Coronavirus briefing: what happened today

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Coronavirus briefing: what happened today

Thousands marched in Vienna this weekend to protest Austria’s lockdown and coronavirus restrictions. Most of the marchers were peaceful, but some members of far-right groups and others lit masks, threw cans of beer at police officers and set off the art of pyrotechnics.

There were also large-scale demonstrations in Switzerland, Brussels and the Dutch city of Rotterdam, sometimes punctuated with outbreaks of violence.

There are probably additional restrictions on the way across Europe: Slovakia and German politicians are also discussing a vaccine mandate, similar to Austria, as the only way to stave off the pandemic.

“Perhaps by the end of this winter, as it is sometimes cynically called,” said the German health minister, Jens Spahn, “pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, cured or dead.”

According to my Berlin-based colleague, Christopher Schuetz, the Austrian states of Salzburg and Upper Austria are the worst affected.

“They have such bad cases that apparently, there was a hospital where they lay dead in the hallway, in the gurneys,” he said. “It’s not quite Italy in the spring of 2020, but close to that.”

There is increasing resistance to public health measures. Still, European leaders may feel they have little choice but to implement them, despite the proliferation of vaccines, which a year ago were seen as an unsuccessful way out of the pandemic.

“It’s basically like they’re in a car going 200 kph, driving into the wall,” Chris said. “At some point, someone has to hit the brakes.”

Some European countries that have implemented strict mandates have found success.

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France has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world after enforcing strict mandates. Protests against the mandate in Italy have ended. The anti-vaccine reaction in Spain has also subsided.

As you travel east in Europe, vaccination rates drop. The German-speaking regions of Germany, Austria and Switzerland have the continent’s largest share of the unvaccinated population: one in 10 people over the age of 12, compared to one in 10 in France and Italy and almost zero in Portugal. Vaccination not done.

To make things worse, Germany is facing dwindling supplies of the Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccine as it races to provide booster shots.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia average about 10,000 cases per day, and Greece, Hungary and Croatia also have higher infections. The president of Austria’s eastern neighbor Slovakia also raised the prospect of a universal mandate on Saturday.

Austria’s nationwide vaccination mandate – Europe’s first – is set to go into full force in February. The decision came after months of efforts to contain the spread of the virus through testing and partial restrictions, including a lockdown only for unvaccinated people.

“Politically, it is very, very unpopular to have either a vaccine mandate or a complete lockdown,” Chris said. “It would give a lot of political power to the far right. But they’ve gotten to a point where they can’t do that. It just got too bad.”

Coronavirus vaccines are a tough sell in the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Many people recognize the pandemic as a threat – just not one that is very pressing.

“We have heard that people are dying, but we haven’t seen anyone sick here,” said a village leader from a rural area that has been hit by floods for years. “When you’re starving, you don’t think about other things – you need to fill your stomach first.”

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Most of the 11 million people living in one of the poorest countries on Earth have not yet been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario spent nearly a week traveling with a UN team in South Sudan to assess flood damage and prepare for a vaccine rollout in the region.

“Children are dying of malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections,” said UNICEF communications officer Yves Willemot. “We have one child in 10 who dies before the age of 5, and they don’t die from COVID-19.”

Still, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, there was a steady stream of people at vaccination sites across the city. A young man was of little use to rumors circulating around his neighborhood that the vaccine spreads to the liver and causes death within a year. He wanted a shot so that he could continue studying abroad, in Uganda.

“If you don’t have a vaccine,” he said, “they won’t let us in.”

I live in Austria. I didn’t want to get vaccinated. But the restrictions were too much for the illiterate. Not for me, I am a writer and I work from home. But I had to get vaccinated to take my little son anywhere (hairdresser, McDonald’s, etc.). So I did it for him.— Avalon McCready, Austria

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