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How Austria plans to end the coronavirus lockdown before Christmas

Austrian authorities have forecast a possible end to the coronavirus lockdown for December 7th, provided new infections continue to fall.

How Austria plans to end the coronavirus lockdown before Christmas
Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Austrian health officials have said the next two weeks will be crucial in determining whether Austria can exit lockdown. 

In an interview with Krone Zeitung published over the weekend, Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said the December 7th date could only be achieved with the participation of the general public. 

“The next two weeks are critical,” he said. “Lockdown must not be extended.”

EXPLAINED: How Austria's mass-testing plan will work 

 

Measures ‘slowly starting to have an effect’

In a press conference on Monday morning, Anschober welcomed the first tentative signs that the country’s lockdown measures were working. 

Monday brought the lowest number of daily infections in almost a month, reports Der Standard. A total of 3,145 new confirmed infections were reported on Monday morning, the lowest single day figures since October 27th. 

Anschober said the measures were “slowly starting to have an effect”, although he warned that figures were always lower on a Monday due to the way reporting is done over the weekend. 

He appealed to the population to “avoid any contact which is not required”.

“The pandemic is not a natural disaster, not an earthquake,” Anschober said

“It is in our hands that we as a community do something about it, then there will be an effect.”

The Minister added that Austria still had a “long way to go” in its battle against the virus, although he provided some hope that the lockdown may be ended on December 7th, with the country opening up again in time for Christmas. 

Anschober declined to provide a concrete numerical metric which would decide the end of the lockdown, but said keeping the R-Rate down was key. 

The R-number – the crucial metric which determines how the virus is spreading through the community – in Austria is currently 1.09. 

“We won't see how the lockdown actually worked until mid-December. That is why there is no specific numbers for December 6th (to be the last day of lockdown),” he said.  

“The reproductive factor is essential. You want to get well below 1, ideally below 0.9 or even towards 0.8.

“The second wave is really tough.”

While Anschober said the government was sensitive to the fact people wanted to have a normal Christmas, the main goal of the government was to ensure the population “can get to the vaccination safely”. 

READ: When will the coronavirus vaccine be available in Austria? 

Anschober has forecast the first people may be vaccinated for the virus at the end of December or at the start of January. 

 

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COVID-19

Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.

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