Nika Qutelia

From vaccine skeptics to Covid deniers — the global anti-lockdown movement

In a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, those protesting lockdown measures mounted a fierce backlash in cities around the world.

For the vast majority of us, the past year will forever be remembered as the time a lethal, once-in-a-century pandemic tore through the world, causing 2.5 million deaths and bringing much of the global economy to a halt. The threat of contagion led some governments to impose strict lockdowns, generating fierce backlashes and sparking the rise of protest movements worldwide.

With Covid-19 cases mounting over the past year, anti-lockdown campaigners have taken to the streets in cities across the globe, in some instances clashing violently with police. Although the motives behind these movements vary from country to country, many are fueled by a standard set of grievances: concerns about the economic impacts of restrictions; fears about government-imposed measures infringing on personal liberties; and unease or outright distrust of vaccinations and skepticism about the virus itself. 

Here’s a look at five international anti-lockdown movements and the players behind them.

Switzerland

Oleksandr Ignatenko

Anti-lockdown movements are making plenty of noise in German-speaking nations — and the loudest voice is that of the Querdenkers. Germany’s most prominent Covid-19 denialist group has staged demonstrations across the country, gathering crowds in their thousands. However, other, lesser-known factions are creating headlines of their own. 

In Austria one anti-lockdown campaigner and several of his supporters were recently arrested with a collection of handguns and revolvers, 34 bottles of LSD, 5kg of cannabis and a sword. Even Liechtenstein, a tiny Alpine principality tucked between Austria and Switzerland, has seen sudden and sizeable demonstrations. But Switzerland is a slightly different story.

It’s not that there is no anti-lockdown movement there — there is, and it has many faces. What distinguishes coronavirus disinformation in Switzerland is the nation’s renowned direct democracy. Swiss citizens can call for referendums against any newly published law by collecting 50,000 signatures on a petition. 

If they really want to, they can even try to use a similar process to change the constitution — for instance, to make mandatory vaccination illegal. And that is precisely what has been happening. Richard Koller, a former politician for the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is now attempting to lead the anti-vaccine lobby in this direction with a petition initiated on January 5. Fortunately, it has received just 17,000 signatures so far. 

According to a recent study by the polling agency LeeWas GmbH, supporters of the People’s Party itself are the most vaccine-hesitant political group in the country. While the organization’s godfather, Christoph Blocher is openly pro-immunization, its membership has taken a stance against widespread coronavirus restrictions, including the closure of restaurants and entertainment venues. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the party has recently entered into an uneasy alliance with a member of the liberal FDP — formerly known as the Free Democratic Party. 

In January, Leroy Bächtold, a media officer for the Zürich city youth wing of the FDP set up his own online petition against Switzerland’s lockdown measures, gathering more than 100,000 signatures in a month. When the SVP and its supporters jumped on board, that number swelled to 150,000. 

Earlier this month, SVP leader Marco Chiesa attempted to hand the petition to Swiss home affairs chief Alain Berset and call for a referendum to overturn the restrictions. As the signatures amount to nothing more than unverified ticks on the internet, Berset ignored it. That didn’t stop Chiesa making a public statement decrying the government response and quoting the Great Barrington Declaration — a now well-known document drafted by a group of international scientists for a U.S.-based libertarian think tank that advocates for “focused protection” of vulnerable individuals during the pandemic and opposes lockdown measures on the grounds of social and economic harm.

In a February podcast, Dr. Mike Osterholm, a leading U.S. epidemiologist warned against such thinking while vaccination campaigns are still underway. In his opinion, the rise in movement and social contact would help new, more contagious virus mutations to spread. Still, groups like Switzerland’s new nationalist-liberal alliance continue to have other ideas. 

The Netherlands

Mariam Kiparoidze

Last fall, daily coronavirus cases began a steady rise in the Netherlands. In response, the nation’s government adopted increasingly strict measures. Those steps culminated on January 23 with the introduction of a 9 p.m. nighttime curfew, which sparked violent protests across the country.

