Unrest is spreading in Europe as coronavirus lockdowns return

A syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca is raised in a vaccination center of the Harz district in Germany on April 5, 2021. Demonstrations are growing in Europe, where governments are increasingly targeting the unvaccinated. (Matthias Bein/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)
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Jonathan Tirone, Fred Pals and Alexander Weber Bloomberg News (TNS)

Several thousand protesters gathered in Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a vaccine mandate and a national lockdown to contain record coronavirus cases.

The demonstration came as unrest is on the rise in Europe, where governments are increasingly targeting the unvaccinated.

Protesters, mostly unmasked, shouted and sang, and waved flags and home-made signs. The far-right Freedom Party, which opposes vaccine directives, spearheaded the action to protest Austria’s moves.

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The demonstration followed one in Rotterdam on Friday that turned violent, with several people injured and water cannons turned on protesters.

European governments are desperate to end the pandemic after more than 18 months. A fourth wave of infections has reached record levels in several countries, putting health systems under strain yet again and threatening the economic recovery.

In their bid to put COVID-19 behind them, governments, including those of Germany, the Czech Republic and Greece as well as Austria and the Netherlands, are increasingly focused on the unvaccinated. The effort has collided with a vocal minority who are opposed to health-care directives.

Austria’s fourth national lockdown of the pandemic starts on Monday. People will be able to leave home only for essential reasons, such as buying groceries and exercising.

Blocks from Saturday’s demonstration, and elsewhere across the city, other Viennese took advantage of a mild, sunny day to visit cafes, boutiques and Christmas markets that will soon be forced to close as as long as three weeks.

In Rotterdam on Friday, protesters denounced a plan by the Netherlands government to exclude negative tests from the national health pass, which would cut the unvaccinated off from many activities. Police fired warning shots and broke up the crowd with a water cannon. At least seven injuries were reported.

The state of Saxony in eastern Germany, one of the nation’s worst hit by the current wave of infections, announced tighter curbs on public life late on Friday. Christmas markets were canceled and people who aren’t vaccinated face a curfew in hotspot areas. Bavaria has also set a mixture of lockdowns and curfews.

Austria’s daily COVID-19 cases have spiked this month, and deaths, while not rising as much, are the highest since last winter. Salzburg and Upper Austria currently have the highest seven-day COVID-19 incidence in Europe, according to the World Health Organization.

In Germany, Lothar Wieler, the head of the public health institute RKI, told the DPA newswire that contacts between citizens need to be rapidly reduced across the whole country to stem the surge of infections. He also urged a massive ramp-up in vaccinations.

About 68% of Germans and 65% of Austrians have been fully inoculated against COVID-19, below levels thought to create “herd immunity” from the virus. They lag neighbors like France and Italy, but vaccination levels in Eastern Europe are even far lower — from 59% in the Czech Republic to 24% in Bulgaria.

Hospitals and intensive care units in much of Europe are filling up, largely with the unvaccinated.

Almost nine out of every 10 patients in Greece’s ICUs are unvaccinated, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a nationally televised address. It’s a pattern that’s been repeated in recent months, from Italy to the U.S. to Australia.

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