Frustrations Explode Over COVID Measures

By Florian Kappelsberger

“Ich bin ungeimpft, ungeimpft, ungeimpft…” Some protestors joyously sang along to a current upbeat pop song by Björn Banane, blasting out from mobile speakers as they slowly marched down the Ringstraße. Known for Mallorca-style party anthems like Biergit or Bärbels Busen, the singer from Berlin is symptomatic of a curious musical niche that has emerged almost instantaneously around the heterogenous Covid protest movement, which has recently seen frustrations explode. On this Saturday, his aptly titled song Ungeimpft – “unvaccinated” – provided the soundtrack to the demonstration that crossed Vienna’s inner city, floating above a sea of red-white-red Austrian flags, conspiracy-theorist placards and wafts of incense.

More than 40,000 people from all over the country as well as abroad came together in the Austrian capital on Saturday, December 4, to protest the ongoing lockdown and the vaccine mandate planned for February. Thus, for the third successive weekend, Vienna witnessed a curious mélange in the crowds gathering on Heldenplatz and parading on the Ringstraße. The police, too, turned out in large numbers, in the end some 1,200 strong from the city and surrounding provinces.

The march was led by high-ranking members of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), who had called for the demonstration. Party leader Herbert Kickl was, however, unable to attend, as he was in quarantine since testing positive for Covid-19. Thus it was that FPÖ deputy Dagmar Belakowitsch took the stage. The hospital intensive care units were overflowing, she admitted, but not with unvaccinated persons who had become seriously ill with Covid, as the government claimed, but with people suffering from “vaccine damage”. Upon questioning, Both Belakowitsch and the FPÖ refused to elaborate, provoking outrage in all other major parties. “This is not even fake news, those are straight-up lies,” SPÖ deputy Jörg Leichtfried commented in ORF2’s talkshow Im Zentrum.

Other notorious figures of the extreme right had also joined the march, figures such as the neo-Nazi Gottfried Küssel and Martin Sellner, leader of the Austrian Identitäre Bewegung. Their followers brandished Austrian flags (sometimes upside-down), placards denouncing an imagined ‘great replacement’ or symbols of the QAnon movement.

Violence and tear gas

But among the 40,000, there were many who offered a striking contrast to the militant nationalist minority: parents concerned for their children, fervent Christians, and esoteric believers, carrying drums and waving incense while calling for purity of mind and body. Some said they feared negative consequences of the vaccine, citing the absence of long-term studies. “For me, the risks of the side-effects are simply not worth taking,” one participant told the national broadcaster ORF. Fears, however, that have repeatedly been refuted by doctors and vaccine experts.

At the same time, a loose association of left-wing groups were on the march with a counter-protest titled “Against Nazis, the State and Capitalism”. Starting out at the Stephansplatz, the participants moved on to Schwedenplatz, setting up a stage and blocking traffic. There, speakers demanded unity and international cooperation in the struggle against what they branded as a fascist, anti-Semitic threat. “We are here to show: We want to fight this pandemic together, but with solidarity,” one participant told ORF. The police took great pains to keep right-wing activists separate from the counter-protesters, whose number was estimated by police at 1,500.

While the demonstration remained peaceful through the afternoon, towards the evening, the atmosphere became more tense. Protestors threw bottles and flares at the police, bathing the 19th century Gründerzeit façades in bright red light. Some broke through the barriers and clashed violently with law enforcement, that responded with tear gas.

At the end of the day, 621 demonstrators were charged, five arrested and two police officers wounded. Austria’s new chancellor, former interior minister Karl Nehammer, criticized the behaviour of certain demonstrators as “anti-democratic and lacking in solidarity“.

The spectre of a radicalized protest movement

It remains to be seen how this situation will evolve over the coming weeks. With only 67% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID, Austria has one of the lowest rates in all of western Europe. Although case numbers have fallen significantly since the imposition of a strict lockdown for all citizens on November 22, the incidence remains at the alarmingly high level of 535 with 5,663 new infections daily. Meanwhile, intensive care units in heavily hit regions such as Upper Austria and Salzburg are reaching the limits of their capacity, as ORF reported.

Chancellor Nehammer has confirmed that the nation-wide lockdown will end on December 12 for vaccinated people, but the restrictions will remain in place for the unvaccinated. At the same time, the government is preparing a vaccine mandate in force as of February 2022. A preliminary draft, analysed by ORF’s Zeit im Bild, proposes a fine of up to 600 euros every three months for people who refuse the vaccination.

It seems unlikely that either of these measures will smooth the waters among the heterogeneous group of roughly two million unvaccinated people in Austria, as the FPÖ and other far-right activists continue to exploit the growing tensions to undermine the turquoise-green coalition.