Whether one wants to describe their collective motivation as anti-lockdown, vaccine sceptic, or plain old conspiratorial, the appearance of this amorphous, many-headed collection of pandemic non-conformists has been a major part of the story of the last eighteen months.
Although protests against pandemic restrictions had been taking place across Europe and America since the first lockdowns were implemented in Spring of 2020, the appearance of various forms of vaccination pass restricting access to a wide range of spaces has galvanised multiple strains of opposition and demonstrations from London to Berlin, Paris, and as far as Sydney.
These vaccine passes, which have the potential to radically alter the way citizens interact within civil society and risk creating a new category of legally discriminated persons, deserve thorough public and democratic scrutiny as to their benefits, consequences, and the conditions under which they will be removed.
That scrutiny has been almost entirely absent from within Europe’s legislative bodies, which have instead been sidelined by a combination of emergency executive powers and the dead hand of unquestionable technocratic necessity.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government has so far resisted demands to recall Parliament from its summer recess to debate the issue, as plans for the implementation of vaccine passes for access to “nightclubs and large-scale events” continue at pace.
Public opinion on the other hand, when it is not lining up square behind the official response, is dominated by this aggregation of pandemic non-conformists who the philosopher Benjamin Bratton has unfairly described as a sadly familiar coalition of the uninformed, the misinformed, the misguided, and the misanthropic.
Bratton’s dismissive attitude is indicative of a no less concerning trend where public discourse on the vaccine program and pandemic response more generally is taking on a tribal, polarised form more consistent with US-style culture wars and Brexit in the UK.
A Europe-Wide Movement
In late July I witnessed the London gathering for the ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom’; essentially a static protest at Trafalgar Square followed by a march down Whitehall.
It was a crowd the likes of which I’d never seen at a London protest before. Attendees were overwhelmingly white and at a guess the average age considerably higher than typical of pro-Palestine or Brexit marches (both Leave and Remain) over recent years.
Based on my limited survey, many of the protestors seem to have travelled into the city from more rural parts of the country. Few seemed to have much past experience of political activism.
From the stage erected outside the National Gallery, Kate Shemirani, a former nurse and one of most vociferous in comparing pandemic restrictions to Nazi atrocities whipped up the crowd with thinly veiled threats against medical staff who administer vaccines.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan later requested the police investigate her remarks amid fears over the safety of doctors and nurses.
Shemirani rounded off her speech with a strikingly aggressive rendition of the Lord’s Prayer – “When you say it, it increases your body’s vibrations” – was received by the faithful with cheers as baffled shoppers and tourists looked on.
Shemirani wasn’t alone in drawing parallels with twentieth-century totalitarianism. Several of the other speakers, many of whom have become regular features at these events, made similar claims.
Amongst the homemade banners espousing anti-vaccine or vague libertarian and New Age slogans, a small number sported large yellow Stars of David on their upper arms. Those stars – the bluntest of comparisons between pandemic restrictions and Nazi violence – have been a controversial and common sight at anti-lockdown protests from early on in the pandemic.
The legitimacy of using such a potent and emotionally charged symbol was given an academic boost in July when Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in one of his many interventions during the pandemic, claimed Italy’s Green Pass would turn those who do not have it into bearers of a “virtual yellow star”.
The UK has had a small but growing movement of anti-vaxxers since the late 90s and the MMR fraud scandal in which Andrew Wakefield falsified research to claim links between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children.
The broadening of that movement during the pandemic and its articulation with strains of conspiracism and anti-establishment politics forms the core of the pandemic non-conformists. It’s an alliance which while relatively new to Europe and the UK is firmly established as a combatant in the US culture wars and Donald Trump’s still loyal base.
Across the channel, France’s well-established vaccine scepticism has led to an aggressive approach from President Macron, who has made vaccination mandatory for health workers.
The French government has also introduced a Green Pass system similar to the one pioneered by Israel earlier in the year, which restricts access to cafes, cinemas, restaurants and trains to those who have been fully vaccinated or can show a recent negative test.
Resistance to the measures has been strong with protests across the country now into their 7th week. The number of demonstrators grew steadily over the normally quiet summer period.
Despite a massive spike in bookings for vaccination appointments in the wake of the restrictions, some in the government still fear opposition could develop into a broader anti-Macron alliance comparable to the Gilet Jaunes.
Over the border in Germany, the same anti-establishment feeling unites the Querdenker – a hub for an otherwise disparate alliance of anti-vaxxers, lockdown sceptics, fascist sympathisers and elements of the New Age / Green movement.
A study into the politics and demographics of the Querdenker made by sociologists at the University of Basel last year found that the bulk of their support came from either supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) or little known splinter parties.
Their political concerns initially had to do with individual freedoms, especially freedom of speech, while lacking much in the way of concrete demands or deeper political engagement beyond the present issue of pandemic restrictions.
Since a Querdenken rally that led to the storming of the Bundestag in August 2020, the movement has displayed more traditionally nationalist concerns, coming under the surveillance of government security services for its anti-government posturing.
A similar programmatic deficit beyond generic calls for freedom and accusations of tyranny levelled at government ministers can be observed in pandemic non-conformist movements across the developed world.
If there is one thing all the various elements of these movements share it’s a deep distrust of technocratic politics; of government by experts.
This is the commitment that unites the political imaginary of these otherwise very different groups of people, from conspiratorial fantasies about Bill Gates and 5G, to New Age rejections of modern medical science, onto traditionalists and anti-globalists.
The pandemic is a stage for the latest round of this conflict between what David Goodhart has termed the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres”.
Talking Past Each Other
To a significant degree, the composition of pandemic non-conformists mirrors the rooted, socially conservative and often rural communities that make up Goodhart’s Somewheres and who formed the base of support for Brexit and Donald Trump.
