Denise Hruby is a journalist based in Vienna, reporting on the environment, climate change and politics for publications including The New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post.
This week, most Austrians went about their daily lives: They went for lunch at restaurants, enjoyed a glass of mulled wine at a Christmas market or munched on popcorn in the movie theatre. About one-third of the population, however, wasn’t allowed to do any of that: On Monday, Austria placed everyone over the age of 12 who is neither fully vaccinated nor has recently recovered from COVID-19 under lockdown. To enforce the “unvaccinated lockdown,” police set up a “fine-meshed net” of spot-checks and road blocks for commuters.
Nearly half of all COVID-related deaths currently occur in Europe, according to the WHO, but few places are struggling with a surge as dramatic as Austria: Doctors who have never had to deny care are forced to prioritize – deciding who might have to die because there are no resources to tend to them. In a hospital in Upper Austria, one of the hardest-hit provinces, bodies are being piled up in the hallways.
Doctors say the emergency system is on the brink of collapse. They name the same reason: an onslaught of unvaccinated COVID patients.
Though vaccines have long been freely available, in Austria, beliefs in alternative medicine and conspiracy theories abound. For months, experts have been warning that the low vaccination rate of just over 60 per cent would lead to a fourth wave of infections.
Yet then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the end of the pandemic on several occasions, most recently in September. “At least for the vaccinated.”
Last month, when Mr. Kurz stepped down amid a sweeping corruption scandal, seven-day-incidence rates per 100,000 had already begun to rise from about 140 to close to 500. Now, they are close to 1,000. Though ICU units are swamped with unvaccinated patients, the highly contagious Delta variant is causing breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, too.
“The narrative was that the pandemic is over for the vaccinated – but guess what? It isn’t,” political scientist and opinion pollster Peter Hajek told me. Alexander Schallenberg, the new chancellor who is often described as a placeholder, as well as some of Austria’s powerful provincial governors, have been intent on saving Mr. Kurz’s face. Just this week, Mr. Schallenberg said that he “can’t imagine” placing “those who have done everything right” under a lockdown. Those words would prove foolish.
In any case, a lockdown for Austria’s two million unvaccinated didn’t seem to be showing much, if any, effect.
Though police ask everyone they interact with to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID, those who can’t have plenty of legitimate reasons to leave their home: a run to the grocery store or the pharmacy, to the home of a family member in need or a leisurely walk are all permitted. So is going to work.
“This isn’t going to be possible,” police union leader Hermann Greylinger said of enforcing the unvaccinated lockdown last week. Though fines for individuals range from hundreds to up to €1,450, police and interior ministry spokespeople also fail to explain how they can verify whether an unvaccinated person is, indeed, just going for a walk, or headed for the mall. For the most part, they seem to rely on co-operation and goodwill from a group of people who flouted similar measures in the past.
The numbers of daily new infections kept rising this week, quickly climbing to more than 14,000 on Wednesday – about 5,000 more than past waves’ daily record. “At one point they’ll have to say: We were wrong,” Mr. Hajek said. Like most Austrians, he was expecting a full lockdown, which had been discussed for days. It arrived on Friday: The country would go into lockdown on Nov. 22 for up to 20 days. Not only that, Mr. Schallenberg announced mandatory vaccinations, beginning Feb. 1. It was a stunning reversal.
Meanwhile, the unvaccinated are planning large-scale protests. A group of hundreds blocked access to a hospital in Upper Austria earlier this week. While police explained that protesting, too, was a legitimate reason to be out and about, the demonstrators blew horns, yelled “freedom,” and lamented what they called a “dictatorship.” Far-right leader Herbert Kickl has voiced his regrets that he won’t be able to attend coming protests. Until recently, Mr. Kickl has been recommending bogus treatments and spreading disinformation about the pandemic. On Monday, he announced that he tested positive for COVID.
Even before Friday’s announcement of a vaccine mandate, many begrudgingly queued at vaccination centres. On Monday alone, almost 13,000 Austrians got their first dose, more than double from about a month ago. While that’s good news, doctors caution that they likely won’t be fully immunized before the fourth wave has come to an end. The question is: How bad will it get?
Already, doctors’ cries for help ring louder than ever. Speaking to the public broadcaster, one doctor reminded viewers that, at the very beginning of the pandemic, Austria took on patients from France’s overburdened ICUs. He’s now hoping the French will reciprocate.
More and more hospitals are preparing to decide which patients can still be treated – and for whom there isn’t enough capacity. Whether vaccinated or not won’t play into their decision.
To many of my friends and family, that’s baffling. Should they get into an accident, they might die from lack of medical care that is instead given to an unvaccinated patient. Keeping emergency health care going has been the priority since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, after 20 months of lockdowns, postponed weddings and cancelled proms – and despite the vaccines – it’s about to collapse.
Ultimately, the group of unvaccinated won’t exist much longer, one of the country’s most renowned virologists, Dorothee von Laer, told the public broadcaster this week. In six months, Dr. von Laer hoped that they will have joined the vaccinated (a choice now made for them) or the recently recovered. The third option, she said: “Dead.”
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