Deciding that Covid-19 is a thing of the past brings its comforts. Many of us have already taken strongly to the maxim. But Ireland right now is just a bit ahead of the curve compared with other EU states as authorities taper their virus responses according to local conditions.
On Tuesday, the Austrian government will begin its mandatory vaccination regime. From mid-March, fines of up to €3,600 for those who fail to get their first vaccination will concentrate unjabbed citizens’ minds. Meanwhile, the jabbed citizens are invited to join a lottery to win vouchers worth €500, usable in shops, hotels and leisure centres.
With three out of 10 people across the European Union still not vaccinated against Covid, the issue of whether or not to jab remains a very contentious one.
Last Sunday, in the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels, 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets in protest against tight Covid restrictions.
A section of the crowd, estimated by the Brussels mayor’s office to be around 300, resorted to violence. The Belgian news agency, Belga, later reported that up to 70 people were detained by police for possessing dangerous objects and damaging property. Fifteen people – 12 demonstrators and three police officers – were hospitalised, but nobody was badly hurt.
The brunt of the damage was visited upon EU offices in the Schuman area. The EU’s foreign policy head, Josep Borrell, took a moment out from pondering the Ukraine crisis to tweet a photo of a broken window with a message condemning the “senseless destruction” and thanking the police.
Officers had used water cannon and tear gas to repel protesters who threw street paving stones and firecrackers. It was the latest in a long line of protests, some of which involved violent incidents, in the Belgian capital and elsewhere, including cities in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Germany.
The protesters were mainly Belgian, but there were people of other nationalities. German, French and Polish flags were unfurled during the demonstration.
There is a clear and recognised correlation with hard-right political parties and these types of demonstrations. However, discontent with restrictions and suspicion of vaccination is by no means a monopoly of the political right.
The vast majority of mainstream political parties utterly endorse vaccination and have, by and large, supported most restrictions as unavoidable.
When Austrian MPs pushed through the mandatory vaccination law 10 days ago, the only dissenting voice was the hard-right Freedom Party, whose leader, Herbert Kickl, warned it “paves the way for totalitarianism”.
During one protest march in Vienna last November, a few people displayed Nazi emblems, which are banned by Austrian law. Others wore a yellow star, likening themselves to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
This issue of the yellow star was taken up on Thursday, which was Holocaust Memorial Day. Comparing the horrors of the Holocaust with pandemic restrictions amounts to warped outrage.
The Austrian justice minister, Karl Nehammer, late last year said the head of government and the health minister had received death threats. When the Netherlands’ new government was sworn in earlier this month, new finance minister Sigrid Kaag was under police protection following similar threats.
The strong hope in Ireland, and all across the world, is that Covid is in retreat. But the issue of precautionary restrictions and vaccination will be with us for some time to come. The fact that 50,000 people took to the streets of Brussels shows just how volatile things can become.
Ireland has come through well on this issue, benefitting from having a relatively small and largely homogenous population. But the Irish Government and the health authorities are also entitled to kudos.
It is not yet known in Brussels when or where the next demonstrations are likely, but the organisers are going to pursue their agenda while this is still a contentious issue.
Meanwhile, Belgian justice minister Annelies Verlinden has told national radio that the police are poring over footage of last Sunday’s events to pinpoint radical ringleaders and troublemakers. A pretty firm law-and-order response is expected here.