Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Vienna on Saturday, the second weekend of mass protesting over the Austrian government’s decision to impose a tough new lockdown and plan a sweeping nationwide vaccine mandate in the fight against a sharp surge in coronavirus cases and rising deaths.
The crowd was over 40,000 strong, the Vienna police said in a tweet, and around 1,500 people staged counterprotests. The demonstration was largely peaceful, but the police reported that some protesters had thrown pyrotechnic objects. There were some arrests, and the police said they used pepper spray to try to disperse the crowds.
The far-right Freedom Party, the third-largest group in Parliament, has led the opposition to the new pandemic measures. The party has amplified conspiracy theories about the vaccines, spreading doubt about their effectiveness, while promoting ivermectin, a drug typically used to deworm animals that has repeatedly failed against the coronavirus in clinical trials. People carried signs that read, “I will decide for myself,” and “Make Austria Great Again,” according to Reuters.
Protesters gathered elsewhere in Europe on Saturday, notably in the Netherlands. Several thousand people gathered in the central Dutch town of Utrecht, 30 miles south of Amsterdam, to protest against new coronavirus restrictions on businesses that will be in place until Dec. 19. Two weeks earlier, Dutch marches turned violent over the government’s plan to ban most unvaccinated people from bars, restaurants and other public places.
Cases have fallen sharply in Austria since Nov. 22, when it became the first country in Western Europe to reimpose a lockdown, allowing people to leave home only to go to work or to procure groceries or medicine. A surge that began in the summer had quickly escalated, giving Austria its highest caseload of the pandemic and rising deaths. The lockdown is set to last until mid-December.
The moves come after months of struggling attempts to halt the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions. Austria had originally placed a lockdown on only those who were unvaccinated.
Austria has also announced that vaccination would become compulsory as of Feb. 1, making it the first Western country to take that step, and one of only a handful around the world. Some critics, including the editorial board of The Financial Times, have said the plan exacts too high a price in terms of individual freedom and see it a sign of political failure.
On Saturday, Austria was averaging more than 9,000 new cases daily, and average daily Covid deaths had reached more than 58, after falling to near zero during the summer, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University. About 67 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, a lower level than many of its Western European neighbors, but higher than many in the former Eastern bloc.