A few weeks ago, as seems her wont, England bumbled into freedom.
With our current Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, saying “we must learn to live with COVID in the same way we live with flu,” COVID-19 left the realm of present emergency and progressed to the field of history.
The immediacy having gone, researchers and historians will be able to judge our collective response to it in due course. A great many stones will be turned.
This month, in a faraway country about which we know little, experts agreed with Javid’s assessment. They said Austrians should learn to deal with COVID “like dealing with a flu.”
But instead of stumbling, as the English did, into normality, the citizens of this beautiful Alpine country fell back into a darker past.
The Austrian government, a coalition of environmentalists (Greens) and conservatives (OVP), with the support of socialists (SPO) and social liberals (NEOS) passed one of the most repressive laws in Western Europe since 1945.
Alexander Van der Bellen, the Austrian president and lifelong green activist, signed the Vaccine Mandate Law on February 4.
The four parties signed the Faustian pact late in November last year to push through the vaccine mandate, come what may—even before the arrival of the effete, fast spreading, Omicron variant.
Karoline Edtstadler, the constitutional minister, had said in November that “the introduction of compulsory vaccination naturally interferes with fundamental rights.”
Waving the wand of expediency, however, she added with a toothy smile that the step was “necessary and justified” given the circumstances.
A large minority of Austrians suddenly woke up and saw in the full light of day that their constitutional and fundamental rights meant nothing and were no match against what experts—Austrians included—now concede amounts to a flu.
With the die cast and the deed done, a handful of powerful voices on the national stage within the “vaccine-mandate-at-all-cost” coalition seem about to jump ship and ready to row back to constitutionalism—after the fact.
Seemingly with an eye on posterity, Salzburg’s state Governor Wilfried Haslauer said, “such an encroachment on fundamental rights as compulsory vaccination is no longer justified.”
His doubts were shared by the state governors of Carinthia and Upper Austria.
Perhaps they woke up to the enormity of the challenge to civility, consensus and constitutional rule these emergency laws imply.
The phrasing of Haslauer’s doubt, however, implies a less highfalutin concern and more of a well-honed instinct for political survival.
Either “rights” are fundamental or they are not. If they are, encroaching on them should never be “justified”—certainly not according to what is expedient at the time in the minds of our lawmakers.
In Austria, as the emergency laws were discussed over the last three months, the majority of political parties openly broadcast their view that no fundamental rights actually existed.
In that time, the greens revealed themselves in full. While doubt is starting to creep in across the Austrian body politic, greens are digging in. The bunker is ready. They are still righteously and religiously certain that social repression is the only way Vorwaerts! as it were.
Indeed, Green Party leader Sigrid Maurer reiterated that the state must enforce the vaccination mandates.
Be that as it may, the law was passed, the apparatus of state is being cranked up and the civil service recruited to the implementation of repression.
To that effect, small carrots have been dangled and large sticks brandished in front of the wayward.
Monetary bribes of 500 euros per jab, along with a national lottery to incentivize them are being touted on the one hand; social ostracising on the other.
Fines of up to 3,600 euros for “ordinary procedures” are now on the books.
Given that on average, Austrians earn around 2,900 euros per month before tax, or 2,300 euros net, the penalty seems particularly harsh.
This is especially so when one considers that, with close to 90 percent of the population over 50 years old vaccinated, the law seems designed to target the country’s youngest and, therefore, poorest citizens.
Peremptory job losses, in an economic climate that oozes uncertainty, will lead inevitably to state-enforced bankruptcies.
These have the potential to become regular enough to act as a perverse, but effective, inoculation against the visuals of daily human degradation.
The bullying, of course, doesn’t just stop at reducing a large minority to penury. Larger, darker threats now hang over the heads of the recalcitrant.
As the law was first being introduced to the public, prison sentences were mentioned.
The topic of incarceration was quietly dropped but the mechanics leading to it haven’t.
Unpaid debts owed to the state lead to a mandatory four-week jail sentence in Austria.
Around 25 percent of the total adult population is not vaccinated.
The definition of “fully vaccinated,” however, has not yet been clarified and is, as we saw with the “one jab, two pricks and a third booster” combination, a moving target.
With Austrian experts talking of a fourth inoculation by September, the lack of clarity on this crucial point comes across as a cruel joke.
Paranoia mixed with the elation of short-term survival will become a constant emotional rollercoaster and push many to the margins of society.
With the law now having passed, they will fear every interaction with police officers.
As night follows day, they will be denounced by their neighbors; accosted in the streets; and become the subject of quiet defamation and rumors.
Each engagement with a person outside a shrinking number of friends will lead to heart palpitations.
They are, in short, criminals, living a day-to-day existence, unable to go about their business without some underlying fear that they will be found out.
Every door bell ring, phone call, or text will bring with it a sense of dark foreboding.
The manpower is not yet available for the implementation of these policies, although a great deal of effort is going into recalling retired police officers, allocating budgets at a national and regional level to recruit the civil servants the state of Austria will now need to harass and persecute a totally contrived criminal population, and hitherto law-abiding, minority.
The crime perpetrated by the Austrian state is two-fold: First, it has acted as a shield for the legalized persecution and discrimination of the equally ill-defined “unvaccinated” in Germany, Italy, and France among others; secondly, it has stripped, with the support of the European Union, a large minority of its humanity and with it the idea of natural justice.
The Jacobin “general good”—the idea that “we can sacrifice the individual to protect society at large”—now threatens to rule uncontested.
While the darkest point of the night in 21st century Austria has not yet been reached (it will be when the state apparatus is in full swing), a new dawn is dimly perceptible.
A local election took place a fortnight ago in the state of Lower Austria. The ruling party (OVP) lost over 30 percent of its support since the last election in 2017. The party is down to around 40 percent from more than 60 percent.
All the parties who supported the vaccine mandate either lost ground or just kept their share of the vote.
A new party, the MFG (Menschen, Freiheit und Grundrechte), loosely translated as the party for “People, Freedom, and Fundamental Rights” received 17 percent of the votes from a standing start a few weeks ago.
In other words, it was a direct transfer from the ruling parties to this new challenger.
In a country run on a proportional representation system, this suddenly means that between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate that has been attacked so profoundly could become a rock-solid political formation, which has the potential to play a key role in the politics of Austria for a long time to come.
In other words, the post-1945 political settlement is, along with COVID in England, history.
A new political constellation beckons.
The parties that placed individual freedoms above state power will be remembered and rewarded, in particular as the COVID postmortem accelerates.
Their support will grow. And not just in Austria.