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Amid a COVID-19 surge in Europe, Austria imposes a lockdown

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Austria imposed a country-wide lockdown on Monday that will last at least 10 days, maybe 20. This is in response to a rise in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. About two-thirds of Austrian adults are vaccinated, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe. Journalist Benjamin Breitegger has been covering this. He's in Vienna, which means he's among those affected. Welcome to the program.

BENJAMIN BREITEGGER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does lockdown mean for Austrians right now?

BREITEGGER: Lockdown means that basically life has become boring again. All the nonessential stores are closed. You can go to - the supermarkets are open. The bakeries are open. All the essential stores are open. But it's very difficult to get your Christmas gifts right now. You are - basically, what the government wants is that they want to avoid large groups of people meeting inside. So you're - you can go to work. You can go out to exercise, but you shouldn't meet too many people.

INSKEEP: This is reminding me of the spring or summer of 2020 in the United States. How do people feel about these new rules?

BREITEGGER: People are - there's mixed feelings about it. There's a - some sort of resignation because it's the fourth time now that Austria is in lockdown. So people have somehow strangely gotten used to the situation. And it seems like the same situation is happening again and again where the people who got vaccinated, they're tired of being limited again because we've been through this already. And a lot of other people are angry. There was a demonstration over the weekend with 40,000 people attending, among them lots of anti-vaxers, members of the extreme right also but also people who were just protesting the decision of the government to enter into another lockdown and also criticizing the vaccine mandate that was announced.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that because, as I understand it, all adults are supposed to be vaccinated by February 1, a nationwide adult vaccine mandate. Why have the rates been so low up to now?

BREITEGGER: Well, they seem to be low in all German-speaking countries, and I think it's a mix. Like, in Austria, it's sort of - it's a mistrust in the coalition government that has often communicated in a very confusing way. The former chancellor has declared the pandemic over multiple times. It was announced that there certainly wouldn't be another lockdown. And here we find ourselves again in a country shut down. And then there's also the far right, the so-called Freedom Party in Austria, which every - roughly every fifth Austrian would vote for if there was an election now. And they spread lots of misinformation or - what was it called during the Trump presidency? - alternative facts, like that certain medications that have proven not to be useful treatment are safe to treat COVID and that the vaccines aren't needed.

One anecdote which I think explains a lot - I'd call it a fun fact if it weren't that tragic - is that the head of the far right called for a press conference in September. There was a rumor that he might have gotten a COVID jab secretly, so he called a press conference to show results from a blood test that he had taken to prove that he had no antibodies, that he had not gotten vaccinated. So, yeah, that's the mood. Of course, he's in quarantine right now because he had gotten infected.

INSKEEP: Oh, but he went out and proved that he had not been vaccinated. Thanks so much for the update from Austria, really appreciate it.

BREITEGGER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's journalist Benjamin Breitegger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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