Before Covid-19, Nicolas Rimoldi had never attended a protest.
But somewhere along the pandemic’s long and tortuous road, which saw his native Switzerland imposing first one lockdown, then another, and finally introducing vaccination certificates, Rimoldi decided he had had enough.
Now he leads Mass-Voll, one of Europe’s largest youth-orientated anti-vaccine passport groups.
Because he has chosen not to get vaccinated, student and part-time supermarket cashier Rimoldi is – for now, at least – locked out of much of public life. Without a vaccine certificate, he can no longer complete his degree or work in a grocery store. He is barred from eating in restaurants, attending concerts or going to the gym.
“People without a certificate like me, we’re not a part of society anymore,” he said. “We’re excluded. We’re like less valuable humans.”
As the pandemic has moved into its third year, and the Omicron variant has sparked a new wave of cases, governments around the world are still grappling with the challenge of bringing the virus under control. Vaccines, one of the most powerful weapons in their armories, have been available for a year but a small, vocal minority of people – such as Rimoldi – will not take them.
Faced with lingering pockets of vaccine hesitancy, or outright refusal, many nations are imposing ever stricter rules and restrictions on unvaccinated people, effectively making their lives more difficult in an effort to convince them to get their shots.
In doing so, they are testing the boundary between public health and civil liberties – and heightening tensions between those who are vaccinated and those who are not.
“We will not allow a tiny minority of unhinged extremists to impose its will on our entire society,” Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said last month, targeting the violent fringes of the anti-vaccine movement.
Vaccine passports have been in place for months to gain entry to hospitality venues in much of the European Union. But as Delta and Omicron infections have surged and inoculation rollouts have stalled, some governments have gone further.
Austria imposed Europe’s first lockdown for the unvaccinated and is scheduled to introduce mandatory shots from February 1.
Germany has banned unvaccinated people from most areas of public life, and the country’s Health Minister, Karl Lauterbach, warned in December that: “without mandatory vaccination I do not see us managing further waves in the long term.”
And France’s President Emmanuel Macron last week told Le Parisien newspaper that he “really wants to piss off” the unvaccinated. “We’re going to keep doing it until the end,” he said. “This is the strategy.”
Rule-breaking and subterfuge
The scientific basis for anti-Covid measures is solid: Vaccines have been proven to reduce transmission, substantially slash the likelihood of serious illness and decrease the burden on healthcare systems.
Many of the restrictions also have broad public support – Switzerland’s were recently backed comfortably in a referendum – as majority-vaccinated populations tire of obstacles blocking their path out of the pandemic.
And real-world data shows that impact; European countries with highly vaccinated populations, such as Spain and Portugal, have been less badly affected by more recent waves of infection and have been able to open up their economies, while those with stuttering rollouts have faced severe restrictions and spikes in hospitalizations.
But the latest rounds of curbs have fueled anger among those unwilling to take a shot, many of whom are now slipping out of society – or resorting to subterfuge and rule-breaking to create their own communities, citing their right to “freedom.”
“On Monday I was with 50 people eating in a restaurant – the police wouldn’t be happy if they saw us,” Rimoldi told CNN, boasting of illegal dinners and social events with unvaccinated friends that he likened to Prohibition-era speakeasies – but which public health experts describe as reckless and dangerous.
Attendees will hand in their phones to avoid word of their meetings getting out, and will visit restaurants, cinemas or other venues whose owners were sympathetic to their cause, he said. “Yes, it’s not legal, but in our point of view the certificate is illegal,” Rimoldi added unapologetically.
“[Some] people have a very twisted idea of what freedom is,” said Suzanne Suggs, professor of communication at the University of Lugano’s public health institute. “They’re arguing it’s their individual right to harm others.”
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said “the vast majority of people everywhere” were supportive of measures to combat Covid.
“These people are the exceptions,” he said. “But what can you do? You don’t really want to make martyrs of these people – if they choose to (gather), they’re putting themselves and others at risk.”
‘A two-class society’
“We live in a two-class society now,” Rimoldi told CNN. “It’s horrible. It’s a nightmare.”
But if life as an unvaccinated person in Europe is a nightmare, it is one from which Rimoldi and his followers could easily wake up. Unlike in poorer parts of the world where some are desperate to receive doses, access to Covid-19 vaccines is plentiful in the EU.
The effects of the shots have been clear for some time; across Europe, regions with lower rates of vaccine uptake have suffered more severe waves of hospitalizations and deaths.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in November that the lives of 470,000 people in Europe aged 60 and over have been saved by vaccines since the rollout began, though it has cautioned against vaccine mandates except as “an absolute last resort … only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccine uptake have been exhausted.” WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned in December that: “What is acceptable in one society and community may not be effective and acceptable in another.”
Rimoldi insists that his group is “not anti-mask” and “not anti-vax” – concerned purely with democracy and legality, rather than the science of the vaccine – though its social media pages have recirculated extreme anti-vaccination websites.
“At our demonstrations there’s many people who are fully vaccinated,” he claimed, adding: “They say, ‘Hey, the government lied to us’” about vaccine rollouts meaning the end of Covid restrictions.
He was unwilling to discuss the vaccine itself, saying only that he refused it as a matter of principle. “We don’t talk much about the vaccine … that’s not one of the topics we discuss,” he said when asked whether he agreed the shots had done more good than harm.
Several campaigners CNN spoke to also expressed concerns that each new set of rules imposed in the name of halting the spread of coronavirus was part of a “slippery slope” of never-ending restrictions.
But vaccine passports or some form of certification – the measures that Rimoldi and others protest loudly – appear to have aided rollouts. A study by the University of Oxford, published in December, found that such policies have led more people to take up the shot in France, Israel, Switzerland and Italy.
