Tuesday, January 18

New COVID measures and restrictions spark protests across Europe, inciting anger

Thousands of protesters demonstrated across Europe this weekend, as nations moved to impose tougher measures to stop a new wave of COVID-19 infections caused by the highly communicable Omicron variant.

On Sunday, it was Brussels, where the protesters, some with signs that said “free zone”, “I have had my fair dose” and “enough is enough”, came to protest the strong advice of the government to get vaccinated.

The gathered crowd included Belgian healthcare workers who will either have a three-month window to get vaccinated against the coronavirus from January 1 or risk losing their jobs.

A heavy police presence was deployed in the streets in anticipation of the protest, as previous demonstrations had escalated into violence, arrests and injuries.

At a demonstration in Brussels last month, small fringes turned to violence as several hundred people began stoning police, smashing cars and setting garbage containers on fire. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.

What began as peaceful protests erupted into violence again, with all-too-familiar scenes of clouds of smoke and detained protesters repeating once again.

On Saturday, protesters marched through the streets of Paris and other cities in France to protest new government restrictions.

A larger-than-usual crowd had people chanting against the government’s planned vaccine pass, some carrying signs with slogans of freedom or comparing the measures to a “dictatorship.”

The French government proposed requiring proof of vaccination for those who enter restaurants, cafes and other public establishments.

In addition, the vaccination of children between the ages of 5 and 11 begins on Wednesday, another complaint voiced by protesters during the march.

Almost 3,000 people are in intensive care with COVID-19 in France.

Clashes and claims of ‘dictatorship’

In London, another demonstration on Saturday resulted in clashes between police and protesters.

Critics of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest coronavirus restrictions flooded Oxford Street, a popular London shopping area, blocking traffic as they marched with signs bearing slogans such as “Vaccine passports kill our freedoms” and “Don’t comply.”

Other posters had the faces of Johnson or UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid and read: “Give ’em the boot.”

Police confronted the protesters both in Parliament Square and later on the outskirts of Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence.

The clashes occurred when Omicron was confirmed to be the dominant variant in London, prompting the city’s mayor to declare a “major incident”.

Sadiq Khan underscored official concern over escalating cases and its potential to overwhelm the health care system by declaring a major incident, a move that allows city councils in the British capital to coordinate work more closely with emergency services.

That same night, demonstrations broke out in Barcelona against the recent introduction of COVID passports to access public spaces in the Catalan region.

The protest was held for the third week in a row, and organizers said they will continue as long as the current restrictions are maintained.

Richard, a 38-year-old hotel worker, said the mandatory COVID pass and other regulations were akin to “a dictatorship at this point,” and claimed it “reminds (of him) of Nazism.”

The protesters also gathered in Turin, The Hague and Vienna, among other places.

The far right exploits people’s fears

What stood out in all of these protests, but also in others that have taken place across the continent almost since the beginning of the pandemic, is the sometimes very vocal presence of conspiracy theorists interspersed with members of far-right groups, They seem to be capitalizing on people’s sense of insecurity and anger towards the government in tough times.

“COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for radicalization,” said Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

“It allows conspiracy theorists or extremists to create simple narratives, framing them as us versus them, good versus evil.”

Comparisons to the WWII Nazi German regime are becoming all too common, for example.

Yellow Stars of David, which draw a parallel between today’s anti-vaccines and the Holocaust, have appeared everywhere from Switzerland to Croatia.

Posters combining swastikas and vaccine injections could be seen at demonstrations in places like Spain and the Netherlands.

The same crowds can also feature people claiming the pandemic is a “Jewish conspiracy.”

Threats of violence against women, people of color and the LGBTI population have also become more prevalent, experts say.

Conspiracy theories can provide a sense of artificial control, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Laboratory at American University, which studies far-right extremism.

Various grievances and racial and ethnic hatred were only exacerbated by COVID-19, deepening the anger.

“COVID-19 has created fertile ground for recruitment because many people around the world feel unstable,” Miller-Idriss said.


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