Austrian socialists Manfred Ecker and David Reisinger from Linkswende Jetzt spoke to Solidarity about vaccination measures and COVID protests there led by the right
Austria is the first developed country that has effectively made vaccination compulsory for everyone. Can you explain what the measures involve?
The measures will be introduced in phases. Until 15 March people have time to start their vaccination.
After that, police can check your vaccination status and report you. In the third phase, you will be fined. [The initial fine is $950]. This is quite high for poor people, more than a month’s salary.
We are completely against compulsory vaccination.
There’s nothing done by the government to convince people of how helpful vaccination can be, how the illness is less severe [after vaccination] and so on. In the cities, we have big groups of immigrants and they are not doing anything [to explain it] in their language. They’re not going to the neighbourhoods and trying to convince people there.
Especially if they are from Eastern Europe, people often are against the vaccination because they’ve been cheated so much in the last 20 or 30 years. They feel that everybody has been lying to them, so this is probably a lie too.
But there’s so much pressure from the right and from the [hospitality and] tourism companies, I doubt this will ever really [go into effect].
Inside the police union, the most influential faction is the FPO section. They announced to the government that they will not obey orders to control people’s vaccination status, and the social democratic faction followed suit.
At the same time [they are] relaxing measures. You are [now] not a contact person anymore if you already recovered from Omicron. Also if you had a contact at work who got COVID, you have to continue working and [at schools] children are not sent home from class. Tests are not compulsory anymore.
Austria has a large far right, with the fascist Freedom Party (FPO) previously part of government. They have been part of large protests against COVID measures. How is the right capitalising on the situation?
There is a huge problem that there hasn’t really [been] a left-wing answer to the problems of coronavirus. A lot of people see the left as just part of the government. So the right exploited the gap and put themselves forward as the only anti-establishment [voice].
This gave them the opportunity to pull a lot of people onto the protests, who are not previously right-wing.
Gottfried Küssel, a central figure in the Austrian neo-Nazi movement, also joined in. At first there weren’t open racist or fascist symbols at the demonstrations. A lot of people just went because it was a protest against coronavirus [measures] and didn’t really care about the organisations [behind] the protests.
There were a lot of migrants from Turkey and other countries, and [Muslim] women with headscarves. From a lot of the people, there was complete denial that they were on demonstrations alongside such right-wing people.
At the beginning of 2021 they started to grow among wide layers of society, with 50,000 or 60,000 people every week. The FPO then really tried to mobilise for these protests [and organise contingents].
It’s hard to say how successful the far right is in recruiting from this movement. We’ve had other protests from right-wing organisations against immigrants and they were as small as the normal protests from right-wing circles in Austria.
The radical left has tried to have counter-rallies but you have had Nazis attacking the left while the police encircled the left for hours in the cold, tear gassing them. The police are being very openly friendly to the fascists.
The best we could do was hold a demonstration in another part of the city to protect the Jewish areas from Nazis marching in. At most we had 2000 or 3000 against the right wing’s marches of 50,000.
What should be happening to address COVID?
The government can’t do anything anymore because they’ve lost all credibility. It should be the trade unions and other forces who step in.
We have workplaces that for months, did not even have masks or other measures to protect workers, and the trade unions were silent about it. The unions fear that their rank and file is split into left and right.
One exception is schools and kindergartens. For example, my workplace is a kindergarten and we say we won’t do what the government wants. They say Omicron is not so dangerous so let’s have all children infected and after that, we can reopen.
So we have children PCR tested three times a week. We wear a mask all the time as staff and we are tested five times a week. We had a warning strike on October 30, and we will have the next warning strike on the 29 March throughout private Viennese kindergartens.
We are striking because we want safety measures for the children and for the staff.