Austria’s Covid Surge Is a Warning to the World

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at university hospital Salzburg, Intensive care physician Andreas Kokofer is seeing the rise of COVID-19 infections with a serious urgency. with the arrival of cases Daily record high 15,809 On November 19, Kokofar and his colleagues are preparing themselves for an influx of patients.

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The state of Salzburg is a particular hotspot of the current outbreak, in which 1,731 cases per 100,000 people In the past seven days, compared to 1,110 across Austria. With the situation expected to worsen in the coming weeks, hospital administrators across the region are likely to consider making tough decisions on which COVID-19 patients will qualify for intensive care, and which will not.

So how did Austria end up in such a dire situation, while many countries are devising an exit strategy from the pandemic? The reasons for decreased levels of immunity to a social and cultural storm fueled by long-standing political divisions are manifold, which has led many Austrians to reject COVID-19 vaccines.


Importantly, what Austria is experiencing could soon affect the scores of other countries – and it all comes down to a precarious balance of numbers. As the crisis threatened to spiral out of control, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schalenberg was forced into a decision that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago. As of Monday, the country has entered month-long national lockdown, heralding the return of restrictions many had hoped would be gone for good. As of 2020, the Austrian population has been asked to stay at home and only leave the house for essential purposes. Schools remain open, although parents have been told to keep their children at home if possible.

This decision has been taken with anger in some corners of the country. Last weekend, 40,000 people took to the streets in Vienna, carrying some provocative placards comparing Schalenberg to Nazi leaders.

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But while doctors say the current crisis cannot be compared to the early days of the pandemic, they remain concerned about how the health care system will cope in the coming weeks. “The situation is tight,” Kokofer says. “We are having to cancel planned cancer and cardiac surgeries. The lockdown gives us some hope that the numbers will reach a level where it stabilizes.”

Although these new restrictions have unexpectedly affected many people in Austria, experts say the crisis has been going on for some time. According to Eva Scherenhammer, an epidemiologist at the Medical University of Vienna, the onset of winter and people staying indoors have made it easier for COVID-19 to spread. Immunity levels also began to drop in people who were vaccinated at the beginning of the year, making them more vulnerable to the delta variant.

Schernhammer suspects this is a particular problem for Austria, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe: 65.7 percent of the population is completely closed, a rate lower than the United Kingdom (68.7 percent), France, and Italy. and Germany. In comparison, Portugal has the highest vaccination rate in Europe, with 86.9 percent of its population being fully immunized. until 22 NovemberThe daily number of Covid-19 cases per million people in Portugal was 145, compared to 1,527 in Austria.

Schernhammer believes the problem is exacerbated by Austria’s decision to wait six months to allow fully vaccinated individuals to receive booster shots, which is consistent with world health organization recommendations, She says Austria should have started giving boosters as soon as it became clear that cases were rising rapidly. “If you have high case numbers, you may not have time to wait six months,” she says. “Hopefully what we are going through is a warning to other countries to make sure to accelerate the booster shots.”

But Austria is also struggling with getting over-vaccinated populations in the first place. Vaccine hesitancy has been a growing problem in recent years, with an increasing number of Austrians Reduce annual flu jab, Andreas Bergthaler, a virologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has observed a link between low COVID-19 vaccine uptake and high rates of disease among Austrian regions. “Vaccination rates in the provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria appear to correlate, at least partially, with higher infection numbers,” he says.

To fully understand the rise of vaccine hesitancy within Austria, you need to delve into the country’s fragmented political landscape. Austria is currently governed by a conservative-Green coalition government, which is pro-vaccination, but both are far-left. People-Freedom-Fundamental Rights (MFG) Party and far and wide independence party Kovid-19 has been vocal in opposition to vaccines. Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, says that many of the concepts promoted by these two sides are aimed at fostering mistrust in the pharmaceutical industry. Instead they point to the teachings of the early twentieth century philosopher Rudolf Steiner – a figure with a lasting influence in Austria – who believed in homeopathy and natural remedies to cure disease, as opposed to medicines and vaccines.

“I think it’s those two groups together that make up for the bulk of the skeptics,” Bieber says. “The Freedom Party, which used to be in government until a year and a half ago, is promoting alternative medicine and conspiracy theories, while the MFG, which is the Alternative Green Voter, has often declared that the state is too authoritarian.”

Bieber says widespread government mistrust among supporters of these parties can easily spill into a desire to buy into conspiracy theories that encourage vaccine hesitation. He says it is noteworthy that the Freedom Party is particularly popular with voters in the Salzburg and Upper Austria regions, where cases have risen sharply in recent weeks. “The Freedom Party has been around since the 1950s and has been getting double-digit results for decades,” he says. “So they are coming across a very stable electoral base, unlike other far-right parties across the continent. And it is anti-establishment, with much resistance to state campaigns.”

Surveys show the link between politics and the anti-vaccination movement. One A survey conducted by Schernhammer in August found that only 46.2 percent of respondents trusted the Austrian government to provide safe vaccines. Reluctance to vaccinate was highest among women and younger Austrians, and especially those in favor of opposition parties, or those who avoided voting in the previous election.

“These are the people who reject either the political leadership of the country or the political system altogether,” Sherhammer says. “And maybe these factors come together in a person who rejects corona measures, but also rejects vaccine, and doesn’t care to vote.”

In contrast, scientists think Portugal—one of the world’s leading countries with 87 percent of its population fully vaccinated—has been so successful with its vaccine rollout as it was set aside . Politics. Instead of government ministers, the Portuguese vaccine campaign was led by Vice Admiral Henrique Gouvia e Mello, a public figure with no political affiliations.

Epidemiologists in the United States now worry that the combination of winter, weakened immunity, and ongoing vaccine hesitation in various states could mean that the situation in Austria is a sign of what is to come. “Austria’s struggles are not unexpected,” says William Hannez, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There’s a message here for other poorly vaccinated areas around the world. There is strong opposition to a lot of public health interventions in the US, and unfortunately this includes many places with low vaccination rates.”

Austria’s leaders are now attempting to take matters into their own hands through a new mandate, which will make vaccinations mandatory from February 1, 2022. Officials have yet to offer appointments to anyone vaccinated if they do, with fines of up to €3,600 ($4,055). Still refuses to comply. For individuals who have already been double vaccinated, a fine of up to €1,500 will also be imposed if they refuse to receive a booster shot.

So far only Indonesia, Micronesia and Turkmenistan have introduced population-scale vaccine mandates. While other countries with lower vaccination rates may choose to follow, public health experts believe it could have far-reaching consequences. One possibility is that it will open the door to further mandates, particularly for childhood vaccinations. France, Italy, And Austria All have introduced legislation in recent years to penalize parents who do not vaccinate their children against common diseases such as polio, chicken pox and measles.

But with Austria and potentially many other countries facing an incredibly difficult second winter with COVID-19, it may come down to balancing concerns about vaccine mandates, among other issues, the pandemic. From the economic and social consequences of the pandemic to the effects of school closures. child Development. “You have to start weighing which is more expensive: a vaccine mandate or further lockdowns,” Sherhammer says. “The mandate should start no earlier than February, and my hope is that most people decide on their own to get vaccinated by then.”

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