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Tension mounts as virus surges in EU

by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | November 23, 2021 at 7:09 a.m.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, left, listens to the translation as Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium, right, gives a statement after a Belgian-French security consultation meeting at Egmont Palace in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)


                                                                                                                                                                                                            

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- In the face of demonstrations across much of Europe protesting tough covid-19 measures over the past few days, authorities Monday pleaded for patience, calm and a willingness to get a vaccine shot as infections spike again.

And for those who abused the protests to foment violence, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte just called them "idiots."

Protest marches from Zagreb to Rome and from Vienna to Brussels and Rotterdam, drawing tens of thousands of people, had a common message -- we've had enough.


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"Not able to work where you want work, to be where you want to be. That's not what we stand for, that's not freedom," said Eveline Denayer, who was at Sunday's march in Brussels, which attracted more than 35,000 people.

"We live in Western Europe and we just want to be free, how we were before," she said.

However, government leaders and European Union officials all made clear Monday that a return to bygone days was still out of the question and that the violence at some of the marches was counterproductive.

European governments are toughening their measures in the face of soaring infection rates -- more than 2 million new cases each week, the most since the pandemic began

Much of the discontent, though, is targeted at politicians who had promised that vaccinations would bring freedom. With the delta variant keeping contagion rampant, EU governments are being forced to reimpose constraints, and in some countries to slap tougher restrictions on the unvaccinated.

"The rising numbers are unfortunately fueling vaccine hesitancy, and we all need to take a firm stand against this," said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. She said the spike is mainly to blame on those who refuse to get a shot.

Breakthrough infections and deaths among the vaccinated do occur, though at far lower rates, according to officials.

Rutte condemned rioters in Rotterdam and across the Netherlands after protests there and in Brussels descended into violence amid simmering anger at lockdown measures.

Late Friday, police in Rotterdam even used live fire to disperse protesters gone amok, and four people suffered gunshot wounds. Altogether in both countries, almost 100 people were detained.

"I realize that there are a lot of tensions in society because we have been dealing with all the misery of coronavirus for so long," Rutte said. But he stressed the rioters were something completely different, producing "a pure explosion of violence directed against our police, against our firefighters, against ambulance drivers."

There were also ugly scenes at the end of the Brussels protest march, with rioters pelting police, who then used tear gas and water cannons to break up the crowds.

"Our goal today is to fight against the virus. Please, let us not get incited by a small group which would turn it into a fight against one another," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.

The protests come as a fourth wave of infections is locking down Austrians and forcing renewed restraints in many European nations on anything from working in the office to drinking at bars.

The Dutch violence came a week into a partial lockdown and after an announcement that the government was banning fireworks on New Year's Eve in an effort to ease the strain on hospital emergency rooms. In riots across the country, youths threw fireworks at police officers.

The EU pointed out that scientific evidence shows that increased vaccinations would contain the crisis and avoid more deaths.

"You know the three words very well -- vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate," said spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker.

AUSTRIAN LOCKDOWN

Austria went into a major lockdown Monday, while the German health minister, Jens Spahn, warned that by the end of this winter, "just about everyone in Germany will probably be either vaccinated, recovered or dead."

He acknowledged that some might find that statement cynical.

However, "Immunity will be reached," Spahn said at a Berlin news conference. "The question is whether it's via vaccination or infection, and we explicitly recommend the path via vaccination."

Europe is once again the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for more than half the world's reported deaths this month, according to the World Health Organization. The four countries with the world's highest rates of reported new cases in the past week are Austria and three that border it, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic; 27 of the top 29 are in Europe.

With vaccination rates lagging and winter approaching, more governments are ringing alarm bells.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told her Christian Democratic Party on Monday that the situation is "highly dramatic" and that the latest surge is worse than anything Germany had suffered so far.

Neighboring Austria's fourth lockdown is one of the few in Western Europe since vaccines became widely available. Most stores, restaurants, sporting venues and cultural institutions shut, leaving the streets cold and quiet in the weeks before Christmas.

The lockdown, which allows people to leave home only to go to work or to get groceries or medicines, will last at least 10 days and as long as 20 and comes after months of struggling attempts to halt the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions.

