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The backlash against Austria's mandatory COVID-19 vaccine law

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By Julian GOMEZ
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Witness
Witness   -   Copyright  euronews

On March 9 Austria's government announced that its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination law had been suspended and won't come into force as planned in mid-March. 

A commission of experts will re-evaluate the situation in mid-June. This reassessment came after an intense social debate in the country. 

Our report, broadcast a few days before the law was suspended highlighted the nature of this debate and the opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in Austria. 

"We are being vaccinated like pigs"

It took me less than two hours to understand why emotions had been running so high over the last few weeks, in what would otherwise have been a relatively calm Vienna.

Austria is the only European Union country to make vaccines for all adults over 18 mandatory. Fines for the unvaccinated can be as much as €3,600 a year.

I had decided to come to the country to report on how this legal requirement had gone down. To find out whether it had helped in the fight against the pandemic or whether it had simply polarised Austrian society even more.

For two days I met politicians and people both for and against the new vaccine law; I also met experts at vaccination centres and police officers required to enforce it.

© Euronews
"We are being vaccinated like pigs in a stable," one protester declared.© Euronews

"Stop the COVID cult now"

It was a cold Friday evening in the Austrian capital. I had come to film an anti-vaxxers rally that was protesting in support of the so-called 'freedom convoys'. Trying to emulate their Canadian counterparts, the organisers of the demonstration attempted to bring their trucks, vans and cars into the centre of Vienna - something the authorities immediately stopped.

In response, the anti-vaxxers walked around the streets, surrounding part of Vienna's historic centre. Onlookers cheered them from the pavement, while a heavy police presence controlled everything tightly.

This, of course, was a perfect setting to film. There was plenty of colour, action and sound. Protestors were holding Austrian (and Canadian) flags; there were sirens, horns, rattles and drums. Some demonstrators also held banners with colourful slogans: "Fake pandemic", was written on one. "Stop the COVID cult now", read another.

The quotes that people gave me were also striking."We are being vaccinated like pigs in a stable," one man in his 60s told me. "We are here for our children, peace, freedom and democracy. Basta," said another.

© Euronews
Anti-vax protesters rally in the heart of Vienna.© Euronews

"Go away now! P*** off!"

I had spent almost two hours at the protest when I decided to film my own piece-to-camera. I put my iPhone in selfie mode and began talking and walking among the crowd. I had to repeat it several times because of the number of people and the noise.

And then, after finishing a take, somebody from my left began pushing and shouting at me:

"Go away now! P*** off!"

"I'm filming myself!" I replied while losing balance under the push-backs.

"The women feel harassed! P*** off!"

The guy pushed me three times until we were separated by some other protesters and also by my fixer, Klaus. I tried to explain to the man that, being in a public space, I had the right to film. He kept shouting in German. He thought that by repeating my selfie stand-ups I had been harassing a woman and her children who were standing in the crowd in front of me - people that I had not even noticed.

...emotions are simply running too high.

He eventually calmed down and went about his own business: protesting against the new vaccine law.

I kept on filming. Scarcely 15 minutes later the man came back, with some friends, who helped to translate.

"Sorry," he said. "There was a misunderstanding."

He told me he had not realised I was a journalist.

"I'm sorry," he repeated.

"I'm here just to listen to your concerns," I told him, as they walked back to the rally.

Like all other people there, he was protesting in a non-violent, rather cheerful and playful way. But somehow he had lost his temper watching me repeating my selfie stand-ups.

I was packing my kit when Klaus, my fixer, told me he had heard of other recent examples of tension at anti-vax protests.

"Like everywhere around Europe, people here are suffering from pandemic tiredness.

"Either you are for or against vaccination requirements. Emotions are simply running too high these times here in Austria," Klaus said.