Austria: Discontent over Covid measures further undermining confidence in ruling elites

With the fourth wave of Corona accelerating and fear over the newly emerging ‘Omicron’ mutation growing, governments are desperately looking for a way out. Their half-hearted measures during the last two years of the pandemic were designed in such a way as to have the minimum possible effect on the economy. But now the virus is hitting hard again. 

What has happened in Austria is typical. The largest party in the coalition government, the “Austrian People’s Party” (ÖVP), is strongly linked to the tourism industry and skiing, for example, has remained possible during all the lockdowns. So it is no accident that Austria is amongst those countries that are experiencing the fiercest return of the virus. 

Now the health sector is so overstretched, it is close to breaking point so the Austrian government has decided to introduce lockdown number 4. It has announced compulsory vaccination from February onwards, although they have given few details to explain what that will actually mean in practice. 

The situation with Corona and the measures is leading to tremendous frustration, expressing itself in different ways across the globe. In Russia, fights are breaking out on public transport as the regime attempts to prevent people who have not been vaccinated from traveling to work, while the South African government claims the country is being punished by travel bans as the new mutation was first discovered there. In EU countries, there are still major gaps in the vaccination programme, those working on the frontline are under incredible stress. With the vaccination programme left in the hands of private companies, there has been a massive under-vaccination in the poorer countries. The appearance of Omicron raises the fear of the situation returning to square one.

Governments, rather than accept responsibility for their own failures, are trying to blame individuals for the situation, increasingly turning to compulsion to address the pandemic. This is more than true in Austria. Rather than learn from the experience of the last winter, the government has continued its former polices, which over years have led to the running down of the health system. It has made no attempt to expand hospital capacities, or install air purification equipment and provide for smaller classes in schools. They have not increased staffing levels or training. In the social sector, jobs are even being cut! Even before this latest wave, health and education staff who have been stretched to the limit in extreme circumstances are completely exhausted. But their efforts are being frustrated by the politicians and, to make matters worse, they are even being ridiculed by those in charge.

Although a minority, there are workers who do not trust even the measures the government has taken to fight the virus, including vaccination. There are some, who for medical or other reasons, or who have been so alienated by the system and the politics of the ruling elite that they, as a last resort, demonstrate their opposition to the government by resisting vaccination. This opposition needs to be addressed by the leadership of the trade union movement by organizing demonstrations and strikes to the policies, and failures of the coalition government.

It is clear the potential exists for this. In November, there have been big demonstrations and strikes in the health and education sector. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Austria to protest for more staff and better pay in hospitals, nursing homes, kindergartens and schools. This is the key to finding a way out of the current crisis. So far, however, the key trade union leaderships have failed to do this.

This creates the real danger that opponents of the government’s measures, who may not be traditional supporters of the right-wing camp will be driven into their arms, even participating in campaigns against compulsory vaccination. From the government’s point of view, this option is preferable to allowing the labour movement to lead a strong campaign, which will inevitable direct the blame at the capitalist system itself.

This danger has been demonstrated in Austria at the end of November, beginning of December. There have been a number of mass protests with tens of thousands attending in Vienna, Graz, Klagenfurt, and Linz. The demonstration in Vienna on November the 20th saw a large presence by the neo-fascist group “Identitäre”. Although in quarantine due to a Covid infection, chair of the right-wing “Freedom Party” (FPÖ), Herbert Kickl, who is notorious for his promotion of ‘alternative facts’ about Corona addressed the demo by video link. Well-known Nazis, far-right hooligans, various extreme right-wing organisations from other countries and from all over Austria participated, making it the biggest far-right gathering for years. Although they were a minority in the protest, they dominated it politically and organizationally.

The social composition of these demonstrations has been surveyed. This shows that aside from the hard-line far-right and fascist elements, the majority of participants come from a well-educated background. In Austria, one third are academics. The number of self-employed and small business owners is three times higher than that in the average population. Unlike the picture painted by the media, and sometimes by arrogant liberal intellectuals, the protesters are not ‘lumpen’ workers, but are middle class and petty-bourgeois elements. It is typical of that layer that Trotsky described as the social base for fascism, although unlike in the 1930s, the ruling class has no interest in a fascist regime today, so these groups are not supported by big business.

