The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Squeezed by mandates and restrictions, Europe’s anti-vaxxers rebel

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Shouting cries of “freedom” and “resistance,” Europe’s unvaccinated are in open rebellion, taking to the streets against a host of new mandates and restrictions as the continent’s coronavirus cases soar. Their anger comes as their world is shrinking. Branded with a proverbial Scarlet “A,” the anti-vaxxers of Europe are finding themselves ostracized from public life far more than their American counterparts.

Many are not taking it sitting down. The European Union is no stranger to protests against coronavirus measures. But the weekend saw a convergence of large and sometimes violent demonstrations in multiple countries. In what the mayor of Rotterdam, decried as an “orgy of violence” on Friday, Dutch police opened fire and arrested scores of rioters who set fires and lobbed stones at officers amid a new partial lockdown and proposed law that would ban the unvaccinated from entering businesses even with a negative coronavirus test. Thousands also marched against mandates or restrictions in Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland and Switzerland.

Police clashed with mobs of protesters who set fires and threw rocks to protest coronavirus restrictions across the Netherlands on Nov. 22. (Video: Reuters)

In Vienna, where the unvaccinated face the prospect of extended lockdowns and a revolutionary decree compelling them to take their jabs whether they like it or not, an estimated 40,000 demonstrators took to the streets Saturday, some of them clashing with police as night fell.

The simmering discontent was not confined to Europe. In Australia, thousands turned out against pandemic legislation in “freedom” marches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. France deployed special police forces to its overseas territory of Guadeloupe after days of unrest that saw protesters set fire to cars and block roads in opposition to French vaccine and health pass mandates.

The outburst of anger — particularly in Europe, a place American liberals often look to as a beacon of progressive values on climate change, social benefits and universal health care — illustrates just how challenging it may be for rich nations, now flush with vaccines, to overcome vaccine hesitancy and push closer to near-total coverage rates.

Europe’s creep toward winter has brought a dangerous escalation in cases — in some countries, the highest of the pandemic — and indoor gatherings in colder weather is not the only culprit. With nearly 67 percent of its population fully vaccinated, the European Union has leapfrogged the United States on doses administered. But across the continent, there are still stubborn geographic, demographic and ideological pockets of the unvaccinated serving as tinder for severe cases of the virus to rekindle.

In response, European leaders are embracing novel, coercive techniques to compel the unvaccinated to do their civic duty and take their shots, setting up a political experiment that is being closely watched on the other side of the Atlantic, where Washington has turned to more limited vaccine mandates for federal employees, government contractors, health-care workers and staff of large companies.

Italy’s “green pass” system imposes work suspensions or restrictions on access to a range of businesses for those without vaccinations or recent tests. France embraced a “health pass” requiring vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test to access restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and more. In Romania, where the number of infections is skyrocketing, the unvaccinated were targeted in October for a special curfew that was later extended to everyone as cases continued to spike. Vaccination certificates are still required for regular activities like working out at gyms or shopping at malls.

No European nation has gone as far as Austria. A spike in cases coupled with vaccine hesitancy — 64 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, a rate lower than those in Italy, France, Portugal and Germany — prompted leaders there to announce a nationwide vaccination mandate starting in February. As a stopgap, the country last week declared a lockdown of the unvaccinated. The government later imposed Europe’s first broader national lockdown of the fall, one set to start Monday and last at least 10 days. After that, the lockdown may end for the vaccinated, but the unvaccinated will still face entry restrictions at hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms, cinemas, theaters, Christmas markets, ski resorts and for personal services such as salons.

That may leave anti-vaccine Austrians eating their schnitzels at home for the foreseeable future, and they are not amused. Some demonstrators wore a yellow star with the words “not vaccinated,” a reference the symbols worn by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The move drew outrage from officials like Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, who said the use of such symbols “insults the millions of victims of the Nazi dictatorship and their families.”

“Society is being massively divided and set against a group of people who are being shut out of public life and forced to do things we don’t want to do,” Katja Schoissenger, a mother of two protesting in Vienna on Saturday, told the New York Times. “I have nothing against people who want to be vaccinated. It is a free decision, and I think that’s OK and legitimate, but I am a young, healthy person and it’s not an issue for me.”

Some are questioning the imposition of such restrictions. Speaking to the BBC, Andrea Ammon, director for the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, called mandatory vaccinations a “double-edged sword,” suggesting strict rules could make people who were still doubting the vaccines completely reject them. That could produce an even greater pool of government-resenting anti-vaxxers.

It’s unclear whether tough measures are worth the social unrest they cause. In Italy, my colleagues reported, vaccination rates ticked up 4.4 percentage points in the two months after the green pass law was announced. That was more than any other nation in Western Europe, but only marginally higher than the 3 percentage points increase seen across the European Union during the same period.

Europe’s vaccination holdouts share some commonalities with American anti-vaxxers, but they also have their own particular profile. They include members of far-right fringe groups, soccer fans, libertarians on both sides of the political spectrum and citizens scared off vaccines by an onslaught of misinformation.

Americans and European anti-vaxxers often share a distrust of government, but frequently for very different reasons. As Alix Kroeger wrote in the New Statesman, Europe’s vaccine resistant and hesitant tend to tilt geographically toward the southeastern part of the continent, those nations that once lived behind the Iron Curtain and where communist authorities and subsequent elected governments were often little trusted by the people, including on health advice.

Today, those nations — among them Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia — have by far the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.

“People don’t trust the state to act in the interest of the common good,” Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, in Austria, told Kroeger. “They don’t trust the messages coming from the state or even experts. They believe these are all driven by selfish interests.”

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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