Austria re-enters Covid lockdown after violent protests in Europe
Austria returned to a partial lockdown in the most dramatic Covid-19 restrictions seen in Western Europe for months after a weekend of violence against virus measures rocked several cities on the continent.
The Alpine nation is also imposing a sweeping vaccine mandate from February 1, one of few places in the world to announce such a step so far.
Shops, restaurants and festive markets were shuttered on Monday, while its 8.9 million people are not allowed to leave home with few exceptions such as going to work, shopping for essentials and exercising as virus cases are surging.
Schools and kindergartens remain open, though parents have been asked to keep children at home when possible despite there being no distance learning offered during the three-week lockdown.
One parent, Kathrin Pauser, said she was still dropping her daughters nine and 11, both of who got recently vaccinated, to school.
“It’s a very confusing situation,” she told AFP.
– ‘Dictatorship’ –
The measures come after a weekend of violent clashes in several European cities — including in Belgium and the Netherlands — where tens of thousands demonstrators took to the streets to protest Covid measures.
Around 145 people have been arrested in the Netherlands over three days of unrest sparked by a Covid curfew, and in Brussels on Sunday, officers fired water cannon and tear gas at a protest police said was attended by 35,000.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Monday slammed the “violence under the guise of protest”, saying he defends the right to demonstrate peacefully, but “will never accept that idiots use pure violence”.
And in Denmark this weekend, around 1,000 demonstrators protested government plans to reinstate a Covid pass for civil servants.
“People want to live,” said one of the organisers of the Dutch protests, Joost Eras. “That’s why we’re here.”
A crowd of 40,000 marched through Vienna on Saturday decrying “dictatorship”, while some 6,000 people protested in the city of Linz on Sunday.
Vienna’s rally was organised by a far-right political party, and some protesters wore a yellow star reading “not vaccinated”, mimicking the Star of David Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.
French troops headed to Guadeloupe on Sunday after a week of unrest over Covid measures, while Prime Minister Jean Castex was set to convene a meeting in Paris with officials from the French Caribbean island.
Roads were blocked Sunday after protesters defying a curfew looted and torched shops and pharmacies overnight, when police made 38 arrests and two members of the security forces were injured.
– ‘Vaccinated, cured or dead’ –
The violence come as Covid infections spiral in Europe.
Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn issued a fresh call on Monday for citizens to get vaccinated.
“Probably by the end of this winter, as is sometimes cynically said, pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, cured or dead,” Spahn said, blaming “the very contagious Delta variant”.
Austria’s decision flies in the face of earlier promises that tough virus restrictions would be a thing of the past.
Over the summer, then chancellor Sebastian Kurz had declared the pandemic “over”.
But plateauing inoculation rates, record case numbers and a rising death toll have forced the government to walk back such bold claims.
After taking office in October, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg criticised the “shamefully low” vaccine rate — 66 percent compared to France’s 75 percent — and banned the un-jabbed from public spaces.
When that proved ineffective at squelching new infections, he announced a nationwide lockdown, with an evaluation after 10 days.
Political analyst Thomas Hofer blamed Schallenberg for maintaining “the fiction” of a successfully contained pandemic for too long.
“The government didn’t take the warnings of a next wave seriously,” he told AFP.
“The chaos is evident.”