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The situation is fluid, but one thing is clear: Austria’s imposition of lockdowns shows that after five months of the EU’s Green Pass, the Covid-19 virus is far from under control.
The population of Austria began this week (Nov. 15) waking up to yet another Covid-19 lockdown – but with a difference: this one was for only a sub-section of the population, albeit a very large one: the unvaccinated. In other words, life was to continue as normal for the 66% of the country’s population who had received one or more doses of the Covid-19 vaccine or could prove they have recovered from the virus within the last 180 days, but if you belonged to the 34% who were not in these two categories, you would need a very good excuse to leave your house.
By the end of this week, the whole script had changed. On Friday morning, the Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced a full lockdown and declared mandatory vaccination for everyone, to begin in February. From the New York Times:
Austria will go into a nationwide lockdown on Monday and impose a coronavirus vaccination mandate in February, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday. It is the first such lockdown in a European nation since the spring, and the first national vaccine mandate to be announced in a Western democracy.
Austria has one of Europe’s highest national coronavirus infection rates, with 14,212 new cases registered in 24 hours on Thursday. And the Alpine country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe….
Recent restrictions on unvaccinated people have failed to bring the outbreak sufficiently under control, leading to the measures announced on Friday.
It’s the first ruling of its kind in any liberal democracy. As Politico reports, It is the first European country — and one of the first in the world — to impose compulsory vaccination. It’s a huge step in the global public health response, especially for vaccines that are still,, authorised by the Europe Medicines Agency only on a “fast track” basis. During the same address the president also declared a lockdown for everyone that will last a maximum of 20 days.
So, in the space of just five days the Austrian government has gone from selective lockdown for the unvaccinated to blanket lockdown for everyone, becoming the first western European country to go into full lockdown after the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccines. If other European countries follow suit, the global economy and markets could be in for a very bumpy winter. That said, the main focus of this article, the lion’s share of which was written yesterday, is on the government’s lockdown of the unvaccinated. We are in, as Lambert is wont to say, an overly dynamic situation.
Segregation on Steroids
The decision to launch the world’s first official lockdown of the unvaccinated was taken on Sunday (Nov 14) by Federal Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, whose Austrian People’s Party (OVP) leads the coalition government with the Green Party, as well as the heads of the nine autonomous federal provinces. On that day the number of newly confirmed Covid infections had surged to almost 12,000 (equivalent to around 90,000 new daily cases in the UK or 444,000 in the US). A total of 441 of the country’s roughly 2,000 ICU beds were occupied by Covid-19 patients.
The new measures came into force after midnight on Monday morning with the following key restrictions for the unjabbed or those who had Covid more than 6 months ago. They were told they could only leave their house:
• To go to work
• To go to school, college or university
• To go to the doctor’s or hospital or attend a vaccination centre
• To exercise
• To shop for essential items i.e. food
Anyone who had received just the first vaccination would remain exempt from the restrictions as long as they can provide negative PCR test results.
The new rules would be enforced by the police, with on-the-spot fines of up to €1450. More than two million citizens were affected by this discriminatory lockdown. The measures were to continue until November 24th, when they would be revisited. According to Federal Health Minister, Wolfgang Mückstein (Green Party), more restrictions such as evening curfews were likely to be brought in unless the exponential rise in cases in this fourth national wave is kept in check by the new measures. Instead, the country has gone into full national lockdown.
The Green Pass Effect
So far, EU Member States’ use of their respective iterations of the so-called Green Pass, which was launched in June, has produced mixed results. Since France’s Macron government introduced its pass sanitaire regulations in late June, which essentially banned people without the pass from the interiors and exteriors of bars, cafés and restaurants, from using the national train network and even entering a hospital, apart from for emergency procedures, vaccination rates have rocketed. On July 1, just 31% of the population was fully vaccinated. By Nov. 15 that number had more than doubled, to 69%. Yet in that time the country has seen one wave of infections wane only for a new one to wax just a couple of months later.
In Italy Draghi’s coalition government unleashed one of the world’s strictest “no jab, no job mandates” in mid-October, as I reported for NC at the time:
[A]ll residents of Italy need a covid passport, or Green Pass, to access not only public spaces but also public and private workplaces. The pass proves that they have either been vaccinated against Covid-19, have recovered from the disease in the past six months or have recently tested negative. And now they need it to make a living, to feed their families.
The “no jab, no job” rule applies to workers of all kinds, including the self employed, domestic staff and even people working remotely. If you’d still rather not get vaccinated, you have the option of showing proof of a negative test every two days. That can cost anywhere between €15 and €50 each time — far beyond the means of most low-paid workers. If you still refuse to get vaccinated or present proof of negative tests, you face unpaid suspension as well as a fine of up to €1,500. Public sector workers have five days to present the green pass before being suspended. Private sector workers without a green pass face suspension from the first day.
It’s hard to track down just how many of the 3.8 million workers have relented and taken the vaccine, or at least downloaded the green pass. But one thing is clear: if Draghi’s draconian policy was aimed at containing Covid-19 infections, it doesn’t seem to be working. Since October 15 Italy’s Covid infections have increased from around 3,000 a day to around 10,000 a day.
A similar story is playing out across Europe’s landmass. Most EU Member States have required hospitality green passes or similar health passports to enter restaurants, bars, museums, libraries and other public places. Yet in many of those countries cases are rising at breakneck speed. Germany shattered a new record on Thursday, reporting more than 65,000 new cases. In Spain the restrictions on unvaccinated people are still fairly light after Spain’s Supreme Court ruled in August against the use of covid passports to restrict access to public spaces, only to dial back its decision a month later. Spain has one of the highest vaccination in Europe as well as one of the warmest climes and a population that is largely willing to mask up in most indoor public places, all of which helps. But while the number of daily new cases is still pretty low, it is rising.
