims from cremation

[55] Religion in a time of Covid-19

[56] Italy bishops scold government for excluding Mass from lockdown easing

[57] Kirchen öffnen wieder: Wasser, Wein und Viruzid

[58] The coronavirus pandemic has exposed fissures within religions

[59] Is coronavirus coming between people and their faith?