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Germany’s vaccine mandate forges unlikely coalition of protesters

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Germany’s vaccine mandate forges unlikely coalition of protesters

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NUREMBERG, Germany — Maria Liebermann came wrapped in fairy lights and waved a peace flag with a white dove. Martin Schmidt carried a German flag with the word RESIST written on it in capital letters.

She describes herself as an “eco-leftist”. He votes for the far-right Alternative for Germany. They don’t agree on everything from immigration to climate change, but on a recent Monday they marched side by side against the prospect of a blanket Covid vaccination mandate, shouting “Freedom!”

At the start of the pandemic, Germany was widely hailed as a model of unity in the fight against the coronavirus. General trust in government has encouraged citizens to comply with lockdowns, mask advice and social distancing restrictions.

But that trust in authorities has steadily waned as the pandemic enters its third year and the fight has shifted to vaccines, exposing deep divisions in German society and setting back efforts to tackle cases. of Covid.

New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s plans to make the vaccine compulsory have galvanized a nationwide protest movement, mobilizing tens of thousands in marches in towns and villages every week, even as Covid cases reach new highs with the spread of the Omicron variant.

Germany, with a vaccination rate of 69%, has the highest share of unvaccinated people among large Western European countries, and its organized resistance to vaccines may be more pronounced than anywhere else in Europe.

Most Germans not only support vaccinations but also a vaccination mandate, but the opposition has forged an alliance of strange bedfellows that spans the political spectrum. Much of its center of gravity remains on the far right, giving new impetus to the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a party best known for its anti-immigrant views.

But the opposition is not limited to an extremist fringe. Anti-vax nationalists, neo-Nazis and hooligans are joined by hippies, so-called esoterics and many ordinary citizens scared of two years of lockdown, curfews and the prospect of a term.

They can all be found, sometimes walking within a few meters of each other, from Berlin and Hamburg in the north to Stuttgart and Munich in the south, and through towns and villages in the east and west. Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated, according to police estimates, in hundreds of decentralized demonstrations.

The diversity of the anti-vax movement was on display on a recent Monday evening in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where crowds made their way through the city center, banging drums, blowing whistles and, in at least one case, offering “cosmic energy” to passers-by.

There were naturalists and a handful of neo-Nazis — men holding signs against the “Great Reset,” code for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — as well as many families with children and pensioners carrying their own hand-drawn signs. hand.

“We are not guinea pigs,” read one sign. “Hands off our children,” read another. A slogan that figured prominently: “Liberty, freedom and democracy”.

Ms Liebermann, a 64-year-old retired physiotherapist, was among the protesters, blowing kisses to people watching the march from their windows.

“We are defending our constitutional rights,” she said. “A vaccine is an attack on bodily integrity. It’s perverse that the state, supposed to protect its citizens, wants to vaccinate us by force.

Asked if it bothered her that some of her fellow protesters weren’t afraid of their far-right views, Ms Liebermann shrugged defiantly. “This march is a mirror of society,” she said. “The AfD is part of society. We are all here to demonstrate against a vaccine mandate. »

German politicians had long ruled out a vaccine mandate. But even though studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent Covid infection – and avoid hospitalization or death if infected – persuade those who are deeply skeptical of vaccines s turned out to be virtually impossible.

Oliver Nachtwey, a sociologist at the University of Basel who has studied Germany’s coronavirus protest movement, calls the low vaccination rate a “political nonconformity”.

“People resist vaccinations,” Mr. Nachtwey said. “It’s a new and surprising movement because it connects two very distinct backgrounds – people who have an alternative background and who may have already voted Green or left, and people who are on the far right.”

In the former communist East, the anti-vax movement has been fueled mostly by a far-right ecosystem that ranges from the AfD to neo-Nazi groups like the Free Saxons and the Third Way, which have called for ‘hanging’ major politicians. .” The governors of two eastern states have received death threats from vaccine opponents in recent weeks.

In western Germany, the picture is more complicated.

A well-established tradition of homeopathy and natural remedies has meant that a certain distrust of science and medicine has long been widely accepted in the German middle class. Homeopathic doctors are commonplace, their services being reimbursed by mutual insurance companies. Germany’s new-age esoteric industry – books, crystals, courses and the like – brings in around 20 billion euros in revenue a year. Bavaria has the highest number of certified healers in the country.

Add to that a streak of romanticism about nature that dates back to the industrialization of Germany in the 19th century, and the German reaction to the vaccine is in some ways more common than marginal, said Miro Dittrich, founder and principal investigator at the CeMAS, an organization based in Berlin. research organization focused on misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“We were looking for the problem on the fringes of society, but it was always in our midst,” Dittrich said.

“There is a certain regressive, unscientific worldview that comes from the esoteric corner where alternative remedies have long been embedded in a certain green, leftist nonconformist milieu,” he added. “These are middle-class people who trust their feelings more than the experts, and in the pandemic that’s a problem.”

Unlike in the United States, where the anti-vax movement overlaps in many ways with the Republican Party, in Germany no political party has been able to capture the disparate groups of people taking to the streets.

“In Germany, we still don’t have the group polarization that we see in the United States,” said Edgar Grande, founding director of the Civil Society Research Center at the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin. “One party votes for the AfD. But these are mostly people who no longer feel represented by any party or group. They are politically homeless.

Sophia, a 22-year-old who describes herself as an “energetic healer” and who was chatting with friends about an hour before the Nuremberg march, lamented the lack of opposition from left-wing parties like the Greens who had traditionally challenged the status quo.

“Now they all support the vaccine mandate,” she said. In recent German elections, Sophia, who declined to give her surname, backed Basis, a newly founded anti-vax party that won less than 3% of the vote.

Sophia comes from a family of doctors, and her parents and older brother were fully vaccinated and urged her to do the same. But she worries the vaccine was developed too quickly and doesn’t trust the government to disclose serious side effects.

“My body is telling me that’s not a good idea,” she said. “I have a pretty good connection with my body.”

His friends agreed. “It’s not about keeping us healthy, it’s about giving us all a QR code,” said Stefan, a 35-year-old father of five who advocates civil disobedience and didn’t want either more than his full name is used. “They rule with fear. It’s a kind of tyranny.

“Traditional science is a religion,” he added.

Distrust of “mainstream science” and mainstream politics is something esotericism and the far right can agree on, said WZB’s Mr Grande.

“The common denominator is mistrust,” he said. “What unites these two very different groups is an alienation from mainstream parties, from science, from the media.”

Mr Grande said the high levels of trust in government shown by Germans at the start of the pandemic, when nine in 10 backed coronavirus restrictions, began to erode after the first lockdown as weariness in the face of the pandemic was taking hold.

The danger now, Mr Grande said, is that weekly contact with the far-right on the streets normalizes this group for those who belong to what he calls “the distrustful center”. Both camps share a belief in conspiracy theories, which have the power to radicalize the movement beyond the margins.

The vaccination mandate, which will be debated in parliament at the end of the month, is the decisive driver of the protests. “The vaccine mandate debate is fueling the fire of radicalization,” Grande said.

“I fear we have a difficult political phase ahead of us in this pandemic,” he said.

Germany’s vaccine mandate forges unlikely coalition of protesters

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