VIENNA – Singing “freedom” and “resistance”, thousands of Austrians marched through the heart of Vienna on Saturday, united in their anger over their government’s decision to impose a new lockdown and a broad vaccination mandate on the nationwide in an effort to quell a new resurgence of the coronavirus.
Vienna police estimated that up to 40,000 people participated in the march, both families and far-right groups. The protests were largely peaceful throughout the afternoon, but as dusk fell over the Austrian capital, skirmishes broke out between officers and groups of protesters.
The scale of the turnout surprised officials and reflected the depth of opposition to government efforts to crack down on those who continue to resist vaccination, nearly two years after the pandemic first reached Europe .
But with new infections multiplying among the unvaccinated in Europe, the president of Slovakia, Austria’s neighbor to the east, became the latest on Saturday to raise the prospect of making vaccines compulsory for all adults.
In Vienna, members of far-right groups and others threw beer cans at officers and set off fireworks at locations along the road, police officials said. At least five people have been arrested, they said, and several more have been reported for violations involving not wearing masks or displaying stars like the ones the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust .
At other locations along the route, protesters banged drums and rang cowbells to express frustration at measures to stop the rampant wave of coronavirus, including a ladder lockdown national from Monday. Many protesters complained that their leaders had not done enough before imposing drastic measures.
Among the demonstrators was Katja Schoissenger, mother of two young children from Vienna, who carried a sign reading âFreedom, peace and humanityâ. She said she was angry at the limitations on the unvaccinated.
Since Monday, those who have not been able to provide proof of vaccination or recent recovery from the coronavirus have been excluded from public life, both indoors and outdoors, with police carrying out spot checks in restaurants and the parks.
âSociety is overwhelmingly divided and opposed to a group of people who are excluded from public life and forced to do things we don’t want to do,â Ms. Schoissenger said. âI have nothing against people who want to be vaccinated. It is a free decision, and I think it is correct and legitimate, but I am a young and healthy person and it is not a problem for me.
More than a third of the Austrian population is unvaccinated, one of the highest proportions in Europe. At the same time, the number of new infections has skyrocketed in recent weeks, and the 15,809 cases reported on Saturday set a record.
The number of unvaccinated people is straining the Austrian health system. Daily deaths have risen from an average single digit in late September to over 40, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.
The Populist Freedom Party, which has vigorously opposed government restrictions on coronaviruses over the past 18 months, helped organize Saturday’s protests, attracting far-right groups and conspiracy theorists from across the country and from neighboring Germany.
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“We are all Austrians, whether we are vaccinated or not,” Udo Landbauer, a regional party leader, told the crowd at a rally on Heldenplatz, a public space in Vienna. “We have rights, and we will continue to make noise until we get our basic rights back.”
Recent surveys show that vaccination is currently the most divisive issue in Austrian society, and some observers fear that the imposition of new restrictions may widen the gap.
“With the situation increasingly tense, I would expect the conflict we already have to get worse,” Julia PartheymÃ¼ller, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, told public broadcaster ORF.
As night fell on Saturday, scenes of conflict in the city reflected these divisions: several dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the Chancellery for a torchlight rally with speeches deploring the new measures. Across the road, residents sipped mulled wine and ate candied nuts in anticipation of the Christmas season – a season that will be limited now as the lockdown goes into effect on Monday.
Besmira Aleksi, a sociology student at the University of Vienna, turned out to be organizing her own small protest – against protesters who she said did not understand how dangerous the virus is.
âShame on you,â she shouted over the din of drums and a megaphone, as police escorted a protester from the scene. She said she had hoped to find a counter-demonstration, but when there was none, she came out on her own.
âNo one is violating your rights,â Ms. Aleksi shouted to the crowd. âYou are here to exercise them. “