Vaccine fight key to Europe's COVID Xmas

·4-min read

This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities, and one another.

Instead, the continent is the global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.

With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis is increasingly pitting citizen against citizen - the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.

Governments desperate to shield overburdened healthcare systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope doing so will drive up rates of vaccination.

Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of February 1 next year.

"For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily," Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

He called the move "our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good."

While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.

Starting on Monday, Slovakia is banning people who have not been vaccinated from all non-essential stores and shopping malls. They will not be allowed to attend any public event or gathering, and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

"A merry Christmas does not mean a Christmas without COVID-19," warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger.

"For that to happen, Slovakia would need to have a completely different vaccination rate."

He called the measures "a lockdown for the unvaccinated".

Slovakia, where just 45.3 per cent of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, reported a record 8342 new virus cases on Tuesday.

It is not only the nations of central and eastern Europe that are suffering.

Wealthy countries in the west also are being hit hard and imposing restrictions on their populations once again.

"It is really, absolutely, time to take action," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.

With a doubled-dosed rate of 67.5 per cent, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.

Greece, too, is targeting the unvaccinated. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced a battery of new restrictions for the unvaccinated, keeping them out of bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, museums and gyms - even if they have tested negative.

The restrictions enrage Clare Daly, an Irish EU legislator who is a member of the European parliament's civil liberties and justice committee.

"In a whole number of cases, member states are excluding people from their ability to go to work," Daly said.

Even in Ireland, where 75.9 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated, she feels a backlash against holdouts.

"There's almost a sort of hate speech being whipped up against the unvaccinated," she said.

The world has had a history of mandatory vaccines in many nations for diseases such as smallpox and polio.

Yet despite a global death toll exceeding five million, and overwhelming medical evidence that vaccines protect against death or serious illness from COVID-19 and slow the pandemic's spread, opposition remains stubbornly strong among parts of the population.

Some 10,000 people, chanting "freedom, freedom," gathered in Prague this week to protest Czech government restrictions on the unvaccinated.

"No single individual freedom is absolute," countered Professor Paul De Grauwe of the London School of Economics, writing for the liberal think tank Liberales.

"The freedom not to be vaccinated needs to be limited to guarantee the freedom of others to enjoy good health."

Spiking infections and measures to rein them in are combining to usher in a second straight grim holiday season in Europe.

The Belgian city of Leuven has already cancelled its Christmas market, while in nearby Brussels an 18-metre Christmas tree was placed in the centre of the city's Grand Place on Thursday but a decision on whether the Belgian capital's festive market can go ahead will depend on the virus surge.

Paul Vierendeels, who donated the tree, hopes for a return to a semblance of a traditional Christmas.

"We are glad to see they are making the effort to put up the tree, decorate it. It is a start," he said.

"After almost two difficult years, it is a good thing that some things more normal in life are taking place again."

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