TWO CENT and sixty-two days of confinement are enough to fuel a few grievances. Protesters in Melbourne, the world’s most closed city, have demonstrated against its strict covid-19 restrictions almost since the measures were first imposed. But lately the mood has become unpleasant.
More than 200 people were arrested at a rally in September for throwing bottles and golf balls at police. This month, anti-vaccines in front of the Parliament of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, were hung with the effigy of Daniel Andrews, the Prime Minister of the State. An unmasked crowd of some 10,000 unvaccinated Victorians marched through Melbourne on November 20. Some waved nooses and held signs of Mr Andrews dressed in Nazi gear. He accused “extremists” and “rabid anti-vaccines” of “uttering all kinds of threats” against his family.
Victoria has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and recently removed most of her covid restrictions. Yet his government is trying to rush a “pandemic management” law through the state parliament, to grant it extraordinary powers to enforce closures, shut down businesses and detain citizens. He says the bill is necessary because the state of emergency imposed last March expires on December 15, depriving the government of its power to enforce covid rules. The bill aims to create a transparent legal framework to manage future epidemics.
The bill would give the state health minister the power, upon declaration of a pandemic, to issue “any order” that is “reasonably necessary to protect public health”, with minimal oversight. . The state bar complains that “it allows extreme limitations on the fundamental freedoms of all Victorians.” This would “anchor government by decree as a long-term standard,” wrote a group of lawyers. (The government agreed to some amendments, but independents, whose support it needs to pass the bill, have called for more as of this article’s publication.)
The anger at the covid restrictions isn’t limited to Melbourne. Thousands of Australians marched against vaccination warrants in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney on November 20. There is no national requirement for Australians to be vaccinated, but states are making life difficult for those who refuse the jab. Some insist on vaccination for those in high risk jobs. Others prohibit unvaccinated people from entering public places.
State measures are also becoming a point of contention in the federal parliament: rebel conservatives angry at vaccination mandates are delaying passage of government legislation in the Senate. In New Zealand, where the government has made vaccines compulsory for 40% of the working population, a similar debate is brewing. Protesters took to the streets on November 9, holding up signs saying “Kiwis are not lab rats.”
Anti-vaccines are only a tiny minority in both countries. Over 85% of those over 11 in Australia and New Zealand are fully immune, compared to 69% in America and 60% in the EU (who sees his own violent protests). Most support the strict management of the pandemic by their governments. But widespread acquiescence can only make the fringe even angrier, says Paul Spoonley, a sociologist at Massey University in New Zealand. So will the new vaccine mandates, which will come into effect in Queensland and New Zealand as other restrictions are lifted.
There are signs that anti-vaccines in both countries are radicalizing. deputys in New Zealand, where politics are generally peaceful, have had to tighten up security after a series of death threats. The minister in charge of his response to the pandemic, Chris Hipkins, says his office has been “the target of repeated and continuous attacks”. Authorities in Victoria have filed a complaint against a man who encouraged protesters to “pull out rifles and shotguns” and shoot the Prime Minister of the state. Two men have been charged in the state of Western Australia after allegedly threatening to behead its prime minister.
The protesters are inspired by the American far right, says Mr Spoonley. Some wave Donald Trump flags, wear red hats and threaten journalists. They began to call politicians “traitors” and call for lynching. Placards mentioning QAnon, an inconsistent conspiracy theory that flourished in the Antipodes, are increasingly common.
Opposition to vaccine warrants unites anti-vaccines with conspiracy theorists and far-right nationalists, says Josh Roose, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne. Victoria Police warn: “Online comments on covid-19 have provided a recruiting tool for far-right groups. A recent article by Te Punaha Matatini, a research center in New Zealand, asserts that vaccinations “are used as a sort of Trojan horse to set standards for far-right ideologies.” Federal elections are scheduled in Australia early next year. A noisy minority will be heard. ■
All of our stories relating to the pandemic can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus across Europe.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Globalizing Discontent”