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CWA # 663, 29 January 2022

NIAS Europe Monitor
Mapping COVID-19 protests in Europe: Who and Why

  Padmashree Anandhan

There is a shift in the mindsets of the protestors from losing confidence in the government to asking for individual freedom.

On 2 January, Amsterdam witnessed demonstrations despite the Sunday ban on public gatherings. According to a police statement, four were injured, and 30 were detained.  

On 4 January, Czech firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers voiced their concerns and signed a petition to withdraw the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. On 8 January, the French parliament's lower house passed a bill that replaced the option of showing a negative result of the COVID-19 test with a mandate to show a fully vaccinated certificate to enter public places. On the same day, Germany also witnessed protests from Hamburg, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and Koblenz. 

Nature of protests

Europe has witnessed more protests, than the other regions. Within Europe, Germany and the countries surrounding it, Austria, Vienna, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg have witnessed numerous protests.

A major trigger for these protests has been the partial lockdown of public spaces such as restaurants and theatres, the government's inability to provide effective treatment and the imposing of the vaccine mandate on the working population. 

The intensity of these protests is increasing. For example, in the Netherlands, the count of protesters has decreased, but it has become more aggressive. From protesting for the ban on the vaccine mandate, the Amsterdam protests demanded freedom and less repression from the government. In places where mass demonstrations took place, protesters threw glass bottles, sprayed chemicals at police, and some even demanded the government to step down. 

The change in the nature of these protests can be due to the change in the protestors' backgrounds. The participation of people from various social, religious and political groups, shows how the political element has now synced into the COVID-19 protest.

Who are the protestors?

Overall demography of the protestors belonged to the working class or a particular group of workers who were pushed to get vaccinated. The Anti-vaxxers accumulated most of these protests, but analysts observe that people from different social and religious groups are also involved in these protests. For example, in Vienna, the protestors belonged to the far-right Freedom Party of Austria. Also, supporters from the members of the conservative Catholic community are seen promoting the gatherings.

The demographic link is another factor to be observed. In most of the protests that occurred in France and Belgium, the anti-vaxxer population consisted of unvaccinated youth. The rioting youth threw stones, fireworks and engaged in physical clashes with the police. One of the reasons behind the youth turning aggressive is due to the impact caused by the vaccine mandate on their education, part-time jobs, and restrictions to enter social spaces. Due to the pandemic, they have faced difficulties in acquiring their university degree. They have lost their wages from part-time jobs as they cannot enter the supermarkets or any similar workspaces, and have a huge effect on their social life. Other protestors include those running small businesses. With a slow recovery from the pandemic losses, the additional imposition of the vaccine mandate means the loss of more customers to their restaurants, coffee shops, and similar venues.

In Germany, the torchlit rally outside the house of Germany's health minister Petra Köpping was carried out by the Free Saxons, classified as a right-wing extremist group in Germany. The group has also voiced a similar concern loudly on Twitter. 

In the Netherlands, there was no division in terms of religious groups. However, both evangelical Christians and hooligans were involved in the protests. Apart from them, there are also political supporters involved in aggravating the protests against the present government. Therefore, the protests are moving slowly from the focus of COVID-19 measures to pursuing their own motivations. 

State response 

On 5 January, President Emmanuel Macron warned that the "life of the people will be made difficult" if left unvaccinated. He warned that those who remain unvaccinated would be strictly barred from coffee shops and other public places. In Amsterdam, many were detained by the Dutch police. 

The handling of the protests is more important, as it is crucial to keep up with the domestic goodwill and international reputation, especially for a few leaders who are nearing elections like Macron and those who have just taken up the leadership like Olaf Scholz. The former German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed a tight health model by shifting from 3G to 2G+rule. Under the 3G rule, only the employees were asked to submit their vaccination proof and negative tests done in the last 24 hours. In the 2G+, the same was mandated not only in workplaces but to all public places. If the new coalition continues such repressive regulations, then the result is more likely to be protests in Germany. 

Here the political leaders face huge political pressure to control the spread of covid. Macron, who has achieved the maximum vaccination rate in the region, is pushing further. While Germany's new government Olaf Scholz has just taken up leadership and doesn't want to earn people's hate. And is slow in imposing restrictions compared to other governments. 

To conclude, protests in Europe show the following trends: utilization of the protest by the right-wing politicians in Europe to sabotage the image of the ruling government; issues within Europe to handle the next (fourth) wave; and a shift in the mindsets of the protestors from losing confidence in the government to asking for individual freedom.

References:

"Amsterdam: Thousands protest COVID measures despite ban on gatherings," Deutsche Welle, 02 January 2022

"Covid: President Macron warns he will 'hassle' France's unvaccinated," BBC, 05 January 2022

"What is behind the COVID protests across Europe?," Deutsche Welle, 09 December 2022

"Germany: Torchlit rally against COVID measures in Saxony prompts outcry," Deutsche Welle, 06 December 2021

Jon Henley, "Violence in Belgium and Netherlands as Covid protests erupt across Europe," The Guardian, 21 November 2021


About the author

Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Her areas of interest are Europe and Maritime Studies.

 

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