Austria went into a nationwide lockdown early Monday to combat soaring coronavirus infections, a step being closely watched by other European governments struggling with national outbreaks that are straining health care systems.
Apart from Austria, several countries in Europe have started imposing curbs to arrest the spread of the virus. In India, even as the cases are decreasing, experts have asked not to become negligent of the COVID-19 norms.
According to Dr Naveet Wig, Chairperson of COVID Task Force in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the present situation resembles the time before the second wave hit the country."
Looking around us, the feeling one gets is that we have overcome COVID-19 pandemic and the public at large has lowered the guard. It resembles the situation before the second wave hit India," Dr Wig said in an interview with ANI.
"The past one and half years of COVID have taught us a lot, the most important of which is not to underestimate the possibility of a new wave. It is important to keep up our guard as the next wave may be lurking around the corner," he added.
Dr. Wig further explained the COVID-19 resurgence in Europe and said, "Europe is facing a resurgent COVID-19 wave, which is forcing shutdowns and restrictions across the continent. Record level of infections and the staggering number of hospitalizations are forcing the authorities to go back to strict measures, which seemed unlikely, till recent past."
Lauding the efforts of the country in ramping up the Covid vaccination drives and efforts to lower the infection rate, he said, "Closer home, the situation is much improved with the number of new infections showing a downward trajectory for many weeks now. Authorities have done well to ramp up the vaccination drive and gradually remove restrictions in a phased manner."
Raising a sign of caution, Founder and Director of Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals Dr Shuchin Bajaj noted that the reason for the second wave was laxity on part of the people and said it is time to exercise precautions.
"Festive and wedding seasons are the times when we need to adhere to the Covid guidelines. Our negligence can lead to a grave situation. We have already seen how our ignorance towards following the Covid-19 guidelines had led to the deadly second wave. So, in the times of celebration too, we need to follow the Covid appropriate behaviours including social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands to avoid the emergence of the third wave. Fully vaccinated people should also follow the guidelines diligently," Dr Bajaj told ANI.
"It is important that public messaging should continue to encourage adherence to these measures. It is also imperative that people should complete their vaccination. Further, we should also consider booster additional dose of vaccine for people at highest risk like people above the age of 60 years are immunocompromised and come under comorbidities," Dr Wig suggested.
Dr. Parinita Kaur, internal medicine doctor at Aakash Healthcare super speciality hospital said that whenever there is a large gathering, there is always a chance of exposure to infection.
"A large number of people attend gatherings like weddings. So if gatherings happen, not only maximum people will be travelling from one city or state to another but also from one country to another," she stated.
"This will cause an inflow of people from other parts of the world and the infection might spread in such scenario. Be it flu, COVID or any other infection, the number of cases increase on exposure to infected people. The same happened earlier with swine flu. The infection was spread because of gatherings like weddings," she added.
Dr Kaur further noted that the COVID-19 cases tend to increase after festivals like Diwali and Holi, as observed earlier. "The same has not been observed after Diwali this year but it doesn't mean that we lower our guards. If we are attending a wedding function, we have to follow COVID guidelines like wearing masks and using sanitiser so that we do not expose ourselves to the infection," she said.
Situation in Austria
The measures are expected to last for a maximum of 20 days but will be reevaluated after 10. They require people to stay home apart from basic reasons like getting groceries, going to the doctor and exercising. Restaurants and most shops must close and larger events will be canceled. Schools and day care centers can remain open, but parents are encouraged to keep their children home.
Austria hopes to lift the measures on Dec. 13 but may keep a further lockdown on the unvaccinated.
The new lockdown measures kicked in a day after many Austrians hurriedly enjoyed a last day out at coffeehouses and Christmas markets across the country.
Christmas markets across central Vienna were packed Sunday with people eager to buy gifts and enjoy one last round of warm drinks and food. At the Freyung Christmas market in Vienna, Alexandra Ljesevic and her sister Anna sipped mulled wine and punch amid wooden stands and under sparkling holiday lights.
"It's the last chance to feel the Christmas time and vibes," Alexandra Ljesevic said.
The sisters said they feel luckier than most, since their jobs won't be affected by the lockdown. But they're not optimistic that things will reopen as quickly as authorities hope.
"It would be weird if in 20 days they said, Okay, for vaccinated people, you're free to go,' if the hospitals are still overwhelmed," said Anna Ljesevic. "That's the only reason why we even need the lockdown." Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also announced Friday that Austria will also introduce a vaccine mandate as of Feb. 1. The details of how the mandate will work aren't yet clear.
In an interview Sunday in the Kurier newspaper, Schallenberg said it's "sad" that the Austrian government had to resort to a mandate in order to ensure that enough people get vaccinated. Just under 66% of Austria's 8.9 million people are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
On Saturday, Austria reported 15,297 new infections, after a week in which daily cases topped 10,000. Hospitals, especially those in the hardest hit regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, are overwhelmed as the number of coronavirus patients rises in intensive care units.
Schallenberg said he and other officials had hoped this summer that a new lockdown would not be necessary and it was a tough decision to impose one that affected vaccinated people.
"That people's freedoms need to be restricted again is, believe me, also difficult for me to bear," he said.
The new measures, especially the vaccine mandate, have been met with fierce opposition among some Austrians and vaccine skeptics. A Saturday protest in the capital of Vienna drew 40,000 people, according to police, including members of far-right parties and groups.
Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said Sunday that the country's anti-coronavirus protest scene is radicalizing.
An "extremely diverse group of people" took part in the anti-vaccination protests, Nehammer said, according to the Austrian Press Agency, adding that included concerned citizens but also right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis.
The lockdown is strictest measure Austrian officials have introduced to combat the fourth surge of infections and deaths. Earlier this month, the government first tried to pressure unvaccinated people to get the jab, barring them from restaurants, hotels and large events. Then officials implemented lockdown measures just for unvaccinated people.
Nehammer said Sunday that police performed 150,000 checks in just one week to see if people outside of their homes were complying with the new rules, according to APA.
At the Christmas market Sunday on Vienna's iconic Rathausplatz square, Rene Schlosser and Silvia Weidenauer sipped mulled wine from heart-shaped red mugs. They came for the day from their home in Austria's Waldviertel region to get a glimpse of the markets before everything shut down.
"You have to accept it," Weidenauer said of the lockdown. "There's no other option. All you can do is hope that these days when everything is closed actually have an effect."
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