How the government brought the country into a fourth lockdown

Vienna Day one of the nationwide lockdown in Austria: It’s quiet, but not deserted. Vienna doesn’t seem as deserted as it did during the first lockdown in March 2020. At that time, Covid-19 was a largely unknown disease. People stayed home for fear of infection. Today Vienna seems about as lively as on a sleepy Sunday without tourists.

Austria is back where it was exactly a year ago. It is the fourth lockdown and is expected to last until December 13th.

The shops have also come to terms with the new circumstances. “Our online shop never takes a break,” says the window of a large bookstore. “Click and Collect” is currently the strategy of the retail trade. However, there are concerns of small stores that either do not have online sales or find it difficult to gain attention through this channel.

Retailers and tourism companies still believe that the Christmas business and the winter season can be partially saved. “I hope that at least part of the winter season will take place,” said Finance Minister Gernot Blümel from the conservative ruling party ÖVP last Friday.

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Winter tourism is in a delicate position. In Austria it has a weight like in no other country in the northern hemisphere. In the last winter season before the pandemic, the country had recorded 75 million overnight stays.

Last winter, the number of overnight stays fell to 5.6 million. Only spa guests and business travelers were allowed to check into the hotels, not winter sports enthusiasts. The government wanted at all costs to prevent this scenario from happening again this winter.

New rules could not slow the dynamism of the fourth wave

But all the measures with which the Austrian government had resisted a new lockdown almost desperately since the beginning of November did not bring much in the short term: Neither the 3G rule in the workplace nor the exclusion of the unvaccinated by the 2G provisions from public life was able to achieve the dynamic to brake the fourth wave.

The measures came too late, and so the corona virus spread rapidly, especially in schools. They have become corona hotspots. Four weeks ago the seven-day incidence in the country had been 281; on Sunday it reached the value of 1100. In Europe so far this autumn only Slovakia and Slovenia have been hit as hard by the fourth corona wave as Austria.

The Viennese simulation researcher Nikolaus Popper sees three reasons for this: the low vaccination rate, too few controls of the measures taken and the incomplete test infrastructure. “We should have implemented a lot more consistently,” he says.

Police car in Vienna

With the announced compulsory vaccination, the government accepts that certain opponents of vaccination will further radicalize.

(Photo: imago images / SKATA)

At least the government managed to use 2G and 3G to get some of the vaccineers to get a vaccine. For example, in the days leading up to the lockdown, young Austrians said they had now opted for the trick so that they could continue to eat out with friends.

At the beginning of October, only around 5000 people had been vaccinated against Covid-19 on a seven-day average (first vaccination); this figure rose to 19,000 following the announcement of the 2G and 3G rules in mid-November. Nevertheless, only 66 percent of the population are vaccinated, which means that the country falls behind in comparison to Western Europe.

Government accepts radicalization of those who oppose vaccination

According to most virologists, given the aggressive Delta variant, this vaccination quota is not enough to keep the pandemic in check. Last week Austria therefore took a measure that until now only the Vatican had resolved to take in Europe: From February 1st, vaccination will be mandatory in the country. For unvaccinated people, however, it remains uncomfortable beforehand. After the lockdown, the 2G rule will apply again. This should also lead to a higher vaccination rate.

The government is accepting that certain anti-vaccination campaigners will radicalize themselves further. Interior Minister Karl Nehammer warned against this again at the weekend. On Saturday there was a demonstration of vaccination opponents and corona skeptics with around 40,000 participants in Vienna. Nehammer spoke of the sometimes “heated and aggressive mood” that prevailed. Right-wing extremists and Holocaust deniers had mixed with the demonstrators. However, there were no excesses of violence like in Rotterdam in Vienna.

The Austrian government is of the opinion that the compulsory vaccination is compatible with the constitution of the country. The constitution minister Karoline Edtstadler said at the weekend that she had ruled out such a step until recently. “But the low vaccination rate and the high number of infections taught me better.”

In addition, she considers the compulsory vaccination to be less of an encroachment on the rights of citizens than the lockdown, which paralyzes social life. “That is a weighing of proportionality,” said the minister. At the same time Edtstadler exercised humility. The government has given a picture in the past few weeks that is not good, she said.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg

Austria is an example of what happens when party-political bickering in a government gains the upper hand in the fight against pandemics.

(Photo: imago images / Eibner Europe)

Meanwhile, the government of the ÖVP and the Greens speaks at least with one voice. At the beginning of last week, on the other hand, there had been cacophony. Once again the government looked divided.

The Green Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein, who is actually responsible for the measures against the pandemic, was repeatedly exposed by ÖVP ministers. Again and again he had urged strict measures, such as local lockdowns or night curfews. But he was not heard by his government colleagues. The doctor, who has only been in office since April, was overwhelmed by the intrigues in Austria’s politics.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg had also repeatedly rejected a lockdown for vaccinated people. “I don’t see that two thirds of their freedom are being lost because a third hesitates to vaccinate,” he said ten days ago.

Ex-Chancellor Kurz hovers over the government

Mückstein was downright disavowed by the Minister of Tourism and Agriculture, Elisabeth Köstinger. “I do not believe in the words of the health minister at all,” she announced a week ago in a cutting tone.

Köstinger in particular is considered a very close confidante of Sebastian Kurz, who resigned as Federal Chancellor in October. Since then, it has hovered like a shadow over the corona policy of the Austrian government. As Federal Chancellor, he had repeatedly forecast the end of the pandemic. That, too, probably prevented the ÖVP ministers from taking strict measures against the pandemic more quickly. Such a move would have exposed Kurz’s pandemic strategy as a short-sighted political maneuver.

Austria is thus an example of what happens when party-political bickering in a government gains the upper hand in the fight against a pandemic. This had a particular impact on the federal state of Upper Austria, which was hit hard by the fourth wave of pandemics.

The opposition accuses ÖVP and governor Thomas Stelzer of “deliberate inactivity in the summer”. Here the accusation resonates that ÖVP representatives had glossed over the infection situation before the state elections in September. This with the ulterior motive of not delivering ammunition to the FPÖ, whose members partially vehemently reject the corona measures.

Upper Austria is special in that the vaccination rate in the state is lower than anywhere else in the state. At the bottom of the list are regions with a traditionally high proportion of very right-wing voters such as the Innviertel.

How important the critical camp is was then shown in the elections: The vaccine-skeptical List People, Fundamental Rights, Freedom (MFG) managed to get into the state parliament with a share of 6.2 percent of the vote.

Austria’s ruling coalition has recently come to the fore against such extreme forces. The dramatic situation in the hospitals forced them to do so.

However, it is uncertain how long the keep will last. Some observers believe that the differences between the two ruling parties will re-emerge as soon as the fourth wave of pandemics subsides. There is enough potential for conflict, for example in questions of migration and environmental policy.

More: For Austria’s economy, the lockdown is the lesser evil

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