COVID-19: Austria coronavirus lockdown feels not just like a health crisis, but also a cultural, social and political storm

On Saturday, the streets of Vienna were packed with shoppers.

Today, they were quiet, if not deserted. Yes, this is lockdown, but it isn’t quite the eerie emptiness of 18 months ago.

Instead, the Austrian capital feels like it’s closed for business. The clothes shops, the ice rinks and, of course, the Christmas markets. All shut.

Maria Fridrichovsky normally sells chestnuts in one of the markets. She told me she is “angry” at what has happened, bemused that only 65% of the Austrian population is vaccinated against COVID.

“I feel very sad because the companies are closed down,” she said. “We sell chestnuts and potatoes to the people. It should be lovely here at Christmas.

“But now it’s so hard – many people are calling up by telephone – what can I do? What can I tell them? It’s so sad.”

Austria has seen a precipitous rise in the number of coronavirus infections recently, recording far more daily cases than it did during the first wave of the pandemic.

So it has now introduced a national lockdown that largely resembles the original version – people told to work from home and only to leave the house for essential purposes.

Schools are open, although parents are asked to keep children at home if possible.

The lockdown is in place for 10 days but can be extended for a further 10 if necessary. After that point, if rates have fallen, the ties may be removed for vaccinated people, while restrictions remain in place for those who have not been inoculated.

Perhaps that’s why this new lockdown feels so very different to previous incarnations.

Last year, the people of disparate European towns and cities seemed to share a sense of “in it together” camaraderie as they faced up to the hardships of lockdown.

Vienna didn’t feel like that.

Yes, the streets were a lot quieter than normal, but they weren’t deserted. Maybe people were just making essential journeys, but there seemed to be a surprisingly large number of them.

The police watched, but I didn’t see anyone get quizzed about their reasons for being out. Maybe they were going easy on the first day.

Or maybe it’s wearily difficult to define “exercise”, or essential purpose. Even the word lockdown feels vague and undefinable now.

We meet a group of young men strolling through the town, all of them dubious about the lockdown.

One of them, Matthew, tells me that he only allowed himself to be vaccinated because it was the only way he could be guaranteed access to bars and restaurants. But he insists that this latest lockdown is “a breach of human rights”.

His friend, Andrew, was vaccinated early, and is at pains to say he’s not an anti-vaxxer, but is troubled by what he sees as the changing narrative.

“When we were saying that it’s 95% effective at the beginning, we’re seeing that it’s definitely not the case now. We’re saying no more lockdowns yet we’re in lockdowns now. How can we really trust the information that’s being given to us at the moment?

“I think at this point, it’s very, very difficult to trust anything that’s going on. And I don’t necessarily think we can trust the reasons for why we’re in this lockdown at the moment.”

That’s why this lockdown is different. Europe saw a series of protests over the weekend, vehement in their opposition to either new restrictions, or vaccination programmes, or the spectre of mandatory vaccinations, or perhaps all of them put together.

Many Europeans, rightly or wrongly, have had their faith eroded in both the political and scientific establishment. Very public promises have, in the eyes of many Austrians, been broken and now those disenchanted people feel as if they are being stigmatised.

This doesn’t feel simply like a health crisis anymore, but also a cultural, social and political storm. Many other nations will be watching, and waiting to see what happens in Austria, and learning lessons.

Nobody’s happy, and that includes the tourists. But as we walked through the heart of the city, we saw small knots of visitors still trying to make the most of it.

There was a group of Romanians, two couples, who had been looking forward to their break, only to find the city shut. “Still, at least it’s quiet,” said one of them, with magnificent understatement.

Not far away was a family from North Macedonia who come to Vienna every year and buy presents for their two children.

Now, the shops are shut, so they were studying monuments instead of buying toys. The parents were still smiling; the children, emphatically, were not.

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