Alexander Schallenberg, the former Austrian Chancellor who imposed a lockdown on his country’s unvaccinated population, said in November that its vaccine uptake was “shamefully low.” At the time around 65% of Austria’s population was fully inoculated against Covid-19 – one of the lower rates in the EU – but recent stricter measures have seen that rate rise to over 70%.
As controls have tightened, groups such as Rimoldi’s have become increasingly disruptive; few weekends now pass without loud protests in European cities. And anger at restrictive Covid measures has led many who previously considered themselves apolitical to join in.
Even before the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy in Europe was strongly correlated to a populist distrust of mainstream parties and governments. One study published in the European Journal of Public Health in 2019 found “a highly significant positive association between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and the percentage who believe that vaccines are not important and not effective.”
But leaders of anti-restriction movements are presenting their campaigns as more inclusive and representative than those studies would suggest.
“We have farmers, lawyers, artists, musicians – the whole range of people you can imagine,” Rimoldi said. Mass-Voll is aimed specifically at Swiss young people, and boasts that it has amassed more followers on Instagram than the official youth wings of any of the country’s major political parties.
Christian Fiala, the vice president of Austria’s MFG party, which was formed specifically to oppose lockdowns, mask-wearing and Covid passports, told CNN: “It’s really a movement which comes from the whole population.”
MFG caused a ballot box shock last September, winning seats in one of Austria’s provincial parliaments. “Most of those who voted for us have never been really politically active in that sense, but they are so upset,” he said. “People are really fed up being locked in.”
In France, vaccination uptake is higher but those opposed to Covid rules are no quieter. Bruno Courcelle said he was not overly involved in politics before the pandemic – now the 72-year-old mathematics lecturer is a regular at demonstrations against the vaccine, lockdowns and other Covid control measures.
His stance has left him at odds with family, friends and colleagues. Speaking to CNN before Christmas, Courcelle was preparing for an uncomfortable festive family dinner.
“The rest of my family got vaccinated,” he said, adding that he has had several arguments with relatives who fail to understand why he has joined the ranks of the anti-vaccination protesters.
“My wife said ‘Please, do not say anything [at the table],’” he said. “I will not start such a discussion myself … [but] I will not stay silent letting leftists say their stupid things.”
Courcelle’s own opinions are radical, extremist and, when they purport to rely on scientific claims, are easily debunked.
He disputes the well-established effectiveness and safety of the vaccines, and claims nations are slipping into a “totalitarist (sic) world” distinguishable from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union only in the sense that it is global, rather than nationalistic.
But Courcelle, who works part-time at the University of Bordeaux, where he has emeritus status, said he was comfortable cutting ties with those who disagree with him.
His increasingly public opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine, and to restrictions on unvaccinated people, have left him isolated at work. “This is disappointing,” he said. “I’ve sent emails to my close colleagues [about the vaccine] … I had only one response, which was negative.”
When he attends protests, though, he says he finds people he understands.
Suggs said this is one of the reasons for the movements’ ongoing appeal. “It’s like a fraternity or being a fan of a football club.” People skeptical of government messaging are “looking for something social, and these groups have done an excellent job at inviting whoever will come,” she said.
“I have met new people who share [my] opinions,” said Courcelle.
Fuel on the fire
Two years on, and with opinions becoming more entrenched by the day, some experts fear it may be too late to bridge the divide between the authorities and those who have become vociferously opposed to vaccination measures.
“Those people who are against vaccination are going to be even louder whenever they’re told: ‘You vaccinate, or you die.’ That fuels their fire,” said Suggs.
“But I think if we continue to communicate in a way that tries to not upset them, then we don’t do the rest of the population justice,” she added. “They’re harming people’s health, they’re causing deaths, and they are threatening the economy.”
“These groups are small, they’re very loud, but they’re very appealing because they have answers to questions that other people are not answering,” Suggs said.
And they are “not going away,” warned McKee. “We need to make a very strong argument that being vaccinated is a manifestation of social solidarity,” he said, adding that anti-vaccine protesters “undermine the solidarity that is so important for any country that is facing a threat.”
France’s President Macron appears to have moved on from appealing to the refuseniks’ sense of solidarity – instead he’s now hoping to annoy reluctant French citizens into getting their shots by requiring proof of vaccination for access to a range of everyday activities.
“I’m not going to put them in jail, I’m not going to forcibly vaccinate them, and so, you have to tell them: From January 15, you will no longer be able to go to the restaurant, you will no longer be able to have a drink, go for a coffee, to the theater, you will no longer go to the movies,” Macron told Le Parisien.
But his plan – and his choice of words – have angered opposition politicians and vaccine opponents alike.
The small posse of hardcore anti-vaccine protesters in France “are more visible, more motivated and vocal” than at earlier points in the pandemic, according to Jeremy Ward, a sociologist and researcher at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
“They are an issue,” he said. “In France, many people don’t trust public institutions and public health agencies … A lot of them end up in hospitals, taking up beds that they could have avoided.” Ward estimates that between 5 and 10% of France’s population is staunchly against the vaccine; a large rally against the vaccine pass, approved by France’s lower house last Thursday, took place in Paris on Saturday.
Those who refuse to get inoculated may accuse vaccine passport-wielding politicians of turning them into second-class citizens, but the French President, like many of his European counterparts, is unrepentant.
Macron insists those who do not protect themselves and those around them from Covid-19 by getting vaccinated are “irresponsible” and thus deserving of such a fate.
“When my freedom threatens that of others, I become irresponsible,” he said. “An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen.”