Far-right spies on opportunity amid new wave of Covid pain and protest in Europe

LONDON – As the Covid-19 crisis in Europe intensifies, the cries of protest from those opposing the lockdowns and vaccination mandates now facing parts of the continent have also intensified.

While vaccine skepticism is not new to the region, the sometimes violent protests of recent days and weeks have a relatively new element: the radical far right.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization called the challenge facing Europe “very serious”, with nearly 4,200 deaths per day recorded last week, up from 2,100 per day in September. The total death toll on the continent could rise from 1.5 million currently to 2.2 million by spring 2022, the WHO said.

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But the warning came after a weekend of protests against measures to curb the virus. Police said 40,000 protesters descended on downtown Vienna, Austria, the focus of one of the continent’s worst epidemics and which entered its fourth nationwide lockdown on Monday.

The Vienna rally was organized by the far-right Freedom Party, Austria’s third-largest political party, which experts say has used the pandemic to bolster its anti-establishment credentials and restore support for the public after a high profile scandal.

“STOPP Impffaschismus” (stop vaccine fascism), said a sign in Vienna. “Kontrolliert die Grenze, nicht euer volk” (control the border, not your people) said another – just a few of the slogans mixing vaccine skepticism and right-wing ideology.

A sign stating “Stop vaccine fascism” during a demonstration in Vienna. Florian Schroetter / AP

At least one “Q” sign was on display in Vienna signaling support for QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory associated with some supporters of former President Donald Trump and some participants in the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill.

Demonstrations and similar signs could be observed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Croatia.

Freedom Party chairman Herbert Kickl championed the anti-vaccine movement in Austria. Kickl himself tested positive for Covid in the days leading up to Saturday’s rally, forcing him to stay home.

“He has mobilized politically against Covid-19 vaccines,” said Katharina T. Paul, an expert in vaccine hesitation at the University of Vienna. “He spread disinformation, to put it mildly. “

“I think he and the Freedom Party play an important role in mobilizing the politicization of the vaccine,” she added. “What is particular to Austria, especially recently, is the relationship between populism on the one hand and vaccine reluctance on the other. It’s not specific to Austria – we’ve seen it in Italy and France – but Austria stands out.

Austria has a long history of vaccine hesitation, but what is happening now is unprecedented, Paul said.

The Freedom Party – which did not respond to a request for comment – jointly ruled Austria for 16 months until a scandal brought down its then leader and chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache , in 2019. Austria is currently ruled by the center-right. Austrian People’s Party, in coalition with the Austrian Greens.

From February 2022, all Austrians will need to be vaccinated, making it the first European country to impose such a rule – and fueling anger over Covid restrictions.

Protesters hold a sign that reads “Control the border, not your people” in Vienna. Florian Schroetter / AP

Austria’s current 10-day lockdown comes after new cases peaked on November 19 at more than 15,000, in a country of less than 9 million people, health experts expecting worse. So far, 64.4% of the total population is fully vaccinated, below the European average and far behind countries like Spain where the figure is almost 80%.

“Why the rate is not higher, and it is not that low compared to other European countries, is certainly due to the fact that they have always swept the side effects under the table,” said the voter Sabine Amsellem-Gaisbauer from Upper Austria, who refused to disclose personal data and who opposes vaccination warrants.

She insisted that the vaccination rate is so low because people decided that the vaccines offered were not working. Evidence from around the world has shown that vaccines are very effective in reducing the risk of infection, serious illness and death from Covid.

Professor Richard Greil, an infectious disease expert in Salzburg and a frequent commentator on the pandemic in Austria, said the government had lost control of the narrative on the issue, leaving others in a position to intervene.

“The strategy that was chosen was very bad; communications about vaccines have been insufficient, ”he said. “And we have particularly relevant right-wing parties, [supported by] around 20 percent of voters, and there is very good evidence around the world that the more to the right the parties involved, the lower the vaccination rates. “

In September, another Austrian party, the newly formed MFG – which in German means “People, Freedom, Fundamental Rights” – also rode the wave of vaccine populism by winning 6.4% of the vote in Upper Austria’s regional elections. , enough to win three seats in the state parliament.

Right-wing politician Herbert Kickl.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The result illustrated a potential new divide in Austrian and European politics: whether or not a party supports the Covid restrictions.

“You can see the potential there: Now we have two parties trying to exploit these feelings, this skepticism among people, with around 25% to 30% of people being opposed to vaccines. [in Austria]”said Thomas Hofer, an Austrian political consultant.

As the virus has evolved, the response from the right has evolved as well, he argued.

“Make no mistake, early March 2020 [Kickl] was the first, even before a lockdown, that said we should close our borders so the coronavirus couldn’t enter, ”he said. “During the pandemic he really discovered the potential [of opposing vaccines] and he also knows that could continue even when the pandemic is over. They try to hammer out this message to occupy these values.

These values ​​have helped the relationship between the political right and anti-vaccine groups to develop for years in the United States and elsewhere, according to Emily Sullivan, professor of philosophy and ethics at Eindhoven University of Technology in the United States. Netherlands. She has been involved in a project that has been monitoring social media posts in both communities since 2016.

Fringe elements of the far right in the United States, such as the QAnon plot, have also taken a combination of the pandemic and social media to new heights.

“The anti-vaccine community has really converged on language and talking points with the Republican Party and far-right parties,” she said. “Before, in 2016, you would have thought it was surprising.”

“There is a natural trust between the two groups, which has grown and converged,” she said.

While Austria is the first European country to go into containment and introduce a mandatory vaccination mandate, it may not be the last.

Jens Spahn, the German Minister of Health, delivered a harsh assessment this week: The Germans, he said, would be “vaccinated, cured or dead” by the end of winter.

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