In Europe’s league table of those who have received two vaccinations, Austria languishes in the bottom half. On Nov. 18 its seven-day incidence rose to 971 per 100,000 people, with 15,145 new cases on that day. Previously the highest infection rate was in 2020 when the country went into full lockdown.
Near the top of the table is Ireland where cases have also exploded over the past month. The 14-day incidence of the disease currently stands at 959 per 100,000 people, which is roughly the same as Austria’s. This is despite the fact that Ireland has one of the most vaccinated populations in Europe, with over 90% of all over-16s fully vaccinated. That hasn’t stopped Irish officials from blaming the unvaccinated members of the public for the latest wave as they reimpose curfews on pubs and clubs.
Back in Austria, the federal nature of the country means that individual states can decide on further measures if they wish. The present hotspots for new infections are Upper Austria and Salzburg. Upper Austria is an interesting case, with the highest infection but lowest vaccination rates. It is a stronghold of the Freedom Party of Austria with its long-held scepticism towards the media, science in general and vaccinations in particular. The governor of the state, Thomas Stelzer, of the People’s Party, said that Upper Austria would, with Salzburg, declare a total lockdown if the Federal government did not do so on Friday, which may have forced Schallenberg’s hand.
Over the past 30 years right-wing politics in Austria has tended to move away from the centre ground towards more radical policies. This has affected the previously traditional Austrian People’s Party, whose leader is still Sebastian Kurz but who was forced to step down as Federal Chancellor for a second time just last month after becoming embroiled in a financial scandal. The main reason for this change has been immigration, a factor not unconnected to the present lockdown.
The implosion of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s led to huge numbers of refugees heading west, with no fewer than 900,000 arriving in Germany alone in 1992. Austria was for many of those displaced the first country to escape to and this sudden influx, particularly to the capital, Vienna, created issues which have improved but not gone away. Another large influx during the Syrian crisis in 2015 played into the hands of the anti-immigration parties, moving the political dial further to the right.
This is relevant to the present situation concerning the differentiated lockdown. It is often stated that many of those refusing to be vaccinated are non-Austrians living in Austria i.e. predominantly refugees from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. In August 2020 Sebastian Kurz as Federal Chancellor stated that “the virus is arriving in Austria by car”, which implied those returning from summer holidays with family in the former Yugoslavia, not true Austrians returning from Italy or holidaymakers visiting Austria from Northern Europe. In other words, ethnic scapegoating can play a part in party political deliberations at the highest level
Class War Redux
Conspicuously absent from much of the debate over Austria’s ratcheting of Europe’s vaccine passport regime are the people most affected by the measures: the more than two million unvaccinated people who have been placed under semi-house arrest. In most media reports they are spoken of but rarely to. One exception is the British website Unherd, which published an article and min-documentary on what is happening in the country. In the video Unherd‘s executive director Freddie Sayers spoke to a couple (a Brazilian lady, an Austrian man) living on the outskirts of Vienna about why they hadn’t got vaccinated and what they felt about the new rules. He also interviewed passersby on one of Vienna’s plushest streets. One of the things he noticed was a distinct class division underlying reactions to the government’s measures:
“I think it comes much too late,” says one woman. “They’re crazy. All the trouble we have is due to those people that believe in, I don’t know, that the earth is flat… If the majority of society depends on idiots, then they can’t be helped and it’s the end of society!”
Her view is typical — there is very little sympathy here, and a good deal of frustration. Only a few voices take the opposing view, and they tend to be passers-through more than the wealthy locals; the doormen and deliverymen we try to talk to just shake their heads. One man simply describes the latest lockdown as “bullshit”.
What is striking is that very few think the policy will actually work. Covid levels per capita have shot up in recent weeks, and Austria now has one of the highest case rates in Europe. The rationale behind the lockdown is that it will increase the level of vaccination (low for a Western European country at 65%); but even supporters of the move predict that it will be followed up by more universal measures soon enough. The Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg openly explains that the policy is a heavy-handed “nudge”: “My aim is very clear: to get the unvaccinated to get vaccinated, not to lock up the unvaccinated,” he told ORF radio station.
On a practical level, though, the logic of the new rules does not withstand much scrutiny: unvaccinated workers are permitted to travel to and from work, and they work disproportionately within the hospitality sector. This means that they are currently allowed into restaurants and bars to serve, but not to consume. In any case, if there were only vaccinated people in a venue, that wouldn’t necessarily make it Covid-free. Many places require daily testing for non-vaccinated staff, yet not for the vaccinated, leading to the odd situation where the unvaccinated are “safer” than the patrons.
There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about the new reality taking shape across Europe. One thing that is clear is that five months of the EU’s Green Pass, the Covid-19 virus is far from under control. Governments all over the continent are frantically segregating their populations and redrawing the terms and conditions of the social contract on the basis of a vaccine that barely stops the transmission of the Covid-19 virus, as even Bill Gates acknowledged last week.
The vaccine passports also create a false sense of security among those who are vaccinated. As a result, they are more likely to ditch masks and congregate in crowded indoor spaces. They are also being told in some countries that they don’t need to quarantine after exposure to a covid case (while the unvaccinated are told the opposite). This, as Yves has previously noted, is a “prescription for more cases”, which is precisely what we are seeing in Europe.
The worst thing about what Austria’s lockdown of the unvaccinated is that it sets yet another precedent in the ongoing division and segregation of many of the world’s supposedly liberal democracies. The governors of five regions in Italy are already talking about following Vienna’s lead and locking down the unvaccinated people there. If they did that, it would make it all but impossible for those without a Green Pass to even eke out a living in the informal economy.