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VACCINATION

Austrian Chancellor Kurz to push for Europe-wide vaccination passport

Just one day after Austria’s Health Minister said a decision on vaccination privileges would be made in April, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has spoken publicly in support of the idea being introduced at a European level.

Austrian Chancellor Kurz to push for Europe-wide vaccination passport
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: YVES HERMAN / AFP / POOL

As at February 25th, just over four percent of the Austrian population has been vaccinated – with 200,000 receiving both doses. 

While lockdown rules remain in force all over the country, an idea gathering steam all across the globe is a ‘vaccination passport’ which allows vaccinated people to have certain privileges. 

Israel, a world leader in vaccinations, has already implemented a vaccination immunity card which gives residents who have had both shots certain rights. 

READ: Austria to decide on privileges for vaccinated people in April

Known as the ‘Green Pass’, the vaccination passport gives Israeli residents who have received both doses of the vaccine “an entry ticket back to normality”. 

Debate surrounding the measure is heating up in neighbouring Switzerland, where a leaked government document indicated support for a scheme which would allow vaccinated people to again eat at restaurants and visit concerts and sporting events. 

On Thursday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz spoke out in favour of such an approach being introduced at a European level. 

“We want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, to have our old life back and a maximum of freedom,” Kurz told Austria’s Der Standard newspaper

“As long as the pandemic and the virus exist, that will only work if we take protective measures, either through a vaccination or a test.”

Kurz said while the idea should be introduced across the continent, it would not only apply to travel but also to visiting bars, restaurants and events. 

The Chancellor said he was pushing for the idea to be introduced by May or June. 

Constitutional lawyer Peter Bußjäger said that not only could the idea be introduced – but that failing to do so might actually be unconstitutional.  

Bußjäger said that if it can be proven people who have been vaccinated do not pass on the virus, keeping them in lockdown may be unlawful. 

“As soon as it is clear that the disease can no longer be passed on, it is clear that I can no longer subject these people to restrictions.”

The Chancellor’s position is a departure from that of Health Minister Rudolf Anschober, who said on Wednesday that any debate about privileges for vaccinated people should not take place until April at the earliest, i.e. when more people had a chance to get vaccinated. 

Anschober indicated that no special rights or privileges for vaccinated people will be introduced until the debate is had in April. 

Austrian newspaper Der Standard reports that Anschober is currently in the process of setting up “a strategy for living with the virus”. 

Anschober indicated that he was in favour of a Europe-wide solution to the issue. 

While the question of special rights for vaccinated members of the general public will not be decided until April, lockdown rules are set to be relaxed in retirement homes as early as March due to the high vaccination rate in these facilities. 

An agreement for allowing more visits in retirement homes has already been made between federal and state governments in Austria. 

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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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