Angry and divided, Austrians argue over lockdown, vaccination warrants
VIENNA – Daniel Zeman was unable to sell any of his handmade apple and ginger liqueur last year during the Christmas season because Austria, like the rest of Europe, was on lockdown. He finally opened his stand four days ago, only for the government to announce that Sunday would be the last day. Austria was in the process of shutting down.
At a time when those vaccinated eagerly awaited a return to traditional holiday rituals, the decision was a blow that angered some and frustrated almost everyone.
“If we have to close in January, I understand that,” Zeman said. “But now it’s Christmas and everyone wants to be together, drink punch, buy gifts and do things with their family.”
Europe is experiencing a threatening fourth wave of coronavirus, with infection rates skyrocketing. While Austria may be the first European country to respond with a nationwide lockdown, it may not be the last. This prospect, along with increasingly stringent vaccination mandates, is causing a backlash at home and abroad, with mass protests in Vienna, Brussels and the Dutch city of Rotterdam over the weekend, sometimes punctuated by violent epidemics.
But European leaders may think they have little choice, despite the spread of vaccines that were seen a year ago as a surefire way out of the pandemic. Austria, where 66% of the population is fully vaccinated, reported more than 14,000 new cases of the virus on Sunday within 24 hours. Over the past week, the Netherlands recorded an average of more than 20,000, while Germany saw about double that number.
The decision by Austrian authorities to impose a lockdown that will last at least 10 days and up to 20 days came after months of arduous attempts to stop the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions. From Monday, public life in the country will come to a halt, with people only allowed to leave their homes to go to work or to go shopping or for medicine.
The new wave of Covid is driven by widespread resistance to vaccines and the increasing prevalence of vaccine and mask warrants. Austrian officials have said they will implement a nationwide vaccine mandate in February, the first European country to do so.
Opposition to containment and vaccination mandates is fueled in part by the far-right Freedom Party, which has used its platform in the Austrian parliament to cast doubt on the effectiveness of vaccines and promote ivermectin , a drug typically used to treat parasitic worms that have repeatedly failed against the coronavirus in clinical trials.
But the fury is not limited to far-right activists, as evidenced by the crowds that filled the streets of Vienna on Saturday. Police estimated the crowd at 40,000, with many families and many outnumber the right-wing extremists.
Nonetheless, many protesters held up placards comparing the current Austrian government to the Nazis or promoting racist conspiracy theories.
“When the anti-vaccine scene sees it as a war, the logical consequence is a civil war,” said Natascha Strobl, who has written extensively on the far right in Austria, on the ORF public broadcaster.
Most Austrian protesters refrained from violence seen in the Netherlands, where a protest against government coronavirus measures escalated into riots in Rotterdam on Friday evening, with attacks on police and cars and bikes set on fire .
Anti-warrant fury had intensified in Austria for a week, after the government imposed lockdown on the estimated two million people who were not vaccinated. The police, responsible for enforcing the measure, said the unvaccinated had become “clearly more radical,” said Karl Nehammer, Austria’s interior minister on Sunday.
Worsening the crisis further, the Austrian government fell into weeks of paralysis after Sebastian Kurz resigned as chancellor in early October amid a scandal, resulting in infighting between his conservative supporters and their coalition partners in the power, the Greens.
Germany has been grappling with a similar power vacuum since elections at the end of September that reduced Chancellor Angela Merkel to interim status while her successor struggles to form a government.
A leading editorial in the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten criticized the Vienna government for allowing the situation to become so politicized, with warring camps seeing themselves as the enemy and vaccine opponents dismissing scientific research as politically motivated.
“We have admitted that mistletoe twig therapists are immensely popular and that so-called healers, diapers on hands and hate preachers have become acceptable against modern researchers and pharmacologists,” wrote Manfred Perterer, editor. head of the newspaper.
He called on all concerned groups – not just politicians, but scientists, cultural and social leaders – to engage in a dialogue that would help allay some of the fears of those who are not vaccinated.
“Above all, the pandemic must be depoliticized,” said Perterer. “Communication must become clear again. “
Home Secretary Nehammer echoed the idea on Sunday, saying the “freedom” many protesters insist they want can only be achieved through vaccination.
“It is not a question of ideology, it is a question of convincing; we can’t do and try to convince enough that the unvaccinated get vaccinated, ”said Nehammer.
The alternative could be the vaccine warrant that the Austrian government plans to introduce in February as a last resort. It is not clear whether this would persuade people to get vaccinated or further inflame opponents.
At least one vaccine skeptic lined up with several dozen other people in front of Vienna’s Christmas market in front of city hall on Sunday to receive their first vaccines.
Georg Nichitut, who works in the building in Vienna, and his wife – who paraded the day before at the protest – were among those who waited nearly an hour for their shots.
Mr Nichitut said he had questions that no one could answer about what would happen to him if he had any side effects, or even what they might be. But to keep working, he said he reluctantly surrendered to the vaccine.
“I don’t want it and I don’t like it, but what else am I going to do?” ” he said. “I have no other choice.