As Europe once again becomes the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, one country is taking a bold step to quash infections: Austria.
The western European nation has imposed a lockdown — a measure many Canadians are familiar with — but with a twist: this lockdown is only for the unvaccinated.
As of midnight Monday, roughly two million Austrians eligible for vaccination, but who are not yet inoculated, are prohibited from leaving their homes except for basic activities like working, grocery shopping, going to school — or getting vaccinated.
Protests have taken place throughout the country over the move, but how did Austria get here?
Low vaccination rate
Plagued by a rise of new infections throughout the continent for weeks, Austria, in particular, has seen increased pressures on hospitals.
Only 65 per cent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe.
Austria on Monday saw 894.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, outpacing neighbouring Germany, which saw 303 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, The Associated Press reports.
Those statistics have led Austria’s conservative government to impose the unvaccinated lockdown, which will run until Nov. 24. The rule does not apply to children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Kerry Bowman, professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, believes Austria’s lockdown has likely divided the country of 8.9 million people.
“I almost fell off my chair when I read it. There’s so much anger towards unvaccinated people that lots of people’s reactions are going to be, ‘What a brilliant idea, we should do about everywhere.’ It’s not my reaction,” he told Global News.
“Austria is another country and it’s up to them to run it as they see fit, but I would very much hope from an ethical and human rights point of view that this kind of stuff does not spread to other places.”
Bowman added even though the blanket policy appears to be designed to encourage vaccination, it may have unintended consequences.
“It could backfire,” he said. “You run the risk of civil unrest when you take extreme measures of that nature.”
Here’s how it will work
There is widespread skepticism in Austria, including among conservatives and the police, about how the lockdown can be enforced.
Essentially, officials say police patrols and checks will be stepped up and unvaccinated people can be fined up to 1,450 euros (C$2,073.54) if they violate the lockdown.
Critics have said it will be hard to verify in some circumstances. For example, whether someone is on their way to work, which is allowed, or going to shop for non-essential items, which is not.
The purpose of it all is to increase vaccination, according to Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg.
“In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in — and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown and that can’t carry on ad infinitum — is only vaccination,” Schallenberg told Oe1 radio on Monday.
Schallenberg called the decision a “dramatic step” that will affect approximately two million people in the country.
“What we are trying is precisely to reduce contact between the unvaccinated and vaccinated to a minimum, and also contact between the unvaccinated,” he said.
Françoise Baylis, a bioethicist at Dalhousie University, told Global News people who can’t get vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons could now find themselves lumped into this group.
“The reason this is a problem is aside from the issues of justice, the government appears to have said that part of the motivation for this rather draconian approach is to encourage those who are unvaccinated to become vaccinated, and that’s just not going to help with this particular group,” she said.
Baylis added expanded police powers might also lead to further targeting of marginalized members of Austria’s population — a worry that advocates and citizens had around the world when stringent lockdowns were implemented in earlier waves of the pandemic, including in Canada.
“When you give that kind of power to law enforcement, you have to be very careful and have thought through what the potential longer-term implications for minority groups are, who may be more carefully scrutinized than some other members of society,” she said.
Germany and the Netherlands are just some of the other European nations seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
Over the weekend, the Netherlands implemented a partial lockdown that is to run for at least three weeks, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m.
Berlin on Monday joined several other German jurisdictions to restrict access to restaurants, cinemas, museums and concerts to people who have been vaccinated or recently recovered. The unvaccinated, even those who have tested negative, have been shut out. Under-18s are exempt.
Canada has seen 88 per cent of people 12 and older get one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 84 per cent complete vaccination.
However, roughly five million eligible Canadians are not yet vaccinated, a number which has to improve, said Dr. Barry Pakes, professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
He called on Canadians to help bring those numbers up.
“We have five weeks until the Christmas holidays when people gather, and people will do that beforehand, and that is a high-risk period that can accelerate cases,” he said.
“If we make some inroads in vaccination beforehand, then we’re not even going to have to contemplate the kinds of things that they’re talking about in Austria.”
Pakes compared Austria’s unvaccinated lockdown to mandatory vaccination policies across Canada, but on a bigger scale.
It’s unlikely Canada would find itself in a similar situation, he added, but Canadians should look at this as an example of “what happens when we don’t do the right thing.”
We need ‘all of the tools in the tool kit’
With only 41 per cent of the world’s eligible population fully vaccinated according to Johns Hopkins University, it’s clear for Bowman and Baylis that vaccine-reliant strategies can’t work on their own right now.
“Many countries that are leaning on vaccines to pull out of this, it’s not enough,” Bowman said.
Baylis said countries need to think about “all of the tools in the tool kit,” like mandatory masking and vaccine passports, and further adopt a global mindset.
“We really need to continue to understand two things: it’s going to be everything together, so all of the public health measures we had earlier on, and … vaccination,” she said.
“If the long-term goal is to get out of the pandemic, we really have to understand this is a global pandemic. It’s a global problem, and in that context, need global solutions.”
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press.