Austria Under the Covid (And Trump) Spell

It was an impressive crowd: on December 19th, a Sunday evening, more than 30.000 people, candles in their hands, their mouths and noses covered with masks, filled the „Ringstrasse“, the major artery surrounding Vienna’s inner district, and – stood silent. In a spontaneous operation, thought up by the teacher David Landau and two other


volunteers only a few days earlier,  they commemorated the more than 13.000 Covid related deaths but also acknowledged the doctors, nurses and paramedics who have been working tirelessly 24/7 since March of 2020. Just like the impressive „Lichtermeer“ (sea of lights) almost 30 years ago it also had a political undertone: was it then a quiet protest against the late populist leader Jörg Haider’s anti-immigrant vendettas, this time they came to upstage one of his successor’s use of the pandemic to gain notoriety.

Every weekend some 40.000 to 50.000 demonstrators march through Vienna and other major cities of Austria to protest Corona restrictions. It is a strange mix: families with small children who claim that the sanctity of their body is under threat; those who subscribe to esotericism and homeopathic drugs. Others, mainly supporting the right-wing „Freedom Party“ (FPÖ), are holding placards which blare: „Control our borders not our people!“ Those still further to the right blame the government for „planning a genocide.“ Much of their hate, in an ominous sign, bears the trade mark of Donald Trump: „Fake News“ or, worse, „Lying Press“ the demonstrators shout toward the cameras and the reporters. Snow balls and even ice rocks were flung at the journalists. Last week marches to media houses were organized to protest, what they  claim, the „biased reporting“. Their opposition towards the establishment is apparent. They regularly ridicule the government, vilify the authorities and belittle scientists. „At present, Corona deniers pose the biggest security risk to our country,“ the head of the federal office for the protection of the constitution said in an interview with the daily Der Standard.

The overriding issue is their opposition to the vaccination drive, even before the government announced that anti-Covid jabs will be mandated by February 1, 2022. The rallies have staunch political support by Herbert Kickl, the leader of the rightist Freedom Party. Kickl has been one of the major speakers at the rallies from the beginning and  – after being stricken with mild symptoms of Corona by the end of November – has been back on the stage to incite the crowd every Saturday since. Once he promoted „Ivermectin“ (a medical product for horses against worm infestation) as a remedy against Covid-19. Soon thereafter the drug was sold out in parts of the country. At least two people have reportedly died from taking the medication.

Just like at Pro-Trump rallies, at every march well-known supporters of the extreme right pop up – they carry with them Nazi paraphernalia and occasionally lift their right arm to imitate the Hitler-salute. In a bizarre turnaround of history, some also stitch to their coats the yellow star of David – thereby putting themselves on par with Jews before and during World War Two.  

Aside from the big and noisy but – still – relatively peaceful marches in the cities there are some dangerous aberrations: people demonstrate in front of hospitals, threatening nurses and doctors who treat Corona patients. The other day, an ambulance had to take a detour to the hospital in Linz as the direct route was blocked by the anti-vaxx  movement. Recently, in the state of Upper Austria (which long had the lowest vaccination rate and the highest number of incidences), hospital staff was supplied with pepper spray cans to ward off possible attacks. 

Upper Austria is a particular case in point: before regional elections were held in that province in late September, the governments, both the regional in its capital of Linz and the federal in Vienna, Covid was practically hushed up. No new measures were introduced, vaccination drives were low key. All this to not antagonize the Freedom Party which is part of the government in Upper Austria. Amidst all this a newly founded right-wing party, MFG (Menschen, Freiheit, Grundrechte, loosely translated people, freedom, fundamental rights) blossomed by vehemently denying any adverse effects from contracting Covid-19. The party managed to gain three seats in the Upper Austrian diet. Only after the elections were over did the authorities act.  Too late, as it turned out. Hospitals became quickly overcrowded and because ICUs were over capacity, some surgeries even had to be postponed. 

While the opposition to the government’s mandated infringements is a small group  (considering that about 1,2 million of the roughly 9 million Austrians are still not vaccinated) they are getting vocally more and more violent. This is particularly true for social media: in a video a young woman claimed that if the police knock at her door to take her children (apparently to force-vaccinate them) she will kill herself, or the children or the police, it wasn’t quite clear. But she got hundreds of thousands of clicks. And the situation is getting worse: physicians who support vaccinations are being threatened, some fear for their lives and set up security personnel.

Recently, the nation-wide daily„Kleine Zeitung“ tried a different approach to temper the hate-filled atmosphere: it invited the rector of the medical university of Graz, Hellmut Samonigg, and Maria Hubmer-Mogg, a belligerent anti-Covid activist who was stripped of her doctorate, to a public dispute. The scientist courageously dispelled each and every of her arguments, but they hardly found common ground. In the end, though, they reached a compromise: he would be allowed to speak at one of the upcoming anti-Covid rallies. This kind of rapprochement did not last long: the police advised against his appearance. They could not vouch for his personal safety. 

Copyright © 2019 Eugen Freund.