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.

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

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.

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.

“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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