Far right spies an opportunity in Europe’s new wave of Covid pain and protest

LONDON — As the Covid-19 crisis in Europe intensifies, so too have the cries of protest from those opposed to the lockdowns and vaccine mandates now faced by parts of the continent.

While vaccine skepticism is nothing new in the region, the sometimes violent demonstrations of the last few days and weeks have a relatively new element: the radical far right.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization described the challenge faced by Europe as “very serious,” with almost 4,200 deaths a day recorded last week — compared to 2,100 a day in September. The overall death toll across the continent could rise from the current 1.5 million to 2.2 million by spring 2022, the WHO said.

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But that warning came after a weekend of protests against measures to curb the virus. Police said 40,000 protesters descended on downtown Vienna, the home of one of the continent’s worst outbreaks, which entered its fourth national lockdown Monday.

The Vienna rally was organized by the far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest political party in Austria, which experts say has used the pandemic to further its anti-establishment credentials and re-establish public support after a high-profile scandal.

“STOPP Impffaschismus,” (stop vaccine fascism) one sign in Vienna read. “Kontrolliert die Grenze, nicht euer volk,” (control the border, not your people) another said — just some of the slogans mixing vaccine skepticism with right-wing ideology.

At least one “Q” sign was on display in Vienna, signaling support for QAnon, the outlandish conspiracy theory associated with some supporters of former President Donald Trump and some participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. 

A sign that reads “stop vaccine fascism” during a protest in Vienna. Florian Schroetter / AP

Similar protests and signs could be seen in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Croatia.

Freedom Party Chairman Herbert Kickl has championed the anti-vaccine movement in Austria. Kickl himself tested positive for Covid in the days before Saturday’s rally, forcing him to stay home.

“He has politically mobilized against the Covid-19 vaccines,” said Katharina T. Paul, an expert on vaccine hesitancy at the University of Vienna. “He has disseminated misinformation, to put it mildly.”

“I think he and the Freedom Party play a significant role in the mobilization of the politicalization of the vaccine,” she added. “What’s particular about Austria, especially recently, is the relationship between populism on the one hand and vaccine hesitancy on the other. This is not specific to Austria — we’ve seen it in Italy and France — but Austria does stand out.”

Austria has a long history of vaccine hesitancy, but what’s happening now is unprecedented, Paul said.

The Freedom Party — which did not respond to a request for comment — jointly ruled Austria for 16 months until a scandal brought down its leader and chancellor at the time, Heinz-Christian Strache, in 2019. Austria is currently governed by the center-right Austrian People’s Party, in a coalition with the Austrian Greens.

From February 2022 all Austrians will be required…

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