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Austria brings back COVID lockdown amid angry protests across Europe

Protests in Europe on new COVID restrictions
Protests in Europe on new COVID restrictions 01:58

Restrictions re-imposed on Europeans to stem a rising wave of new COVID-19 infections sparked angry protests in a handful of countries over the weekend, with the angst descending into violent clashes with police in a handful of nations. Austria was back under a full nationwide coronavirus lockdown on Monday — the first EU country to reinstitute the drastic measure amid fears of a deadly fourth wave.

About 50,000 people came out to protest over the weekend against the country's 4th coronavirus lockdown and an accompanying national vaccine mandate that will kick in from February. Some 40,000 demonstrators gathered for a rally, organized by the far-right Freedom Party, in the capital city of Vienna alone.

Demonstration against coronavirus measures in Vienna
More than 50,000 people staged protests against measures taken by Austria's government to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, with the largest demonstration taking place in the capital, Vienna, on November 20, 2021 Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The lockdown was imposed as Austria's seven-day incidence rate of COVID-19 infections climbed to 1,085 per 100,000 inhabitants per week, according to authorities. About two thirds of eligible Austrians are fully vaccinated, a significantly lower proportion than in most Western European nations.

The party that currently governs Austria had long rejected another lockdown. For weeks it argued that such restrictions were unreasonable for those who had been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19. But the steadily rising number of patients in intensive care units finally changed the calculus.

Under the new lockdown, only stores selling essential items are allowed to open. Cultural activities have been cancelled and museums and movie theaters ordered to closed. People are only allowed to leave their homes with a valid reason, such as to purchase necessities or get some exercise. Schools are open, but the government has urged parents to keep their kids home if possible.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has stressed that the lockdown will end no later than December 13. But it remained unclear how anyone still unvaccinated after that date would be treated, especially given the looming vaccination mandate. 

BELGIUM-POLITICS-HEALTH-VIRUS-DEMO
A man walks in front of burning trash amid clashes with police during a demonstration against the government's anti-COVID-19 measures, including the country's digital health pass, in Brussels, Belgium, November 21, 2021. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty

There was also significant unrest over the weekend in the Netherlands and Belgium, where hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters hit the streets. The anger boiled over into violent rioting in a number of Dutch cities for the third day in a row on Sunday.

An emergency decree was issued in one city, where videos posted online showed police trying to disperse a crowd with batons. In other locations, police cars were damaged by stone-throwing rioters and a fire was set in the street. In The Hague, police used water cannons against rioters who had attacked officers with fireworks and damaged traffic lights and road signs on Saturday. Five police officers were injured, one of them seriously.

In Belgium, about 35,000 people took to the streets of Brussels on Sunday against government anti-COVID measures, with the so-called "Corona Pass" digital app to prove vaccination or recovery status drawing particular ire. Pictures by the Belga news agency showed police cars with broken windows, burning barricades and pyrotechnics flying through the air.

WHO warns of surge in COVID deaths across Eur... 01:19

Police used water cannons and tear gas against the protesters. There were at least 44 arrests and three police officers were injured.

The number of daily COVID infections has increased sharply in Belgium in recent weeks. More than 12,000 new infections per day have been recorded recently in the country, which has a population of only about 11.5 million people. One week ago, Belgium recorded 20,000 new infections in a single day.

There were also significant protests over the weekend against COVID restrictions in Italy, Croatia, Denmark and Switzerland.

In Germany, government ministers are trying their hardest to convince more residents to come forward for vaccination as infections mount amid warnings that even that likely won't be enough to turn the tide.

COVID-19 cases up in some European countries 02:00

Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Monday that restrictions already limiting activity in regions with the highest infection rates wouldn't be sufficient to curb the coronavirus, and she urged the rest of the country to bring back stricter rules.

Health Minister Jens Spahn, who warned on Friday that Europe's biggest economy could be facing a new nationwide lockdown like in neighboring Austria, said bluntly on Monday that by the end of the winter, "just about everyone in Germany will have been vaccinated, cured or dead."

As European governments look to impose even tougher measures to keep their healthcare systems from breaking point, and with anger over those measures still growing, it seemed the volatile situation was still likely to spread, and possibly get worse. 

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