Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 459, 25 November 2021

Europe: Restrictions lead to Widespread Protests
Joeana Cera Matthews

In the news 
On 23 November, the WHO, on assessing Europe's declining coronavirus situation, warned: "Cumulative reported deaths are projected to reach over 2.2 million by spring next year, based on current trends."

On 22 November, Austria declared its fourth nationwide lockdown, forcing 8.9 million Austrians to be home-bound for all but essential reasons. Following this, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said: "It's a problem for the whole society because even those that are vaccinated, if they don't have access to an intensive care unit because they're blocked by those who are not vaccinated and got sick, so then they are affected as well." Following this, demonstrations were held in Vienna that saw a turnout of 35,000 people.  

On 22 November, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte condemned the rioters in Rotterdam who pelted stones and set fire to vehicles, saying: "There is a lot of unrest in society because we have been dealing with misery of corona for so long. But I will never accept idiots using pure violence just because they are unhappy."  

On 21 November, Belgium's Home Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden responded to the violent protests in Brussels, saying: "A mature democracy respects the opinion of a minority but does not accept that a few abuse their protest vote by force. Vaccinated or not: it is important that we continue to follow the measures."  

Issues at large 
First, a regional mapping of protests within Europe. The pandemic's fourth wave has led to the imposition of tighter restrictions across Europe. These have been followed by large-scale protests. In terms of the surge in infections and the protests, the hardest-hit countries include Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Countries such as France, Italy, Romania, and others have seen an increase in cases. However, they are yet to witness widespread violent protests.

Second, the multiple 'waves.' Similar to the pandemic waves, the protests seem to be occurring in waves. The initial waves of unrest due to the pandemic were seen in Spain, and Italy followed by the UK. The latest wave of opposition is primarily being witnessed in Western Europe where quiet periods are ensued by chaos.  

Third, the multiple actors. The protesters are a mixed bag with members from far-right groups, anti-vaccine and anti-mask parties, and apolitical people refusing vaccinations. The Netherlands also saw antisemitism supporters comparing the government to a "Nazi regime", while the Austrian government was called a "coronavirus dictatorship." The diverse crowd is united by their "common mistrust in the system and politics, especially in the area of coronavirus." Further, there is a demographic divide in participation as the vulnerable groups of society, such as senior citizens and children, largely refrain from protesting.  

Fourth, the multiple reasons. The freedom of choice is another reason for the opposition. Countering the argument of 'my body, my choice' is complicated. On 19 November, Austria declared vaccinations to be a legal requirement from February 2022. Propagated primarily by anti-vaccine groups, mandatory vaccinations are termed as a "restriction of human rights." The restrictions are set to severely impact the economy with small businesses bound to run into financial difficulties as their livelihoods, based on shoestring budgets, will leave them unable to repay loans. Many others' grounds for protesting relate to their frustration on being restricted from free movement. A general dissatisfaction regarding the government's ineffective measures has sabotaged the citizens' trust. In line with this sentiment, protesters in Belgium condemned the officials of acting in desperation as declining immunity meant they "no longer knew what to do."

In perspective 
First, the immunity test. After more than a year of vaccination efforts, Europe's move to attain herd immunity has failed. The forthcoming winter only provides an enabling ground for the already rampant virus to spread. It seems the worst is yet to come.  

Second, coercion is detrimental in the long term. According to scientists, mandatory vaccinations could be a 'double-edged sword' as it could trigger hostility to future vaccination campaigns. Vaccine skeptics may end up completely rejecting it. Dabbling on consent will undermine the people's trust in their governments.

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