Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 422, 11 August 2021

Europe: Measures to curb pandemic trigger protests
Joeana Cera Matthews

In the news 
On 7 August, widespread protests against the COVID-19 health pass were held across Europe. France saw its fourth consecutive weekend of demonstrations as 230,000 protesters participated in what the Interior Ministry reported as the largest turnout since July. Italy also witnessed similar protests. Efforts to fully inoculate their citizenry as the Delta variant spreads have triggered these protests. 

On 6 August, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said: "For things to get better, get vaccinated and respect the rules."  On 4 August, French President Emmanuel Macron told in an interview: "A few tens of thousands of people have lost their minds to such an extent that they say we live in a dictatorship."
 
Issues at large
First, the health pass and related legislations. Hoping to contain the fourth wave of COVID-19, several European countries have implemented virus passes with different rules. The Green Pass or the health pass are extensions of the EU's digital COVID certificate which provides proof of a person's coronavirus status. The Pass would be required to enter public places like cinemas, museums, and restaurants. Though similar passes have been introduced across Europe, only France has adopted a blanket approach of imposing passes and a mandatory vaccination for health workers. Other countries which have adopted similar measures include Italy, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Britain.  

Second, the consequent protests. The vaccine passes have spurred prolonged protests across Europe. Opponents claim that the Pass limits mobility making the vaccines obligatory. Considered a disguised blow to their fundamental freedoms, demonstrators condemn the 'oppressive rules'. French protestors accused Macron of infringing rights and segregating citizens. German protestors, on the other hand, clashed violently with the police. Protests continued in Poland as its government deliberated the need for restrictions.  

Third, the larger agenda of the protests. Few anti-vaccine groups seek to influence the public debate beyond coronavirus. Their online discourses show mobilization against migrants and allegations of potential lockdowns to fight climate change, while far-right activists consider the protests a recruiting ground. Querdenker, Germany's main anti-lockdown movement, has managed to spread conspiracy theories about the government's attempts to contain the pandemic, calling them fascistic and the campaign as a form of apartheid. In France and Germany, protestors have demonstrated alongside far-right activists comparing their governments to the Nazi regime.

Fourth, the division within the protesters. Heterogenous groups uniting against Macron have slogans reading - 'No to dictatorship' and 'Freedom'. Those directly affected by the new policies, like health workers and restaurant employees, are accompanied by those who are frustrated with the government's overreach. Hard-left anarchists, remnants of the "Yellow West" movement, and other anti-vaccine supporters form the protestors. Despite widespread protests, they still represent a minority opinion. Polls reveal limited support for the anti-mandate protests.

Fifth, the governments' response. European governments believe increased inoculation is the key to ensuring economic recovery. The visible success of their plans has further proved this point. Since Macron unveiled the plan, at least 7 million people have gotten vaccinated. Although he views the protestors as 'threatening democracy', French opposition leaders have voiced the need for 'respecting' protesters and their needs. Responding to the critics, minor relaxations were brought in the implementation. Amid fears of rising infections, Berlin had banned various anti-lockdown protestors from gathering.
 
In perspective
First, the issue of responsibility. The worsening pandemic creates an imperative need for governments to take substantial measures. Thus, the strict unilateral moves seem justified given the results.  

Second, the protraction of protests increases the risks the protestors intend to avoid. The health pass is by no means a cure-all to the pandemic, but it is definitely a good place to start. T

hird, the upcoming elections in Germany and France. Despite a key leadership test in the picture, the governments are not seen to be backing down in their efforts.

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