Coronavirus: Did Austria fail to take the second wave seriously?

After leading the way early on in the pandemic, Austria is now one of the hardest-hit nations. Did Austria fall asleep at the wheel?

Coronavirus: Did Austria fail to take the second wave seriously?
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: BARBARA GINDL / POOL / AFP

While Austria was held up as a model to follow during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, its return to lockdown Tuesday has sparked a backlash against the government.

Experts, news outlets and opposition politicians have been lining up to condemn the conservative-green coalition government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for its handling of the second wave.

“Lack of anticipation” and “irresponsible behaviour” are just some of the criticisms levelled at the administration since the new lockdown was announced on Saturday.

READ: Everything you need to know about Austria's coronavirus lockdown

The closure of all non-essential stores and schools is “without question the expression of a total loss of control” said Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPOe).

“It is because of the government in particular that more severe measures are now necessary and that Austria has gone from being a model country to being the bottom of the table in terms of infections.”

Rendi-Wagner is herself a former health minister and trained as a doctor. Saturday's measures came two weeks after the closure of restaurants, bars, cultural and sports venues in a failed bid to curb the spread of the virus.

The country is now under curfew until December 6, with limited exceptions such as essential travel for work, buying groceries, helping or caring for others, or for exercise. 

Pulling the 'emergency brake'

In spring, Austria was among the first countries in Europe to impose a lockdown and escaped the worst of the first wave.

But the number of daily infections in the Alpine nation of 8.8 million inhabitants has grown from 1,000 in early October to 4,657 on Monday.

Hospitals have said they are reaching capacity, despite Austria having a comparatively high number of intensive care beds.

In western Tyrol province, 83 percent of intensive care beds reserved for coronavirus patients are already occupied, according to the national health agency. And the criticism has come from both sides of the political spectrum.

The conservative Die Presse daily lamented the “lack of government planning”, while liberal Der Standard highlighted what it called a “series of bad decisions” by Health Minister Rudolf Anschober.

This is what had forced the government to pull the “emergency brake”, it said Monday.

“We spent the summer hitting the gas,” Christoph Steininger, a virologist from the University of Medicine in Vienna, told the Der Standard, referring to the re-opening of the economy over the summer.

Measures taken throughout summer and autumn proved ineffective as bars, cafes and restaurants filled up again, alongside shopping malls and cultural venues.

Some of the government's energy also had to be diverted into the response to the jihadist attack that left four people dead on November 2.

“People are tired, conspiracy theories are circulating, errors are obviously made and the opposition is heading to the barricades,” political scientist Julia Partheymueller, from the University of Vienna, told AFP.

“National unity is being undermined by the second wave.”

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EXPLAINED: How to register for the monkeypox vaccine in Vienna

Austria's capital city Vienna has begun registration appointments for those who want to get a monkeypox vaccine. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How to register for the monkeypox vaccine in Vienna

As of September 9th, people can make reservations for monkeypox vaccination in Vienna, authorities announced. It is possible to register for the vaccine using the health service line by calling 1450 or via the Impfservice website.

The City of Vienna has said the pre-registration is needed because all planning will be done through a central system due to a shortage of vaccines.

“Please understand that due to the vaccine shortage, we cannot offer preventive monkeypox vaccination to everyone interested. We can use the reservation platform to quickly allocate available appointments and contact interested parties as soon as there are more vaccines”, the authorities said.

After the registration, people will be contacted to book appointments on September 14th. The first available date will be September 19th.

READ ALSO: Monkeypox in Austria: What causes it and is it serious?

Who should be vaccinated against monkeypox?

Vaccination of the general population is currently not recommended.

Preventive vaccination is only offered to health care workers with a very high risk of exposure to people with monkeypox (designated monkeypox departments/outpatient clinics/offices) and persons with individual risk behaviour (persons with frequently changing sexual contacts), the City of Vienna said.

The health authorities in Vienna also have a specific information sheet in English with more information on the disease.

Monkeypox is a notifiable disease caused by a virus closely related to the smallpox virus and which can cause a condition similar to smallpox but rarely deadly. People with immunodeficiencies, pregnant women and children are at risk of more severe symptoms.

The virus spreads from person to person through contact with infectious skin lesions, via air droplets through speaking, coughing, sneezing, or other body fluids, and when having prolonged and close physical contact, e.g. through sexual intercourse.

READ ALSO: Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

Usually, the first symptoms show up 5 to 14 days (at the latest, 21 days) after exposure. These include fever, general exhaustion, headaches, muscle and body aches, gastrointestinal problems and frequently painfully swollen lymph nodes.

“If you have symptoms and have had contact with someone with monkeypox, you must self-isolate at once and call 1450. If you have a confirmed monkeypox infection, you need to stay in self-isolation until the last crust has fallen off”, the Austrian authorities added.