Europe’s COVID crisis pits vaccinated against unvaccinated

Europe is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.,

This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.

With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.

Governments desperate to shield overburdened healthcare systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope that doing so will drive up rates of vaccinations.

Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of Feb. 1.

FILE - A pedestrian wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, walks in front of a mural, at a metro station in Athens, Greece, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

FILE – A pedestrian wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, walks in front of a mural, at a metro station in Athens, Greece, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

People stand near an undecorated Christmas Tree in Grand Place in Brussels, Friday Nov. 19, 2021. In Brussels the 60-foot Christmas tree was placed in the center of the city's stunning Grand Place on Thursday but a decision on whether the Belgian capital's festive market can go ahead will depend on the development of the COVID-19 virus surge. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

People stand near an undecorated Christmas Tree in Grand Place in Brussels, Friday Nov. 19, 2021. In Brussels the 60-foot Christmas tree was placed in the center of the city’s stunning Grand Place on Thursday but a decision on whether the Belgian capital’s festive market can go ahead will depend on the development of the COVID-19 virus surge. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

“For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it must be possible to convince people in Austria, to convince them to get vaccinated voluntarily,” Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said.

He called the move “our only way to break out of this vicious cycle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good.”

FILE - Demonstrators gather to protest against the government restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 during celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the pro-democratic Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in 1989 in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.(AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

FILE – Demonstrators gather to protest against the government restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 during celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the pro-democratic Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule in 1989 in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries.(AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.

AUSTRIA TO ENTER LOCKDOWN, BRING IN MANDATORY VACCINATIONS

Starting Monday, Slovakia is banning people who haven’t been vaccinated from all nonessential stores and shopping malls. They also will not be allowed to attend any public event or gathering and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

FILE - A man holds a banner during a protest against vaccinations, the introduction of the green pass and COVID-19 related restrictions in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen -- the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – A man holds a banner during a protest against vaccinations, the introduction of the green pass and COVID-19 related restrictions in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

“A merry Christmas does not mean a Christmas without COVID-19,” warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger. “For that to happen, Slovakia would need to have a completely different vaccination rate.”

He called the measures “a lockdown for the unvaccinated.”

FILE - A woman holds a banner during an anti-government and anti-restrictions protest organised by the far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians or AUR, in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – A woman holds a banner during an anti-government and anti-restrictions protest organised by the far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians or AUR, in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Slovakia, where just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, reported a record 8,342 new virus cases on Tuesday.

It is not only nations of central and eastern Europe that are suffering anew. Wealthy nations in the west also are being hit hard and imposing restrictions on their populations once again.

“It is really, absolutely, time to take action,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. With a vaccination rate of 67.5%, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.

“All of Germany is one big outbreak,” Lothar Wieler, head of Germany’s disease control agency, told reporters Friday. “This is a nationwide state of emergency. We need to pull the emergency brake.”

FILE - A member of the medical staff walks in a crowded COVID-19 isolation room at the University Emergency Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – A member of the medical staff walks in a crowded COVID-19 isolation room at the University Emergency Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

A man works on stalls for the Christmas Market in Brussels, Friday Nov. 19, 2021. In Brussels a 60-foot Christmas tree was placed in the center of the city's stunning Grand Place on Thursday Nov. 18 but a decision on whether the Belgian capital's festive market can go ahead will depend on the development of the COVID-19 virus surge. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

A man works on stalls for the Christmas Market in Brussels, Friday Nov. 19, 2021. In Brussels a 60-foot Christmas tree was placed in the center of the city’s stunning Grand Place on Thursday Nov. 18 but a decision on whether the Belgian capital’s festive market can go ahead will depend on the development of the COVID-19 virus surge. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Greece, too, is targeting the unvaccinated. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a battery of new restrictions late Thursday for the unvaccinated, keeping them out of venues including bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and gyms, even if they have tested negative.

“It is an immediate act of protection and, of course, an indirect urge to be vaccinated,” Mitsotakis said.

The restrictions enrage Clare Daly, an Irish EU legislator who is a member of the European parliament’s civil liberties and justice committee. She argues that nations are trampling individual rights.

“In a whole number of cases, member states are excluding people from their ability to go to work,” Daly said, calling Austria’s restrictions on the unvaccinated that preceded its decision Friday to impose a full lockdown “a frightening scenario.”

