BRUSSELS – This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.
With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen – the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.
Governments desperate to shield overburdened health care systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope that doing so will drive up rates of vaccinations.
Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of Feb. 1.
“For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said. He called the move “our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good.”
While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.
Starting Monday, Slovakia is banning people who haven't been vaccinated from all nonessential stores and shopping malls. They also will not be allowed to attend any public event or gathering and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.
“A merry Christmas does not mean a Christmas without COVID-19,” warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger. “For that to happen, Slovakia would need to have a completely different vaccination rate.” He called the measures “a lockdown for the unvaccinated.”
Slovakia, where just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, reported a record 8,342 new virus cases on Tuesday.
It is not only nations of central and eastern Europe that are suffering anew. Wealthy nations in the west also are being hit hard and imposing restrictions on their populations once again.
“It is really, absolutely, time to take action,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. With a vaccination rate of 67.5%, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.
“All of Germany is one big outbreak,” Lothar Wieler, head of Germany's disease control agency, told reporters Friday. “This is a nationwide state of emergency. We need to pull the emergency brake.”
In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a battery of new restrictions last week for the unvaccinated, keeping them out of bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and gyms, even if they have tested negative.
The restrictions enrage Clare Daly, an Irish EU legislator and member of the European parliament's civil liberties and justice committee. She argues that nations are trampling individual rights.
“In a whole number of cases, member states are excluding people from their ability to go to work,” Daly said, calling Austria's restrictions on the unvaccinated that preceded its decision Friday to impose a full lockdown “a frightening scenario.”
Even in Ireland, where 75.9% of the population are fully vaccinated, she feels a backlash against holdouts.
“There's almost a sort of hate speech being whipped up against the unvaccinated,” she said.
Birgitte Schoenmakers, a general practitioner and professor at Leuven University, sees political conflicts whipped up by people spreading conspiracy theories but also intensely human stories. One of her patients has been locked out of the home of her parents because she dreads being vaccinated.
Schoemakers said that while authorities had long balked at the idea of mandatory vaccinations, the highly infectious delta variant is changing minds.
“A U-turn on this is incredibly difficult,” she said.
Austrians, others protest virus limits
Tens of thousands of protesters, many from far-right groups, marched through Vienna on Saturday after the Austrian government announced a nationwide lockdown beginning Monday to contain skyrocketing coronavirus infections.
Demonstrations against virus restrictions also took place in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy and the Netherlands on Saturday, a day after Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam.