By Hans-Georg Betz
A few days ago, thousands of demonstrators gathered in a number of German cities, ignoring government restrictions and guidelines regarding social distancing or the wearing of protective face masks. Among the demonstrators were many ordinary citizens, but also extremists from both sides of the political spectrum, conspiracy theorists, and members of the radical right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). In recent years, demonstrations like these were typically directed against the “Islamization of the West.” With the closing of the borders and the general lockdown, the question of Islam has lost its mobilizing force.
Fortunately enough, Germany’s notorious Wutbürger — irate citizens — have found a new cause that allows them to blow off steam: the restrictions imposed by Angela Merkel’s government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Although restrictions have been loosened, the demonstrators think that not enough has been done. They want a return to “normal,” to life as it was just a few months ago. The protests are fed by the kind of nostalgia typical of radical right-wing populist rhetoric throughout Western Europe. Not surprisingly, the AfD has latched on to the issue, as has the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Both parties have been on the decline, if for different reasons. Both appear to believe that the “resistance” against the COVID-19 restrictive measures will boost their political fortunes.
The protests are informed by a simple idea, hatched from one of the many conspiracy theories that circulate these days — the notion that the COVID-19 restrictions are part of a sinister plan aimed at robbing citizens of their individual liberties. One of the leading “minds” behind the notion is a hitherto relatively unknown former radio moderator who in 2011 was forced to resign from a Berlin radio station after he had characterized the holocaust as a PR stunt. A few weeks ago, he posted a video on YouTube, which quickly went viral.
Conspiracy theories usually center upon a villain. Some might remember Lyndon LaRouche, who famously claimed that the queen of England controlled the international drug trade. In the COVID-19 video, the author enlightens his audience that the novel coronavirus is part of a conspiracy aimed at drastically reducing humanity via mass vaccinations laced with sterilization molecules. The villains — Bill and Melinda Gates, organizers heading a vast web of collaborators, from the World Health Organization to the national governments to doctors and nurses. This might sound quite ludicrous, yet so far this theory has found an audience of over 3 million visitors and appears to have motivated some of the recent protests against the restrictions on individual liberty.
The Issue of Liberty
Adopting the issue of liberty has allowed the radical populist right in Germany and Austria to promote themselves as defenders and advocates of constitutional rights and the Rechtsstaat. The FPÖ has been quick to advocate a swift “return to normal normalcy.” At the same time it has accused the government of “celebrating the state of emergency” while thousands of Austrian citizens were being plunged into a permanent “dependency on the black-green bureaucracy” (Austria has a center-right Green coalition government) and of intentionally scaring the citizens in order to be able to interfere with basic rights and liberties. Embed from Getty Images
German commentators were quick to dismiss the protesters as “Coronadeppen” (corona idiots), likely to be responsible for new infections. Polls suggest, however, that behind the madness are genuine concerns. In a German poll from early April, more than 40% of respondents indicated they were quite concerned that their liberties would be restricted over an extended period of time; two weeks later, 20% of respondents thought that lockdown restrictions were exaggerated.
One of the more curious cases of coronavirus-inspired conspiracy theories is the recent open letter, published as an “appeal” and signed by ultra-conservative Catholic dignitaries and laypersons. The authors charge that “there are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of permanently imposing unacceptable forms of restriction on freedoms, of controlling people and of tracking their movements. The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.” The goal? To erase “centuries of Christian civilization” and establish “an odious technological tyranny” where “nameless and faceless people can decide the fate of the world by confining us to a virtual reality.”
The appeal originated overseas, with significant support from Italian ultra-Catholic circles. Any connections to Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate attempts to save the rubble of the American dream — and his presidency — is purely coincidental.
Trump, of course, has turned conspiracy narratives into a central discursive instrument of his struggle for political survival. It all started with the charge that COVID-19 was nothing but a hoax fabricated by his political enemies to undermine and discredit his presidency. Now, it has reached its preliminary end with the charge that the virus was intentionally created and released by a lab in China. For Trump, the “China connection” has served primarily to distract his faithful and committed followers from his abysmal record and absolve him of his indirect responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Americans.
Europeans, however, should not gloat. Their governments were, on the whole, just as callous and unprepared as their counterpart in the United States. It is, therefore, not all that surprising that the “Chinese virus” trope has gained increasing traction in Europe.
This is quite surprising given the fact that for some time after the outbreak in Europe, China was largely seen as the big winner of the pandemic. Unlike the United States, which had nothing to give, China was generous in providing a range of medical equipment to the worst-hit countries in Europe, from Serbia to Italy to Spain. Once its “mask diplomacy” turned nasty, however, seeking to cajole European leaders to praise the Chinese government’s stellar performance in dealing with the pandemic and its generosity while simultaneously chastising European governments for their lack of preparedness, the public mood soured.
Suddenly, the “Chinese virus” trope started to resonate with the public. In late April, for instance, almost half of Italian respondents in a representative poll believed that the virus had originated in a lab, with a sizeable minority thinking it was released intentionally.
The COVID-19 crisis has spawned myriads of fake news and conspiracy theories bringing together a motley crew of eccentrics, extremists from both sides of the aisle, the gullible and ignorant, and, last but not least, ordinary citizens seeking an emotional outlet for their impotent rage: anti-vaxxers convinced that COVID-19 is nothing more than an attempt to force them to get vaccinated; racists for whom it is just one more Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world; technophobes who believe that 5G antennas activate and propagate the virus.
Strangely enough, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has so far blamed Jeff Bezos for the pandemic. Yet Amazon not only sends millions of packages across the world, it has also been one of the biggest winners of this pandemic — the ideal constellation for a good conspiracy. Any takers?
This article was first published in Fair Observer
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