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Today in Austria: A round-up of the latest news on Thursday

Find out what's going on today with The Local's short round up of the news.

Kids going to school
Philippe LOPEZ / AFP

AstraZeneca vaccination unchanged in Austria 

Austria’s National Vaccination Committee said on Wednesday evening the vaccination program in Austria will continue unchanged, despite the rare cases of blood clots after vaccination with AstraZeneca, following the recommendation of EMA, the Wiener Zeitung newspaper reports. 

Some classes in eastern states to return to school 

Children in the final grades of elementary (Volksschule) or middle school (AHS/ BMHS) are being told they can return to school next week in Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland, although distance learning for all other classes has been extended until 16th April, broadcaster ORF reports.

Minister of Education Heinz Faßmann told the APA agency the school had become “an instrument for fighting pandemics”, and pointed out Austria tests more than any other country in Europe. In addition two thirds to three quarters of teachers have been vaccinated. 

Seven day incidence is 232

The seven-day incidence in Austria, or the number of new infections with the coronavirus in the past seven days per 100,000 inhabitants, is 232. The number is still highest in Vienna (324.0), followed by Lower Austria (251.6) and Salzburg (218.5). The value is lowest in Vorarlberg (131.9) and Styria (172.0).

Austria’s foreign trade slows

Data from Statistics Austria data shows foreign trade slowed massively at the start of the year. Goods exports fell by 9.5 percent in January compared to the same month last year. Imports were also down by 10 per cent, leading to a trade deficit of €230 million, Wiener Zeitung reports.

‘Entry tests’ for universities

A new law will allow universities to evidence of a negative test – known as ‘entry tests’ – to take part in classroom teaching and exams, broadcaster ORF reports. Testing will be required for students to gain access to laboratories, individual lessons, smaller courses and exams, for example.

Large lectures are not possible because of the distance rules, most of the teaching and probably also the examins will continue to be held online.

Increase in unemployment benefit

The federal government has extended the increase in emergency assistance to the level of unemployment benefit until the end of June. The situation on the labour market is still tense according to Labour Minister Kocher, Die Presse newspaper reports. 

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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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