Europe: The Surge In Demonstrations Against COVID-19 Restrictions

On November 20th, protests responding to the Netherlands’ newest partial COVID-19 restrictions turned violent on the second night, according to Al Jazeera. They further stated that police arrested approximately 40 demonstrators, and that “five police officers [have been] injured.” Many officers suffered concussions, knee injuries, and hearing damage; one is even reported to be seriously injured. The protests, which quickly turned into riots, were organized and carried out in The Hague, a city located on the North Sea coast in the western Netherlands. Police say these demonstrations carried on until 1 a.m. 

Ferd Grapperhaus, the justice minister of the Netherlands, said to Al Jazeera, “the riots and extreme violence against police officers, riot police and firefighters last night in Rotterdam are disgusting… Protesting is a great right in our society, but what we saw last night is simply criminal behaviour.”

Rioters hurled rocks and fireworks in the direction of charging police officers. The close proximity of the firework explosions inevitably led to hearing damage. Police also used a water cannon to put out a blazing fire that ignited from burning bicycles. 19 people were also arrested by police who were “[carrying] out charges on horseback.” One was even arrested for hurling a rock through the windshield of an ambulance. Local businesses such as a pizza shop were destroyed. Ferdi Yilmaz, owner of the business, said police entered his shop to arrest more people, resulting in the glass on his front doors smashing, and reported being on the head with a rock for “no reason.” He also told the outlet that “these people are protesting about 2G and the lockdown. They’re angry about it.” 

While this gives insight into the recent chaotic events that have unfurled during demonstrations, peaceful processions have also occurred in other cities. Protestors arrived in party buses, played music, and danced. An organizer of such a procession, Joost Eras, said, “people want to live, that’s why we’re here. We’re not rioters, we come in peace.” 

Protests erupted after the government announced new partial COVID-19 measures last weekend, following a recent surge in daily cases. These restrictions will be in place for three weeks, and unvaccinated people are barred entry in certain venues. Such a response from the Dutch people surrounding these lockdowns is not new. In January last year, when nationwide restrictions were first implemented, similar protests were also organized. During the protests, a COVID-19 testing center was burned. Still, this has been the most devastating surge of violence surrounding safety measures. During the first night of protests, officers reportedly opened fire, which ultimately triggered the violence during demonstrations. 

Unfortunately, countries throughout the European Union have witnessed similar uprisings against safety measures. According to NPR, in Austria, protests have occurred against the country’s nationwide lockdown that went into effect on Monday and an upcoming vaccine mandate enforced in February. In France, protests occurred at the Austrian embassy. The Guardian also reports that approximately 35,000 people in Vienna have taken to the streets to protest. NPR stated violence has surged in Guadeloupe, where police officers are being injured, and local businesses looted and desecrated. 

Earlier this month, doctors from the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned European countries of more COVID-19 related deaths as Europe once again becomes the epicenter of the virus. Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge stated, “Europe is back at the epicentre of the pandemic, where we were [one] year ago. The difference today is that we know more and we can do more. We have more tools and means…” 

The reasons behind the public’s protests against COVID-19 restrictions, not only in the Netherlands but other European countries, presents a paradox where people want their lives to go back to normal, but are unwilling to take the safest steps to do so. They want to attend football matches, tourist sites, bars, large gatherings, and other businesses that bring them a sense of normalcy and happiness, but have been unwilling since last year to lessen the spread of the virus. Due to this lack of compliance, hospitals across Europe are now slowly filling up with COVID-19 patients; private doctors are being encouraged to enter the public health sphere; some are protesting in the streets because they’re once again underpaid and overworked.

Andrea Ammon, director of European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told BBC World News that the upcoming vaccine mandate could also push more people away from the vaccine instead of inviting them. However, it is to be pointed out that vaccines for highly contagious illnesses are not uncommon in the pharmaceutical world. Past devastating illnesses have required thousands of people to get the necessary vaccines so the health of their families and communities are safe. The world witnessed the devastating scenes observed in Italy where bodies were being taken to military bases, cities were shutting down, and international students were stranded – unsure if they would ever return home. It witnessed similar events in France, and in the U.K. where cases surged like wildfire – death looting home after home. 

Like Dr. Kluge said that these countries know what to do, leaders also have learned to prioritize their peoples’ health with the new available resources so history doesn’t repeat itself. Regarding protests, especially in a nation like the Netherlands where freedom of demonstration is valued and allowed, it is disrespectful and frustrating when innocent people, along with their businesses, are harmed. It is also unacceptable when innocent people get caught in crossfires of riots, and are sent to hospitals with severe injuries. In such cases, leaders must deploy the national army to protect additional lives from being lost and harmed. Societies are still reeling from the trauma that every individual has experienced during the last year, and it is something that will remain for months, and possibly years. Eventually, there may come a time where refusal to get vaccines or abiding pandemic guidelines will bar entries to people wherever they go.