For three days, hundreds of rioters took to the streets in towns and cities, from Amsterdam to Rotterdam and Eindhoven. They threw fireworks and rocks, looted shops and set cars ablaze. In some places, they stoned hospital windows and attempted to break into healthcare facilities. Most were stopped by police, but in the town of Urk a Covid-19 testing station was burned down. 

Dutch police described the riots as the most violent the country has seen in decades and deployed water cannons and tear gas. Hundreds were arrested and fined. According to law enforcement, the protesters were mostly politically unaffiliated young men. Hubert Bruls, chairman of the National Security Council, even called them “corona hooligans” on a TV talk show.  

However, it has been reported that a variety of anti-government, Covid-19-skeptic and far-right groups also had a strong presence. Among them were supporters of Pegida, an anti-Muslim organization with roots in Germany, and Viruswaarheid (Virus Truth), which has been instrumental in the spread of unfounded information about masks, vaccinations and the origins of the pandemic.

The unrest prompted condemnation from both left and right-wing politicians. Prime Minister Mark Rutte described it as “criminal violence,” while Mayor John Jorritsma of Eindhoven said that the nation was “heading for civil war.” 

A little over a week after the riots, the Dutch Court of Justice in The Hague ordered the suspension of the curfew. The government appealed the ruling and quickly drafted a new emergency bill that included maintaining the restrictions until at least March. 

The Hague Appeals Court said last Friday it would announce the verdict on February 26. However, the country’s Senate approved the emergency legislation that same day, meaning the curfew will stay in place, regardless of the verdict.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands has recorded over a million confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 15,000 deaths to date. 

Argentina

Erica Hellerstein

When Argentina first shut down in mid-March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the country’s long-suffering economy was already on the brink of economic collapse, battling ballooning inflation and deepening poverty. That bleak outlook didn’t prevent Argentine president Alberto Fernández from imposing one of the earliest and toughest lockdowns in Latin America — a decision that, initially, appeared to draw support from across the country’s usually polarized political landscape. 

It didn’t take long for that consensus to fracture. An anti-lockdown coalition formed within a few months, taking to the streets to denounce the government’s response to the pandemic. On May 25, the country saw its first anti-lockdown rally in Buenos Aires, with a modest 150 participants. By July 9, their ranks had grown to the thousands. 

The protests grew larger the following month, when tens of thousands — about 25,000 in Buenos Aires alone — descended on cities across the country. Demonstrators expressed their unhappiness with a judicial reform bill introduced by Fernández, as well as the economic impacts of the country’s protracted quarantine.

Argentina has been devastated by the pandemic, topping 51,000 Covid-19 deaths in February and two million confirmed cases. That has left the government particularly vulnerable to public pushback. Protestors mostly fall into one of three camps, according to María Esperanza Casullo, a political science professor at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de Río Negro. They include science skeptics who question public health messaging around Covid-19 or the existence of the virus altogether; people advocating to “reopen the economy”; and political opponents of Fernández, a Peronist who ousted his predecessor, the pro-business conservative Mauricio Macri, in 2019.

The anti-Fernández camp, led by Macri and his political party, PRO, has played a crucial role in positioning the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus as an attack on personal liberty. In the press and on social media, Macri railed against the lockdown measures, accusing the administration of attempting to diminish “freedom of expression, the functioning of justice, the independence of powers and private property.”

“If you were at any protests, you would see people marching with homemade signs saying, ‘We need to open our businesses.’ You would see people marching with signs saying, ‘Take the state boot off my neck.’ And you would see people with signs saying, ‘Doctors are lying to us,’” Casullo said. 

The anti-science contingent doesn’t appear to have a specific leader or governing ideology. Instead, it seems to comprise an assortment of vaccine skeptics and conspiracy theorists, with some protestors stating that the pandemic is part of a global scheme to impose a new world order. Vaccine and coronavirus misinformation in Argentina has also spread via several groups disseminating medical falsehoods in Spanish on Facebook, with one alleging that vaccination is part of a plot to control the world.

Casullo said the pandemic has probably helped some of these fringe beliefs gain visibility. “They sort of existed before, but now, a lot more people are looking at them, and their message is resonating.” 