FILE - Healthcare workers opposing mandatory coronavirus vaccinations and the suspension from work for those who refuse to get the shots, chant slogans during a protest outside the Greek Parliament , in central Athens, on Wednesday, Nov 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

FILE – Healthcare workers opposing mandatory coronavirus vaccinations and the suspension from work for those who refuse to get the shots, chant slogans during a protest outside the Greek Parliament , in central Athens, on Wednesday, Nov 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

FILE - A young patient receives the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen -- the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.(AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

FILE – A young patient receives the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.(AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Even in Ireland, where 75.9 % of the population are fully vaccinated, she feels a backlash against holdouts.

“There’s almost a sort of hate speech being whipped up against the unvaccinated,” she said.

The world has had a history of mandatory vaccines in many nations for diseases such as smallpox and polio. Yet despite a global COVID-19 death toll exceeding 5 million, despite overwhelming medical evidence that vaccines highly protect against death or serious illness from COVID-19 and slow the pandemic’s spread, opposition to vaccinations remains stubbornly strong among parts of the population.

FILE - Funeral house employees drag a coffin on a trolley as they arrive at the University Emergency Hospital morgue to take a COVID-19 victim for burial, in Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – Funeral house employees drag a coffin on a trolley as they arrive at the University Emergency Hospital morgue to take a COVID-19 victim for burial, in Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Some 10,000 people, chanting “freedom, freedom,” gathered in Prague this week to protest Czech government restrictions imposed on the unvaccinated.

“No single individual freedom is absolute,” countered Professor Paul De Grauwe of the London School of Economics. “The freedom not to be vaccinated needs to be limited to guarantee the freedom of others to enjoy good health,” he wrote for the liberal think tank Liberales.

That principle is now turning friends away from each other and splitting families across European nations.

FILE - A man breathes through an oxygen mask at the COVID-19 ICU unit of the Marius Nasta National Pneumology Institute in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

FILE – A man breathes through an oxygen mask at the COVID-19 ICU unit of the Marius Nasta National Pneumology Institute in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

FILE - Members of the medical staff place the body of a COVID-19 victim in a coffin together with funeral house employees at the University Emergency Hospital morgue in Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – Members of the medical staff place the body of a COVID-19 victim in a coffin together with funeral house employees at the University Emergency Hospital morgue in Bucharest, Romania, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Birgitte Schoenmakers, a general practitioner and professor at Leuven University, sees it on an almost daily basis.

“It has turned into a battle between the people,” she said.

FILE - Medical staff stand outside a mobile COVID-19 vaccination team set up by Health Ministry in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece on Tuesday, Oct. 26. 2021. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos, File)

FILE – Medical staff stand outside a mobile COVID-19 vaccination team set up by Health Ministry in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece on Tuesday, Oct. 26. 2021. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos, File)

FILE - A medical worker is seen through a plastic panel in a bus that will serve as a mobile COVID-19 vaccination unit in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

FILE – A medical worker is seen through a plastic panel in a bus that will serve as a mobile COVID-19 vaccination unit in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru, File)

She sees political conflicts whipped up by people willfully spreading conspiracy theories, but also intensely human stories. One of her patients has been locked out of the home of her parents because she dreads being vaccinated.

Schoemakers said that while authorities had long baulked at the idea of mandatory vaccinations, the highly infectious delta variant is changing minds.

“To make a U-turn on this is incredibly difficult,” she said.

Spiking infections and measures to rein them in are combining to usher in a second straight grim holiday season in Europe.

FILE - A display showing an animated depiction of Mona Lisa hangs in a coffee shop window as an employee wearing a mask cleans up shortly after closing hours in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE – A display showing an animated depiction of Mona Lisa hangs in a coffee shop window as an employee wearing a mask cleans up shortly after closing hours in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE - Police officers check the vaccination status of visitors during a patrol on a Christmas market in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen -- the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.(AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

FILE – Police officers check the vaccination status of visitors during a patrol on a Christmas market in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. This was supposed to be the Christmas in Europe where family and friends could once again embrace holiday festivities and one another. Instead, the continent is the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases soar to record levels in many countries. With infections spiking again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis increasingly is pitting citizen against citizen — the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.(AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Leuven has already canceled its Christmas market, while in nearby Brussels a 60-foot Christmas tree was placed in the center of the city’s stunning Grand Place on Thursday but a decision on whether the Belgian capital’s festive market can go ahead will depend on the development of the virus surge.

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Paul Vierendeels, who donated the tree, hopes for a return to a semblance of a traditional Christmas.

“We are glad to see they are making the effort to put up the tree, decorate it. It is a start,” he said. “After almost two difficult years, I think it is a good thing that some things, more normal in life, are taking place again.”

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