Anger and division in Austria as lockdown returns

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DEniel Zemann was not able to sell any of his hand-made apple and ginger liqueurs during the Christmas season last year because Austria, along with the rest of Europe, was under lockdown. He finally opened his stand four days ago, only for the government to announce that Sunday would be the last day. Austria was locking down.

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At a time when vaccinated people were hoping to return to traditional holiday rituals, the decision was a blow that angered some and disappointed almost everyone.

“If we have to close in January, I understand it,” Zeman says. “But now it’s Christmastime, and everyone wants to be together, drink punch, buy gifts, and do things with their families.”


With rising infection rates, Europe is facing a fourth wave of the coronavirus. While Austria may be the first European country to react with a nationwide lockdown, it may not be the last. That prospect, coupled with increasingly stringent vaccine mandates, is being punctuated with sometimes violent outbreaks, here and elsewhere, with mass demonstrations in Vienna, Brussels and the Dutch city of Rotterdam over the weekend.

But European leaders may feel they have little choice but to see the spread of vaccines a year ago as a failed way out of the pandemic. Austria, where 66 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, on Sunday reported more than 14,000 new cases of the virus within 24 hours. Over the past week, the Netherlands has averaged more than 20,000, while Germany has seen almost double that number.

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Austrian authorities decided to impose a 10-day lockdown after months of struggling efforts to contain the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions. From Monday, public life in the country came to a halt, with people only allowed to leave their homes to go to work or buy groceries or medicines.

Police estimate the crowd to be 40,000, with many families and others outnumbering right-wing extremists

The new Covid wave is being fueled by widespread resistance to vaccines and the increasing prevalence of vaccines and masks. Austrian officials have said they will implement a nationwide vaccine mandate in February, the first European nation to do so.

Opposition to the lockdown and vaccine mandates is being fueled by the far-right Freedom Party, which has used its platform in the Austrian parliament to spread doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines and promote ivermectin, which is commonly used as a treatment. The medicine used for Parasitic worms that have repeatedly failed in clinical trials against the coronavirus.

But the fury is not limited to far-right activists, as evidenced by those who thronged the streets of Vienna on Saturday. Police estimate the crowd to be 40,000, with many families and others outnumbering right-wing extremists.

Nevertheless, many protesters indicated that the current Austrian government has been compared to the Nazis or that has promoted racist conspiracy theories.

“When the anti-vaccine scene treats the situation as war, the logical consequence is a civil war,” said Natasha Strobl, who writes extensively about Far in Austria, on public broadcaster ORF.

Most Austrian marchers avoided the violence seen in the Netherlands, where protests against the government’s coronavirus measures descended into riots in Rotterdam on Friday night, with police and cars and bicycles under fire with attacks.

Anti-vaccination activists protest nationwide lockdown in Vienna, Austria

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Anti-vaccination activists protest nationwide lockdown in Vienna, Austria

Anti-mandate fury was brewing in Austria for a week after the government imposed a lockdown on nearly 2 million people who were not vaccinated. Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehmer said on Sunday that police have given responsibility for enforcing the measure and said those not vaccinated have become “apparently more radicalized”.

Making the crisis even worse, after Sebastian Kurz resigned as chancellor in early October amid a scandal, the Austrian government was paralyzed for several weeks, leaving both his conservative followers and his allies in the governing coalition, the Greens. There was internal strife.

Germany has been saddled with a similar power vacuum since elections held in late September, which reduced the chancellor, Angela Merkel, to caretaker status while her successor struggles to form a government.

A major editorial for an Austrian newspaper salzburg news In Vienna the government acted to allow the situation to become so political, the warring camps saw each other as enemies and opponents of vaccines dismissed scientific research as politically motivated.

“We have allowed mistletoe-twig healers to be extremely popular and alleged healers, hand folds and hate propagandists to become acceptable against modern researchers and pharmacologists,” wrote the paper’s editor-in-chief, Manfred Perterer.

He called on all relevant groups – not just politicians, but scientists, cultural and social leaders – to engage in dialogue that will help allay some of the fears of those who have not been vaccinated.

Austrian demonstrators take photographs of police during a demonstration against COVID restrictions

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Austrian demonstrators take photographs of police during a demonstration against COVID restrictions

“Above all, the pandemic needs to be politicized,” Perterer says. “The communication needs to be clarified again.”

The interior minister, Nehmer, echoed that view on Sunday, saying that the “freedom” that many protesters say 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 that and try hard enough to explain why vaccination doesn’t happen,” Nehmer said.

The alternative could be the vaccine mandate that the Austrian government plans to introduce in February as a last resort. It is not clear whether this will persuade people to get the vaccine or will further incite opponents.

At least one vaccine skeptic lined up outside Vienna’s Christmas market in front of City Hall on Sunday, along with several dozen others, to get their first jab.

George Nichitut, who works in Vienna for construction, and his wife – who marched the previous day in protest – were among those who waited nearly an hour for their shots.

Nichitut says he had questions that no one could answer about what would happen to him if he had side effects or even what they might be. But to keep working, he said he was reluctantly surrendering to the vaccine.

“I don’t want it, and I don’t like it, but what else am I going to do?” He says. “I have no other choice.”

This article originally appeared in the new York Times


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