Unrest spreading in Europe as coronavirus lockdowns return

People take part in a demonstration against the Covid-19 measures of the Austrian government in Vienna on Nov 20, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Demonstrators gather to protest against the Covid-19 measures in Vienna on Nov 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS) - Several thousand protesters gathered in Vienna on Saturday (Nov 20) 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 against Austria's moves.

The demonstration followed one in Rotterdam on Friday that turned violent, with two people seriously injured when police fired shots during the protest. Fifty-one people were arrested.

"Fifty-one people were arrested during the major disturbances on Friday evening and night on Coolsingel (street) in Rotterdam. About half of them were just underage," Rotterdam police said in a tweet.

The Netherlands went back into Western Europe's first partial lockdown of the winter last Saturday (Nov 13) with at least three weeks of curbs, and is now planning to ban unvaccinated people from entering some venues.

A few hundred protesters angered at the latest measures gathered in Amsterdam on Saturday (Nov 20) and a similar number marched through the southern city of Breda near the Belgian border.

Organisers of the Breda protest said they opposed Prime Minister Mark Rutte's plans to exclude the unvaccinated from bars and restaurants.

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.

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 healthcare 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 away 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 for as long as three weeks.

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 cancelled and people who are not vaccinated face a curfew in hotspot areas.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Vienna on Nov 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

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 Organisation.

In Germany, Dr 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 per cent of Germans and 65 per cent of Austrians have been fully inoculated against Covid-19, below levels thought to create "herd immunity" from the virus.

Remote video URL

They lag neighbours like France and Italy, but vaccination levels in Eastern Europe are even far lower - from 59 per cent in the Czech Republic to 24 per cent 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 is a pattern that has been repeated in recent months, from Italy to the United States to Australia.

Remote video URL

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.