Europe faces winter of discontent after Covid-19 riots

Authorities grapple with soaring infections and protests as hospitals come under pressure

European governments are grappling to contain soaring Covid-19 infections and relieve overburdened hospitals while coping with a fringe of public anger at pandemic measures that saw violent rioting in several countries over the weekend.

"By the end of this winter everyone in Germany will either be vaccinated, recovered or dead," Germany's health minister Jens Spahn said in a stark warning at a news conference after a week in which the country saw an average of almost 50,000 new infections detected a day.

Roughly 68 per cent of people are fully vaccinated in Germany, leaving a large population exposed, and hospitals warn that intensive care capacities have been reduced by staff burnout over the course of the pandemic.

Neighbouring Austria, where roughly one in 100 people is currently infected with Covid-19, was the first country to return to blanket restrictions by requiring all residents aged over 12 to remain home except for essential reasons such as work, school or grocery shopping until December 13th.

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It came as the hospitals in the Salzburg region established a triage committee to determine which patients should be prioritised for intensive care beds, as hospital management expressed fears that there may not be enough to cater for the increasing numbers of people needing to be intubated due to Covid-19.

Mandatory

The Austrian government has said vaccination will become mandatory by February. Under national plans, once the general restrictions lift, people will need to show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 in order to access facilities such as restaurants, and FFP2-grade masks will be required in public venues.

Tens of thousands protested in Vienna at the weekend against the measures, which the far-right opposition Freedom Party said made the country a "dictatorship". Austria's vaccination rate lags behind most of western Europe, at about 65 per cent.

There were similar scenes in Belgium where an estimated 35,000 people marched through the capital Brussels on Sunday carrying banners objecting to vaccination and Covid-19 restrictions. Several police officers were injured and dozens of people arrested after some demonstrators smashed cars, shop windows and street furniture and threw fireworks at police, who responded with water cannons and tear gas.

"The right to protest and freedom of expression are important, but if that ends in a wave of violence, it is completely unacceptable, especially if it is directed against the police," Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Monday.

“That violence has nothing to do with personal freedom, this is purely criminal behaviour, and our police services will do everything they can to identify the instigators of the violence.”

He called for unity and respect for rules that were recently tightened to extend obligatory use of face masks, increase working from home and apply Covid passes to private events with more than 50 people. Roughly 75 per cent of Belgians are vaccinated.

‘Difficult period’

“We are in a difficult period, and in healthcare everyone is giving the best of themselves,” Mr de Croo said. “I understand that some people have doubts, but let’s have a debate based on correct information, not misinformation.”

The neighbouring Netherlands also saw a third night of violence in various cities, as black-clad groups of youths wreaked havoc after sports events were closed to spectators, fireworks banned, and new restrictions introduced closing non-essential shops at 6pm and restaurants and supermarkets at 8pm.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte described the rioting as "violence under the guise of protest", noting that a rock had been thrown through the window of an ambulance carrying a patient, and that firemen were attacked.

“There is a lot of unrest in society because we have been dealing with the misery of corona for so long. But I will never accept idiots using pure violence just because they are unhappy,” Mr Rutte said.

Roughly 76 per cent of people are vaccinated in the Netherlands, and the Dutch government has warned that pressure on the healthcare system is increasing and that the current rules will need to be better adhered to for tougher restrictions to be avoided.

Over the weekend, the World Health Organisation warned that Covid-19 had once again become the number one cause of death in Europe, blaming the highly transmissible Delta variant, the winter season and insufficient vaccination coverage for the spread.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times