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 epicentre 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 health-care systems are imposing rules that limit choices for the unvaccinated in the hope that doing so will drive up vaccination rates.
Austria on Friday went a step further, making vaccinations mandatory as of Feb. 1.
“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.”
Governments clamping down
While Austria so far stands alone in the European Union in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.
Starting Monday, Slovakia is banning people who haven’t been vaccinated from all non-essential 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.
“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.”
Slovakia, where just 45.3 per cent 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 are also being hit hard and imposing restrictions on their populations once again.
“It is really, absolutely, time to take action,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday. With a vaccination rate of 67.5 per cent, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.
Greece, too, is targeting the unvaccinated with new measures. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a battery of new restrictions late Thursday for the unvaccinated, keeping them out of venues including bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, 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.
— From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Saturday, more than 256.8 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.
In Europe, police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in downtown Rotterdam around a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions. Rioters rampaged through the Dutch port city’s central shopping district, setting fires and throwing rocks and fireworks at officers, the mayor told reporters early Saturday.
In Asia, 200 vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in Vietnam’s beach-fringed island of Phu Quoc on Saturday, the first wave of visitors to the country in nearly two years as it seeks to resurrect its pandemic-ravaged tourism economy.
In Africa, Nigerian authorities on Friday began a campaign to significantly expand the country’s coronavirus immunization. Officials are aiming to vaccinate half the population before February, a target they think will help them achieve herd immunity.
In the Americas, the U.S. on Friday opened COVID-19 booster shots to all adults and took the extra step of urging those 50 and older to seek one, aiming to ward off a winter surge as coronavirus cases rise even before millions of Americans travel for the holidays.
— From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7 a.m. ET