VIENNA/BERLIN – Austria entered its fourth national lockdown on Monday after tens of thousands of people, many of them far-right supporters, protested in Vienna against renewed curbs on movement as Europe again becomes the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.
Protests turned to violence in Brussels and across the Netherlandsover the weekend amid frustration over yet more government controls nearly two years after the virus was first identified in China.
Austria, introducing the first lockdown in western Europe since vaccines became available, also announced it would make it compulsory to get inoculated as of Feb. 1. Many Austrians are sceptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third biggest in parliament.
Vienna’s streets were quieter than usual on a chilly, overcast Monday as many shops stayed shut, but people went to work, which was still permitted. The government urged people to work from home where possible.
About 40,000 people protested peacefully in Austria’s capital on Saturday, with only six arrests.
“It’s like a luxury prison. It’s definitely limited freedom and for me it’s not great psychologically,” said Sascha Iamkovyi, a 43-year-old entrepreneur in the food sector.
“People were promised (by the government) that if they got vaccinated they would be able to lead a normal life, but now that’s not true.”
Roughly 66% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe.
Authorities blame mainly the unvaccinated for the current COVID wave, though experts say vaccine protection appears to wane after some months and that inoculation, while greatly reducing the risk of serious illness or death, does not prevent viral transmission or re-infection.
Under Austria’s lockdown, restaurants, cafes, bars, theatres, non-essential shops and hairdressers cannot open their doors for 10 days, and maybe as many as 20.
People can leave home for a limited number of reasons like going to workplaces or buying essentials. Going for a walk is allowed with no limit on time or distance.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia banned unvaccinated people from pubs and services from Monday.
Stock markets kicked off the week on a cautious note after posting a second consecutive weekly drop, and the euro struggled as traders weighed the risks of new lockdowns.
WATER CANNON AND TEAR GAS
Christmas markets in Austria, a huge tourist draw that had only just begun to open, must also close but, in a last-minute change, Austrian ski lifts can remain open to the vaccinated.
The conservative-led government imposed a lockdown on the unvaccinated last week but daily infections kept extending far above the previous peak, given continued vaccine scepticism as winter draws in, driving more people indoors.
Riots broke out in cities across the Netherlands as police clashed with mobs of angry youths who set fires and threw rocks to protest at COVID-19 restrictions. More than 100 people were arrested during three nights of violence, which saw police open fire at rioters in Rotterdam on Friday.
Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Brussels on Sunday, with officers firing water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and smoke bombs, witnesses said.
In many parts of Germany, including its capital Berlin, Christmas markets opened for the first time in two years on Monday even as the COVID-19 infection rate reached a fresh record.
But states bordering Austria and the Czech Republic that have by far Germany’s highest case numbers have introduced stricter rules including cancelling Christmas markets, barring the unvaccinated from restaurants and bars, and nighttime curfews.
In France, proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required to go to restaurants and cinemas and President Emmanuel Macron said last week more lockdowns were not needed.
But violence erupted last week in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe amid protests over COVID-19 restrictions such as the mandatory vaccination of health workers.
Police have arrested at least 38 people and dozens of stores have been looted. Macron said on Monday the protests had created a “very explosive” situation.