The demonstrators also include Christian fundamentalists, believers in esoteric ideas, and supporters of various conspiracy theories. The “Q” Flag is seen beside various national and county flags. There have been several reports of verbal but also physical attacks on Jews, Muslims, and journalists, as well as on the police. It was a dangerous and frightening crowd.

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That same weekend saw mass protests in Belgium against the “Pass Sanitaire” and in the Netherlands. They all led to riots and violent clashes with the police. Earlier in the year, there were protests in Italy, in Australia, in Greece and in many other countries, in which far-right forces had a large influence. They introduce anti-immigrant propaganda, antisemitism, and link these to anti-scientific nonsense. They exploit the protests to whip up “anti-system” and “anti-government” moods, claiming to stand for “freedom” while in reality promoting authoritarian ideas.

The real intentions of these groups is clearly demonstrated by their attacks during the demos on trade union offices as has happened in Australia and Italy. The fascists are using the opportunity to get a bigger audience and build their forces. Corona gives them an additional weapon. In whipping up the mood, they use threats against scientists and medical staff, and also physical attacks on hospitals, testing centers and ambulances. Potential for terrorist acts is developing, which is especially dangerous for workers in the health sector, minorities, immigrants and so on. In the Czech Republic there are organised attacks on workers in the Corona ‘track and trace’ system, making their work nearly impossible. 

While bourgeois states do not want these far-right forces to get too strong as their main concern at the moment is to get people vaccinated to keep the economy running, some of the bourgeois parties flirt with these layers fishing for voters. 

Shift in mood against the system

While a vast majority of the population would not support those demonstrations, the feeling that the government has failed fundamentally is widespread, and correct. The list of ways in which the pandemic has been mishandled in Austria is endless. 

As the second wave of Covid hit, schools were opened up without any preparation. Still today, there are no materials provided for dealing with Corona in schools. In the current lockdown, the schools are open while the government is telling parents to leave their kids at home “if possible”. But there are no extra resources provided for the extra work involved, and parents have no right to stay home from work as officially the schools are open. 

There has never been a real, effective vaccination campaign in Austria. In Portugal or Spain, vaccination rates are much higher because citizens were given their vaccination date by the state. In Austria everyone was left to arrange their own shots. On top of this, information was provided primarily in German and vaccines were provided mainly in the bigger cities. This has led to the situation in which important parts of the population have not been properly vaccinated due to the lack of access. 

Another valuable example is from the North East Calgary region in Canada, a relatively poor, working-class district with a high number with an immigrant background, which initially suffered a high infection rate. Now, using an offensive approach in many languages and involving over 250 rank and file structures and local organisations, a vaccination rate of 99% has been reached. 

Today in Austria the health sector is close to being in a triage situation due to the high infection rates. No extra staff have been employed, there have been no special initiatives for re-employing staff that have left or for training future staff. In the social sector staff have been fired. The small bonuses that were promised for some health staff in the summer have still not been paid out half a year later!

As if this was not bad enough, since summer it has been known that booster jabs would be necessary, especially for health and education staff who received the Astrazeneca, now Vaxzevria, jab. But in the summer, then chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic over, and stating that from then on any decisions regarding the virus and its handling should be a private matter. 

This is against the background in which the health system has demoted the promotion of vaccines, allowing vaccine scepticism to grow. In Austria, anti-vaccination and anti-science trends go back to the 19th century, and are traditionally strong for a number of reasons. The weak bourgeois class was less grounded in the scientific, modern worldview than in other countries. Instead, a section of the remaining nobility, the bourgeois itself and petty-bourgeois layers supported pseudo-alternative ideas deeply rooted in spiritualism, esotericism and so on. They were often linked to anti-semitism. The degradation seen during the Nazi era, during which large parts of the intelligentsia were killed or exiled, was compounded by Nazi support for conspiracy theories and mysticism. 

The ideology of the working class and its organisations has, on the contrary, been based on a scientific understanding. But as, since the 1980s, the workers’ movement has been weakened and the traditional social-democrats become bourgeoisified, space has opened up for the spread of anti-scientific, anti-vaccination, “alternative” medicine approaches. They are presented as somehow “progressive”, often linked with anti-capitalist arguments against big pharma, but further undermining a scientific approach. 

