Austria health minister quits citing exhaustion and threats

Wolfgang Mückstein called it quits on Thursday, saying constant threats from Covid sceptics were "extremely burdensome", making him the second Austrian Health Minister to resign in one year citing the burden of the job.

Wolfgang Mueckstein
Austrian Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein has resigned, saying he could no longer give 100 percent. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria’s Health Minister, Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens), on Thursday announced his resignation from the job, just 11 months after taking over. 

He will be replaced by Vorarlberg state councillor Johannes Rauch from the same party, ORF reports.

Mückstein said that the job could only be done when one could give 100 per cent, which he hasn’t been able to do anymore.

He mentioned that managing the pandemic is a “big responsibility” and that not all were happy with his decisions. In addition, Mückstein said the threats he and his family have received from Covid sceptics were “extremely burdensome”.

“No one can stand that for long”, Mückstein declared, mentioning the stress caused by needing police protection outside of his apartment at all times. 

Second resignation in less than a year

This is not the first time an Austrian health minister has resigned during the pandemic.

Mückstein’s predecessor, Rudolf Anschober, resigned last April, citing the toll working in the ministry during a pandemic. “15 months has felt like 15 years“, Anschober said at the time. 

Last April, Austria was in the early weeks of a vaccination campaign that would prove a challenge on its own. The country had more than 9,700 deaths recorded and had been through controversial lockdowns that were among the strictest in Europe. 

Anschober’s successor Mückstein oversaw the vaccination campaign, which has taken the country to a better position despite the pandemic not being over yet, he said.

But the months that followed also brought new challenges of vaccine hesitancy, the vaccine mandate law and weekly protests against the government and its measures.  

Austria now has almost 15,000 recorded deaths. Less than 70 percent of its population is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Mückstein’s resignation comes as Austria prepares for extensive reopening steps.

This month, the country, except for the capital Vienna, is set to drop all entry requirements for restaurants and life in general, allowing people to participate in social events and enter places without showing proof that they are vaccinated, recovered or tested, the 3G rule.

READ MORE: Will Austria’s vaccine mandate go ahead?

However, the announcement was criticised by some specialists, who claimed opening measures were coming too soon while Austria still averages more than 25,000 new Covid-19 cases per day.

During his speech, however, Mückstein didn’t mention the reopening steps or criticism, instead highlighting that his only goal was to protect lives and the health structure in Austria.

New minister to be Johannes Rauch

After Mückstein’s resignation, Green party leader Werner Kogler said the new health minister will be Vorarlberg state councilor Johannes Rauch.

Yesterday, the vice-chancellor said he would propose Rauch as the most suitable successor to the Green party. The politician’s inauguration is expected to take place early next week.

While Mückstein is a doctor and is expected to resume work in the field, Rauch is a career politician who was the Green spokesman in Vorarlberg for over 20 years and party representative (Klubobmann) for ten.

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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.