They are also, along with a sizable urban working-class population, those who have been hardest hit by the lockdowns in terms of loss of income.
Conversely, those most often found ridiculing or dismissing people who question government pandemic restrictions are drawn from the urban, cosmopolitan professional middle classes.
This group have been more able to benefit from home working, less likely to suffer unemployment and possess greater resources to adapt to changing circumstances during the pandemic.
For these Anywheres a commitment to “being led by the science” (a slogan that now competes with the Nicene Creed) amounts in practice to little more than faith in the scientific institutions and government-appointed advisors who are managing the crisis.
What’s clear is that neither side are interested in listening to the other, and the caricaturing of each as either “conspiraloons” or “sheeple” guarantees that a circus conflict is staged in place of what should be sorely needed transparent public debate.
Nevertheless, despite, or perhaps because of this circus, polls conducted across Europe show overwhelming support for vaccine passports or passes of one kind or another; a statistic that may well reveal the weariness and desperation for an exit from the pandemic, rather than a whole-hearted popular endorsement for what some are calling medical apartheid.
The message from European governments has consistently been that vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic, yet there is still no definitive evidence about the risks of transmitting the Delta variant by people who have been vaccinated.
If anything the news does not look good and has recently prompted the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group to claim herd immunity from Covid-19 “mythical”.
Further cognitive dissonance is supplied by the fact that governments around Europe have retained – and in some cases are reimposing – many restrictions such as mask-wearing and self-isolation for those who have received their jabs.
Even Israel, which gained early benefits from its world-leading vaccination campaign is now seeing a surge in infections of the Delta variant and in August reinstated vaccine pass requirements for venues, and mask mandates.
Typically, the UK has gone its own way and relaxed the need for vaccinated people to self isolate, though not without going through a so-called “pingdemic” of self-isolating workers which left businesses across the economy – most acutely in hospitality – struggling with staff shortages.
Across Europe and the United States, a highly moralised atmosphere around the pandemic has led to a dearth of public debate and democratic scrutiny over the vaccine program and the next stage of the response.
The essayist Wolf Bukowski has described the attitude in Italy as dominated by an “uncritical responsibility” which resolves the imperative to control the virus into a demand not to question the government’s response even where restrictions impinge upon civil liberties usually cherished by liberals.
In the UK, the Labour Party has been flip-flopping on the issue of vaccine passes, without a robust critique that actually recognises the Rubicon that could well be crossed by installing an extensive system of legalised discrimination without time limitation.
The UK’s vaccine rollout has slowed with considerable hesitancy amongst younger people, though there are signs this may be falling according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
There’s a risk that the sense of compulsion brought on by legislation may harden attitudes against the vaccine.
More broadly there is a genuine question about whether it is acceptable for therapeutics that continue to be supplied under emergency authorisation to be made the de-facto condition for participation in social life for an otherwise low-risk group.
Perhaps the most pressing concern in the long term may be that opposition to pandemic restrictions has become fertile ground for the far-right across Europe.
The feeling of stigmatisation and dismissal, so familiar from liberal attitudes towards Trump and Brexit supporters, runs the risk of pushing people towards more extreme political solutions.
Giovanni Savino, writing for the Journal of Illiberalism Studies notes a convergence between Italian neo-fascist groups such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova with the national-populists of Lega Salvini and Fratelli D’Italia.
Nationalist and conspiracist slogans have received a mainstreaming boost through a surprising cross-over with New Age culture; a phenomenon which has also been observed in the Anglosphere within the online yoga scene.
In an article on reclaiming comprehensive public health, published in the BMJ last September, the authors warned that centralised biosecurity responses can undermine social cohesion and solidarity, while reinforcing authoritarian and nationalist tendencies in politics, associated with polarisation, populism and racism, playing out in different ways and in different regions.
The stark polarisation characteristic of US politics and seen closer to home during the years of Brexit turmoil in the UK is now being replicated across Europe in attitudes towards the pandemic response, vaccination program, and broader issues around the legitimacy of government and expert authority.
Carlo Caduff of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at London’s Kings College summed up the dangers of this moment:
“Across the world, the pandemic unleashed authoritarian longings in democratic societies, allowing governments to seize the opportunity, create states of exception and push political agendas. This pandemic risks teaching people to love power and call for its meticulous application.”
The history of authoritarianism shows us that a crisis alone is rarely sufficient to secure the survival of a regime.
What has tended to occur once the initial rupture has taken place is the emergence of a scapegoat or underclass onto which the often incompetent ruling power can displace its failures and galvanise support.
State orchestrated ‘othering’ is nothing new. The scapegoat mechanism is arguably as old as the first human communities, and the deep connections between ideas of purity and impurity, contamination, guilt and redemptive purging should be remembered at a time when governments have encouraged an aggressively moralised tone around their policies of viral containment.
Conspiracy theories around 5G or depopulation are easy to laugh at and the sight of protesters wearing Stars of David or comparing government ministers and health chiefs to Adolf Hitler are easy to dismiss as the crude exaggerations of a politically ignorant minority.
However, it shouldn’t be necessary to wait for the appearance of mass graves or people being herded onto cattle cars before we start questioning the direction of travel towards what could be a very modern and potentially all-encompassing totalitarianism.
The imperative ‘Never Again’, born of the horrors of twentieth-century violence demands vigilance, not complacency.
There is a risk that the prevailing social and political polarisation will allow major shifts in the functioning of our democracies to take place out of the light of public scrutiny and contestation.
We would be failing our obligation to future generations if we allowed fear, scapegoating and complacency to dominate at a time when not only public health but the health of democracy is also at stake.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.