Since the 1980s, the neoliberal offensive has painted health as a “personal” issue. This narrative in combination with a flirtation with “alternative” medicine has been strong in both coalition parties, the bourgeoisie ÖVP and the Greens. They are in a dilemma as research shows that especially voters from the FPÖ, the ÖVP and the Greens are amongst those demonstrating against their measures. 

At the same time the government needs to meet business needs. They want to push up vaccination rates. This leads to the situation in which prominent ÖVP politicians attack scientists one day, and then on the next order a lockdown. On top of this, there are the scandals around former chancellor Sebastian Kurz in which it is alleged he used state money to buy opinion polls in his favour. It’s little wonder that people don’t trust anything that comes from the government, the elite, the top echelons!

Recent reports covering resistance by some New York firefighters to the decision of the city’s Mayor to introduce a ‘vaccine mandate’ requiring all public employees to be vaccinated give insights into the reasons for their opposition. This includes some who were involved in responding to the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers. They feel that promises made after that have not been met, whilst they have been left fighting on the frontline against the pandemic without proper equipment and PPE. Now they have been issued with an ultimatum, and for many this is the last straw. Similar motivations exist in part of the health and education staff in Germany, Austria and other countries too.

The other side of this coin is the increasing frustration and fear that many people feel due to the still low vaccination rate even in many countries in the developed capitalist world. They are afraid they can get infected, and don’t want staff in hospitals, schools and care-homes to stay unvaccinated. Governments use this to divert attention away from their own failures to provide the necessary measures by talking of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. 

The crocodile tears the ruling class shed about an increasingly polarised society are a half-hearted attempt to cover-up their policy of division. It uses Corona to attack workers’ rights using access to the sensitive health data of employees, or using illness or the lack of vaccination to withdraw unemployment pay. With the accusation that they are “violating Corona rules” governments have a free hand to act against opposition from workers, anti-racist, anti-sexist and socialist activists. 

Instead of punishing the unvaccinated, government’s should be ensuring that the health sector is fully financed with staff properly paid. This should be combined with widespread information campaigns run by and involving communities on the ground. These are the measures needed to counter polarisation around the question of vaccination.

Dangerous tail-ending by trade union and left organisations

The growing dissatisfaction and disengagement from society is a new feature of the developing crisis of bourgeois democracy. The crisis of 2007/8 showed that capitalism is not the ultimate system working for everyone’s benefit, despite what the ruling class tell us in their propaganda. Corona has demonstrated who is essential in society, and who is not. It has exposed the priorities of the ruling class. The ruling class’s quick and bold economic reaction to the economic crisis triggered by corona showed that the money is there. All their excuses in the past about the lack of money for the social sector etc have been shown to be nothing but lies. 

The ruling classes and their political wing understand the deep crisis of legitimacy their system is in. Electoral successes of seemingly “different” candidates claiming that they are not “part of the system” like Trump, Bolsonaro, Trudeau, Macron, Kurz, the 5-Star Movement, and many others are a reflection of this deep crisis. 

Only a minority support the far right at this moment, a majority understand the danger of such ideas. Without a clear alternative, they fall into the trap of “lesser evilism” by supporting the ruling parties while holding their nose. Many left groups, and especially the trade union leadership tail-end the same ruling parties. Their logic is that we should all unite together “against the super-villain”. But does this tactic work? Can Corona be stopped or at least handled by bourgeois governments? Should we all rally behind their measures to avoid total catastrophe?

The argument that we need to defeat the main enemy first, before later moving on to the rest avoids the real issue: it fails to understand the deeper, the real cause of the crisis. Corona is no “natural” catastrophe but a result of the increasing destruction of nature. It has been mishandled not due to a lack of knowledge or experience, but because the ruling elite have put profits over human lives. In fact this applies not just to the coronavirus, but to the climate crisis too. The far-right and right populist forces too are growing because capitalist society has created fertile ground for them. The coronavirus, the climate crisis and the far right are all symptoms of the sick society, caused by the existence of capitalism itself. In fighting the symptoms, it is necessary to fight the cause too. 

