As COVID-protocol protests run rampant in Europe, so does the deadly coronavirus itself.
Several governments in the once — and now current — pandemic epicenter have taken tough but necessary measures to stem what German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls a "highly dramatic" situation (quite an adjective for the decidedly undramatic politician).
Her health minister, Jens Spahn, spoke even more bluntly: By the end of winter, he said, "just about everyone in Germany will either be vaccinated, recovered, or dead."
So several European governments, with the right and responsibility to protect their people from any invasion, including a viral one, are taking action. For instance Austria — which along with neighboring nations Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic had the world's highest rate of reported new cases last week — went into its fourth lockdown.
The government shut down shops, cafes and restaurants, sporting venues and cultural institutions for at least 10 and as many as 20 days. More significantly, Vienna declared vaccinations mandatory by Feb. 1, becoming the first Western country to take such a step.
These prudent protections sparked protests, with at least 40,000 taking to Vienna's streets last weekend. Elsewhere, in several countries across the continent, including Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Croatia and the Netherlands, people gathered in public places to push back against renewed rules.
In many locations, violence erupted. Or an "orgy of violence," as the mayor of Rotterdam deemed it, adding that soccer hooligans were believed to be involved in incidents where police shot and wounded two protesters amid demonstrations in which police cars were burned and officers' lives reportedly endangered.
In Brussels, nearly 35,000 protested near the European Union headquarters, with some throwing stones and setting fires in incidents that resulted in more than 40 arrests and three injured officers. Belgium's prime minister, Alexander de Croo, defended the right to protest but rightly characterized the violence as "absolutely unacceptable."
These eruptions, some supported if not spurred by far-right parties, "fit into a worrisome trend, not just in Europe, but also here in the use of violence to make political points, and in particular using the COVID pandemic and the restrictions to put violence into the political system," Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told an editorial writer.
Curtin, a former Foreign Service officer, added that there are political implications in Europe. "It's the latest thing that the right wing has realized it can seize upon to promote its candidates' overall view of government."
The overall view of government in Western nations can best be boosted by ending the pandemic that is exhausting everyone, everywhere. And it's also necessary to arrest another epidemic: the erosion of democracy.
According to a bracing new report issued Monday by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, "The number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction. The pandemic has prolonged this existing negative trend into a five-year stretch, the longest such period since the start of the third wave of democratization in the 1970s."
Among the "most worrying examples of backsliding" are Slovenia, Poland and Hungary, as well as the U.S. itself. They and all democracies everywhere must resist the mob mentality that's only prolonging the pandemic.
"One of the really sadly ironic aspects of this is that the more that the response to COVID has been politicized, the more that the right — even though some are themselves vaccinated — are willing to use the anti-vax movement as a tool, obviously it is extending [the pandemic]," Curtin said.
It's also a factor in the democratic decline. So it's essential to end the pandemic through immunity. And that, said Spahn, Germany's health minister, "will be reached. The question is whether it's via vaccination or infection, and we explicitly recommend the path via vaccination."