Northern Ireland 

Isobel Cockerell

When Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster announced coronavirus restrictions would be extended until April 1, the country’s anti-lockdown Telegram groups blew up. “My blood is boiling,” said one poster on the messaging app. “FASCISM!” wrote another, echoing the sentiments of the Belfast-born singer-songwriter Van Morrison, who released a track titled “No More Lockdown” last autumn. 

Morrison’s lyrics have struck a special chord with conspiracy theorists: “Who’s running our country?/ Who’s running our world?/ Examine it closely/ And watch it unfurl/ No more lockdown/ No more threats/ No more Imperial College scientists making up crooked facts.”

The singer, who has released four similarly themed songs, is a hero of Northern Ireland’s anti-lockdown campaigners. Followers on Telegram talk of a plan to control and diminish the population, while thousands have come together to discuss a “great reopening” which would end the lockdown by force. Business owners have also been urged to defy restrictions and resume trading.

“The lockdowns have really driven people to the end of their tether,” said Aoife Gallagher, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a U.K.-based think tank. “I do feel sorry for the people that get drawn into these groups, but I’ve had a lot more empathy for them in the past couple of weeks.” 

But many of them are not simply against the continued lockdown. Numerous posts to relevant online groups are filled with QAnon content and anti-vaccine propaganda. 

Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann has recently stressed the importance of easing the lockdown gradually. The territory is now well past the peak of its second wave, during which 2,000 cases a day were routinely recorded. Its death rate of around 82 per 100,000 people, is lower than the rest of the U.K., but higher than that of the neighboring Republic of Ireland. 

Barbara Whearty, 39, owns a catering business in Belfast and has struggled to stay afloat for the past year. In recent months, she has had leaflets pushed through her door that have been made to look like they are from the government and state that the virus isn’t real. But she has no time for such theories.

“Fantasy doesn’t put food on the table. Fantasy won’t keep my business going. It won’t get me up and get me dressed in the morning,” she said. 

United States

Katia Patin

Angry, maskless and armed, dozens of protestors were allowed to enter the Michigan’s State Capitol building in Lansing on May 1. Demanding that Governor Gretchen Whitmer roll back her stay-at-home order, those attending the American Patriot Rally tried to push further onto the floor of the chamber. “The virus is here,” one told reporters as hundreds gathered outside. Inside state senators debated pandemic regulations, with some lawmakers wearing bullet proof vests. 

At the time, Michigan was the country’s biggest and most notorious anti-lockdown protest, but as local governments across the country have cycled through restrictions and reopenings in the past year, resentment has often boiled over into violent encounters between law enforcement and anti-lockdown demonstrators.

The scale of the movement is both alarming and dangerous. Maskless Americans have crowded together on city council steps in Democratic and Republican-leaning states — including North Carolina, New Hampshire, Washington, Texas and California — in opposition to pandemic restrictions. Virtually every state last year saw marches demanding an end to stay-at-home orders. 

In some cases, law enforcement officers have joined protesters — in May in Seattle, Washington, a police officer called on others to ignore state lockdown orders. In Hawaii last May, Major General Kenneth Hara warned that the state risked “civil unrest,” unless it sped up its reopening.

The marches have also contributed to the spread of Covid-19, which has so far claimed 505,000 lives across the nation. Cellphone location data analyzed by data scientists working for the campaign group the Committee to Protect Medicare last spring, has shown that protestors were traveling hundreds of miles to anti-lockdown events, leading to further spread of the virus. 

A loose coalition of conservative groups and individuals has also jumped on the opportunity to galvanize Republican voters by financing lawsuits against executive lockdown orders, such as those passed by Governor Whitmer. Elon Musk also reopened his California-based Tesla factory in May, in defiance of county restrictions, with enthusiastic support from then President Donald Trump on Twitter.
A year ago, many of these headlines would have seemed unimaginable. Yet anger over the economic consequences of the pandemic has fueled the outrage of many Trump supporters — especially after his defeat in November’s Presidential election. On January 6, news that a pro-Trump mob had attacked the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. shocked the world. It was no surprise that many of the rioters were maskless.

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