So when some trade unions and left organisations, in the name of ‘national unity’ support government measures including the punishment or firing of workers who are not vaccinated, they are repeating the error made many times in the history of the labour movement — that of failing to take a political approach that can unify workers based on their own independent interests. While the issue faced was very different, this abandonment of class independence was at the root of German Social-democracy’s great historic betrayal, when they voted for the war credits in 1914. It goes right up to participation in Social partnership, the idea that particularly in times of crisis classes should pull together in the name of national unity, which is fundamentally mistaken. It is a tactic that does not work. Without addressing the root cause of these crises, it cannot stop the pandemic, the climate crisis, and definitely not the far right.

Independent class position needed 

Corona is here to stay. We can expect fourth, fifth and sixth waves as the virus mutates and adapts. This can be managed, but not within the framework of a profit driven economy based on competition.

The lack of vaccines available in the underdeveloped world has left large parts with vaccination rates under 5%. This is a very clear and deadly warning — as long as this is not resolved, Covid will return time and time again as we currently see with the new Omicron variant. As socialists we demand an immediate end to patents on vaccines and medicines. We support the call made by 28 international nursing trade unions organised by “Global Nurses United” in which they accuse the European Union, UK, Switzerland and others of “protecting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health” and call for the lifting of Covid-19 patents.

At the start of the pandemic, we warned that international planning for the development, production and distribution of PPE, tests and vaccines was needed. Big Pharma & Co. should be taken into public ownership, run and controlled by the working class. This could have removed the fear that many have, that they are being used as guinea pigs for the sake of Big Pharma’s profits. We had no trust in the ruling classes and have been proven right. 

To defend the health and future of working-class people, trade unions and left organisations need to take an independent class position. That includes taking over responsibility for the organisation of the information, testing and vaccination campaigns. If in every community, in every workplace, in every street and house health workers, social workers and representatives of the community were to organise the process, this would drive the conspiracy “theorists” away. 

A political alternative based on organising from below is needed. Discussions are needed within workplaces, schools and hospitals organised by trade union/works councils and worker activists to plan the steps necessary to end the current chaos and ensure our safety. Such campaigns, linking up the struggles that are developing in many countries involving “essential workers” in health, education and retail for better working conditions can establish a base for a political alternative that is desperately needed if we are to oppose the ruling elite.

We say:

  • The real experts must finally take the helm. Within organisations, work-colleagues must decide whether and how to continue working to limit the pandemic — without financial losses for the employees. When companies cannot finance the necessary measures, they should be taken into public ownership, organized and managed by the employees themselves;
  • Those working in health care, schools and public transport should organise democratically to plan what is necessary to ensure decent work and Covid-proof operations. The government should provide these resources immediately;
  • There needs to be a testing and vaccination campaign that is driven by the working class and community organisation themselves, in the neighborhoods, in the workplaces, in the schools. Comprehensive education and easy access are necessary. No space should be given to conspiracy “theorists” and vaccine skeptics;
  • Trade unions must not become the government’s stooges. No approval of any worsening of work conditions for colleagues! No suspension of collective bargaining, work-meetings or strikes. If it is safe enough to work, then it is safe enough to strike! Instead, works councils and unions must be at the forefront of fighting for real improvements, defending democratic rights and organizing real vaccination campaigns from below!
  • Down with the capitalist governments and their policies! Many are afraid new elections could see the strengthening of far-right forces, or believe that alternative governments will be no better. But to continue with the current chaos is obviously no solution. What we really need is a government that represents the interests of the working class. New workers’ parties are urgently needed. And elections can be one tool to help build them.
  • Representatives of workers in health, education, transportation, commerce, industry, neighborhoods, schools and universities — they are the ones who can put up a real alternative to the chaos of the ruling class and the terror of the right. The strikes and demonstrations of kindergarten teachers, nurses, health workers and many others have shown that they know very well what is needed and are ready to fight for it! Whether organized as rank-and-file committees, or transforming current unions into fighting organizations there should be conferences of elected worker representatives to discuss, decide and implement the next necessary steps;
  • Within the framework of capitalism, there is no solution to the Corona crisis. Not only their greed and incompetence but the very way capitalism is working is undermining confidence in the system of bourgeois democracy itself. This is because human needs are at odds with profit interests. The wealth already exists sufficient to give everyone a future of peace and security, but pro-capitalist politicians, the capitalists themselves and the extreme right are preventing its use in a fair way. Wealth needs to be taken out of their hands to create an international, democratically planned economy and socialist society.