America’s worship of civil liberties was on display as anti-lockdown protests swept from Lansing, Mich., to San Diego, and from Madison, Wis., to Boston’s Beacon Hill. From London to Seine-Saint Denis, from Munich to Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, a similar defiance of state intrusion is now arising in parts of Europe. As in the United States, the question is still open: Will these protests channel the growing lockdown fatigue into a cogent, constructive case for reopening, or will they descend into paranoia?
A recent hotspot of anti-lockdown fuss has been Germany, where both media and the government have raised the alarm about the far right’s sway in driving people to break the quarantine and social-distancing rules. This past weekend saw radical groups co-opt protests in Dortmund and Munich, where a reporter was attacked and police had to disperse 25 vandals, respectively. A reporting crew from the center-left late-night satirical heute-show was similarly assaulted in Berlin the previous weekend, claiming the popular Moroccan-German comedian Abdelkarim as a victim. Germany’s crippling memory of extremism (so-called Vergangenheitsbewältigung) has a way of penalizing political deviance on the right to this day, and these acts of violence surely didn’t help give the protests a good name in the public eye, either.
Resistance to lockdowns has gotten a bad name in France, too, after a young local from Villeneuve-la-Garenne was thrown off his motorbike and sent to the hospital with a broken leg by a police-car door flung open. The incident sparked a wave of riots across the northern Paris suburbs reminiscent of the three-week-long émeutes in 2005 that saw 8,000 cars set ablaze by restless youths protesting police abuse. The quarantine has brought long-simmering tensions in these largely low-income, immigrant, and poorly housed suburbs to a boiling point, with locals decrying heavy-handed policing, spending cuts in public services, and the unequal impact of school closures that leave low-income kids lacking Internet access with little means to keep up with schoolwork.
It is certainly true that the protests in Europe have attracted marginal actors and alt-right conspiracists, as have those in the States. But labeling all lockdown dissenters as somehow neo-Nazi or racailles misses the forest for the trees.
In Germany, a closer look at the protests and public opinion reveals that quarantine fatigue is gradually taking root among the general population. Nearby the 25 hecklers dispersed in Munich, another 3,000 demonstrators were similarly flouting social-distancing rules, although for their non-violence police refrained from interfering “on the grounds of proportionality.” Peaceful protests have also been held in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, among other German cities. As Chancellor Merkel warns länders not to reopen too quickly, the country’s per capita death rate remains one of Europe’s lowest, in view of which the public gradually begins to question the health benefits of keeping the economy in lockdown. When stay-at-home orders were issued federally in mid-March, 92 percent of Germans supported the orders, but only two-thirds do so now, according to an official poll by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Claims that the government is inflating the risks posed by COVID and accompanying calls to reopen businesses are being spearheaded by the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). But they’re by no means limited to it. The lockdown battles have pitted the Große Koalition of Merkel’s center-right CDU-CSU and the social-democrat SPD against a big-tent coalition of skeptics, including some centrists. Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal FDP, whom the AfD’s support briefly propelled to state premier of Thuringia earlier this year, was seen at another anti-lockdown protest in Gura last weekend. He was swiftly rebuked by his party for it, but his presence shows that cracks are starting to appear, and societal support for the lockdown is waning. At several of these protests, mottos against Big Pharma were chanted, suggesting that even some of the far left may have been drawn to them.
Calls to prevent further economic pain through a swift reopening are being echoed in similar terms across the continent. Some of the lockdown’s earliest victims include cross-border workers from neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic, left stranded on both sides of the German border when all travel was banned. Groups of Polish workers have been seen protesting these measures by waving EU flags near the Zgorzeleg-Golitz border. As many as 20,000 Poles work in bordering Saxony, more than half of whom live in Poland and thus cross the border daily. Protests of this sort have spanned many other parts of the continent, including Belgium, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Georgia, and even Russia.
These protests aren’t just menaced by adventitious presence from the far right. Distrust of heavy-handed governmental power, even when warranted by a most deadly virus, rarely fails to attract conspiracists, and thriving beyond the unsavory fringes of society largely depends on keeping them at bay. In London, around 50 people gathered near Westminster Bridge on Saturday, blending much the same civil libertarianism that has erupted in the U.S. (“common law is sacred law” read one of their banners) with the wildest conspiracies around vaccines and 5G. The crowd derided COVID-19 as a “scamdemic” and a mere front for the world’s powerful to plot for control of their lives, blaming governments for bubbling up the death toll for a disease that they claim is less deadly than the flu. When not altogether negated, the health risk is oftentimes unfoundedly associated with 5G deployment, a conspiracy that lies at the root of several discrete instances of 5G tower-busting, proving that the fears stoked are real and run deep. “Even the bats didn’t know the hoax would last this long,” read another banner at the London gathering.
When COVID-19 and the accompanying health vs. economy tradeoffs are instead reckoned with, these protests are guaranteed a better image. A case in point is Austria, where the Initiative for Evidence-based Corona Information (ICI) has drawn several hundred to demand Chancellor Kurz’s resignation outside the Vienna State Opera several times in the past two weeks in defiance of bans, even warning of further mobilization. ICI seeks to give a voice to a wide cross-section of Austrian society whose lives have been impacted by the lockdowns, even offering pro-bono legal support to those claiming abuse by the police for breaking the quarantine.
But more than on civic mobilization, ICI’s claim to legitimacy ultimately hinges on its leveraging of science. The group was started by physician and epidemiologist Dr. Christian Fiala and claims to “put facts over panic” by publicizing a rolling stream of academic papers running counter to what they term as the “prevailing corona-alarmist orthodoxies.” One such piece of research was carried out by Germany’s CDC-equivalent, the Robert Koch Institute, and argues that the compulsory wearing of face masks may turn counterproductive when, upon several uses, the warmth and moisture of a mask ends up attracting viruses and bacteria instead of repelling them. ICI has launched a campaign on this basis calling on Austrians to label their masks mund-tot (mouth-dead or silenced), equating Chancellor Kurz’s response to the virus to some form of censure.
ICI’s reliance on science, however, may ultimately backfire. These appeals to heed the experts, when made in the early phases of the virus, were quickly voided by COVID’s unforeseen ravages. ICI’s uncompromising posture on civil liberties, echoed in protests across the continent, may also lead to a dead end when set against its urgent calls to lift the lockdowns. The two imperatives will be hard to square if and when new data-intensive technology of the contact-tracing sort arises as the best hope to ease the quarantines. It isn’t clear that people’s yearning for civil liberties will take precedent over lockdown fatigue in that scenario. This is not to mention Dr. Fiala’s dubious credentials, having made a name for himself advocating HIV denialism and running a popular abortion clinic in Vienna. He surely would rather not have conspiracy theorizing turned on his support of lifting quarantines.
Europe’s entire debate around the path to normality, in fact, looks increasingly like hit-or-miss, no less than in America. Absent conclusive evidence advising one pace of reopening or another, it has taken the shape of dueling wagers by hazily drawn constituencies struggling to substantiate with facts and numbers their instinctive weighing of economics relative to public health. Europe’s reopeners are no less angsty than in America, but their need for a fact-based, sound case may be greater. Natural rights and civil liberties are less instinctively understood and defended in Europe, so without it, they risk attracting even more of the unsavory characters seen parading in the downtown streets of Austin and Philadelphia.
For this, don’t blame those who in good faith seek to chart a workable path out of costly lockdowns, for the experts are guessing their way out of this crisis, too.