VEIN. Daniel Zeman was unable to sell a single handmade apple and ginger liqueur last year during the Christmas season because Austria, like the rest of Europe, was locked down. He finally opened his stand four days ago, but the government announced that Sunday would be the last day. Austria was blocked.
While vaccinated people eagerly awaited a 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 that,” said Mr. Zeman. “But it’s Christmas and everyone wants to be together, drink punch, buy gifts and do something with their families.”
Europe is facing a threatening fourth wave of coronavirus with rapidly increasing infection rates. While Austria may be the first European country to respond to national isolation, it may not be the last. This prospect, along with increasingly stringent vaccine requirements, is backlash here and elsewhere, with massive weekend demonstrations in Vienna, Brussels and the Dutch city of Rotterdam, sometimes punctuated by violent outbreaks.
But European leaders may feel they have no choice, despite the proliferation of vaccines, which a year ago were considered a sure-fire way out of the pandemic. While Austria reported more than 14,000 new cases of the virus in 24 hours on Sunday, the Netherlands averaged more than 20,000 cases over the past week, and Germany roughly doubles.
The decision by Austrian officials to impose 10 days of isolation came after months of persistent attempts to stop the infection through widespread testing and partial restrictions. Starting Monday, public life in the country will end, and people will be allowed to leave their homes only to go to work or buy food or medicine.
The new wave of Covid is fueled by widespread resistance to vaccines and the growing demand for vaccinations and masks. Austrian officials have said they will implement a nationwide vaccination mandate in February, becoming the first European country to do so.
Opposition to the vaccine ban and introduction is fueled in part by the far-right Freedom Party, which has used its platform in the Austrian parliament to spread doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines and to promote ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat parasitic worms that have repeatedly been hit by the coronavirus in clinical trials.
But the rage is not limited to far-right activists, as evidenced by the crowds that fill the streets of Vienna on Saturday. Police estimated the crowd at 40,000, with families and others far outnumbered by right-wing extremists.
However, many protesters waved placards that compared the current Austrian government to the Nazis or promoted racist conspiracy theories.
“When the anti-vaccination scene perceives the situation as a war, the logical consequence of this is civil war,” Natasha Strobl, who has written extensively about the ultra-right in Austria, said on the air of the public broadcaster ORF.
Most Austrian marchers have refrained from the violence seen in the Netherlands, where protests against government measures to combat the coronavirus escalated into riots in Rotterdam on Friday night with police attacks and arson of cars and bicycles.
The ire of opponents of the mandate built up in Austria for a week after the government imposed isolation on an estimated two million people who were not vaccinated. Police tasked with enforcing the measure said the unvaccinated had become “clearly more radical,” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said Sunday.
November 21, 2021 4:40 PM ET
Compounding the crisis further, the Austrian government has fallen into paralysis after Sebastian Kurz stepped down as chancellor in early October amid a scandal that has led to feuds between his conservative followers and their ruling coalition partners, the Greens.
In Germany, a similar power vacuum has emerged since the late September elections that transferred Chancellor Angela Merkel to a temporary position as her successor struggles to form a government.
A leading editorial in the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten blamed the Vienna government for allowing the situation to become so politicized that rival camps view each other as enemies and vaccine opponents reject scientific research as politically motivated.
“We assumed that mistletoe sprig therapists were extremely popular and that alleged healers, hand layering and hate preachers became acceptable to modern researchers and pharmacologists,” wrote Manfred Perterer, editor-in-chief of the newspaper.
He called on all relevant groups – not just politicians, but also academics, cultural and social leaders – to engage in dialogue that will help ease some of the fears of those who are not vaccinated.
“First of all, the pandemic needs to be depoliticized,” said Mr. Perterer. “Communication should be clear again.”
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Mr Nehammer, the interior minister, backed the idea on Sunday, saying the “freedom” many protesters insist on can only be achieved through vaccination.
“This is not a question of ideology, it is a question of persuasion; we cannot do and try enough to convince the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, ”said Mr Nehammer.
An alternative could be a vaccine mandate, which the Austrian government plans to introduce in February as a last resort. It is unclear whether this will convince people to get vaccinated or further inflame opponents.
At least one vaccine skeptic lined up Sunday with several dozen other people outside the Vienna Christmas market in front of City Hall to receive their first shots.
Georg Nichitut, who works at a construction site in Vienna, and his wife, who had come out the day before in protest, were among those who waited almost an hour for their shots.
Mr. Nichitut said that 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 reluctant to give up the vaccine.
“I don’t want it, and I don’t like it, but what else can I do?” he said. “I do not have any other choice”.