Europe is currently entering what is being dubbed “the fourth wave” when it comes to COVID-19. Despite high levels of vaccination across the continent, governments have responded by once again tightening restrictions on normal life.
This new rise in COVID authoritarianism has provoked anger from already weary populations, sparking protests that have frequently turned violent.
The reintroduction of stricter COVID measures in Belgium saw tens of thousands take to the streets in protest. When some protesters deviated from the authorized route, they were met with police water cannons and arrests were made.
In the Netherlands, the introduction of a partial lockdown caused outrage, leading to confrontations whereby protesters were injured as they were shot by the police.
However, nowhere thus far has seen as terrifying a response to the rise in cases as Austria, where COVID authoritarianism is being taken to disturbing new levels.
What are the new measures introduced in Austria?
On Monday, November 22, 2021, Austria became the first EU country to reintroduce a full nationwide lockdown this season in response to rising COVID-19 cases. Only stores that sell items deemed essential are permitted to stay open, cultural activities have been forcibly cancelled, and individuals are forbidden from leaving their homes without a so-called “valid reason.”
This latest move may have come as a surprise to many, as the governing Austrian People’s Party had repeatedly rejected the idea of another lockdown, particularly for those vaccinated or having recovered from COVID-19.
Indeed, during the summer, then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz asserted to the Austrian public that, “for everyone who is vaccinated, the pandemic is now over.” As such, when a new lockdown was first proposed earlier in November, the original plan was for it to be a “lockdown of the unvaccinated.”
Austria currently has a vaccination rate of around 66 percent, which is comparatively low in relation to other EU countries. A lockdown discriminating against the unvaccinated would thus have seen a significant minority of the Austrian population deprived of the right to participate in society.
However, the idea of a lockdown for some was quickly shelved in favor of a lockdown for all, the fourth in Austria’s fight against COVID-19. Furthermore, Austria has also become the first country in the Western world to introduce a national vaccine mandate, joining the ranks of Indonesia, Micronesia, and Turkmenistan.
Three things are certain in Austria: death, taxes, and forced vaccinations
It’s not exactly clear how Austria’s national vaccine mandate will work in practice. However, the idea is that, starting in February 2022, refusing vaccination against COVID-19 will be illegal in Austria.
People rightly worry about a two-tier society, where those who are unvaccinated are simply excluded. But under Austria’s national vaccine mandate, those who do not comply will face administrative fines and eventually even the prospect of jail time.
These recent developments in Austria highlight the terrifying threat posed by governments to civil liberties in the name of public safety.
The more ethical approach to encouraging vaccine uptake would be to focus on highlighting the benefits of vaccination and promoting dialogue. Instead, the Austrian government has resorted to assaulting the concept of bodily autonomy by prosecuting those who would prefer not to be vaccinated.
Other than the obvious ethical considerations, while some will take the vaccine out of fear, the authoritarian approach will also result in many people becoming more defiant in their mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines.
Cue more riots, more conflict with the police, and more civil disturbances.
COVID authoritarianism must be rejected
Finding solutions in times of crisis requires more freedom, not less. Wary of rulers’ tendency to use crises as a means of consolidating their power, we must resist the tyrants’ plea.
If a country’s government claims the right to forcibly subject citizens to a medical intervention, even one which is beneficial, can that country be considered one in which liberty is even remotely valued?
Certainly not. Governments developed a taste for publicly legitimized control over their citizens with the first lockdown. As populations become increasingly vaccinated, the case for radical action becomes less and less convincing. We must fight this encroachment at every opportunity.
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