Austria has also announced that vaccination will be compulsory as of Feb. 1 -- the first Western country to take that step and one of only a handful around the world. Some critics have called it too high a price in terms of individual freedom and a sign of political failure.

Opposition to the measures has been led in Austria by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-largest in Parliament, which has been amplifying conspiracy theories about the vaccines, spreading doubt about their effectiveness and promoting ivermectin, a drug typically used to treat parasitic worms, mostly in horses, that has repeatedly failed against the coronavirus in clinical trials.

Alexander Schallenberg, Austria's chancellor, said he originally opposed compulsory vaccination, but "we have too many political forces, flimsy vaccine skeptics and spreaders of fake news in this country."

France presents a contrast, in that President Emmanuel Macron has used more suasion. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required to patronize restaurants and cinemas, which has encouraged many reluctant people to get vaccinated without a national mandate. But anti-vaccination groups remain active in France as well.

About 68% of Germans and 66% of Austrians have been fully vaccinated, and hospitals are filled mostly with those who have not been vaccinated at all. Early in the pandemic, scientists thought 70% to 80% vaccination might be enough for a population to reach herd immunity. But the virus is now so widespread, with new variants arising and some vaccinated people suffering breakthrough infections, that many experts say herd immunity is unattainable.

Vaccination rates in most of Western Europe are higher, but the levels in Eastern Europe are far lower -- from 59% in the Czech Republic to 24% in Bulgaria.

Belgium is highly vaccinated, at 75%, but a rise in cases has caused the government to impose tighter restrictions, including more working from home and wider mandatory mask wearing.

The WHO chief for Europe, Hans Kluge, has blamed the region's woes on insufficient vaccination despite the availability of vaccines and said the continent could see half a million more deaths by February.

"We must change our tactics, from reacting to surges of covid-19 to preventing them from happening in the first place," he said.

HOSPITALS OVERWHELMED

Germany's Merkel called for tighter restrictions to help check the spread.

On Monday, she warned officials in her Christian Democratic party that hospitals would soon be overwhelmed unless the fourth wave is broken, according to a person familiar with her remarks.

She said many citizens don't seem to understand the severity of the situation, and that while more people should get vaccinated, that wouldn't be enough on its own. She called on Germany's 16 states, which largely set their own policies on pandemic curbs, to tighten restrictions this week.

Merkel, who is due to step down as soon as next month after 16 years in power, has been making increasingly frantic calls for Germany to step up its fight against the virus. Infections have been rising at a record pace.

Spahn, the health minister, has said he couldn't rule out another full lockdown.

Germany is gearing up a booster-shot campaign to try to check the surge that has already led to tightened restrictions in hot spots.

Many of the country's outdoor Christmas markets have already been canceled for a second year, and people who aren't inoculated face possible curfews.

The situation in hospitals is increasingly strained, with clinics preparing to transfer severely ill people to other facilities, German intensive-care association DIVI said Monday.

SOUTH AFRICA SEES RISE

South African coronavirus cases are beginning to climb, the positivity rate of tests is increasing, and an analysis of wastewater shows that the disease is once again growing more prevalent in some areas.

On Nov. 20, the number of confirmed cases over a 24-hour period rose to 887, the highest since Oct. 14, and on Nov. 21, 3.4% of tests returned a positive result, according to government data. If maintained over a seven-day period, that would be the highest proportion of people testing positive since the week ended Sept. 26.

The rise in cases comes days after the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said the incidence of covid-19 was increasing in wastewater samples of some areas of Gauteng, the most populous province, which includes the capital, Pretoria.

South African Medical Research Council data show that excess deaths, the number of deaths over a historical average, have been rising in recent weeks.

Scientists working with the government have predicted that a fourth wave could begin in December, although they said it probably would be less severe than previous surges because about a third of South African adults are fully vaccinated and 60%-70% of the population may have already been infected.

Information for this article was contributed by Raf Casert, Mike Corder and Mark Carlson of The Associated Press; by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times; and by Arne Delfs, Naomi Kresge and Antony Sguazzin of Bloomberg News (WPNS).

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, second left, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium, left, give a statement after a Belgian-French security consultation meeting at Egmont Palace in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, second left, and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium, left, give a statement after a Belgian-French security consultation meeting at Egmont Palace in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)


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