The Austrian Chancellor said people who had spent the summer in “ countries of origin ” brought back the coronavirus.
Austria ended its second strict coronavirus lockdown on Monday and is implementing softer measures, which will include entry restrictions in the coming weeks.
These rules are designed to limit travel to the country during the Christmas holiday period, Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters last week.
In this context, he and Interior Minister Karl Nehammer mainly referred to the “Western Balkans” as a region from which the virus could be imported into Austria.
“We had very low infection rates in the summer after the lockdown and returning travelers, especially those who spent the summer in their home countries, brought the infection back to the country,” said Kurz.
The two officials based their statement on data from the Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES).
“At least 30 percent of infections came from returnees from abroad and more than 72 percent of infections came from returnees, especially from the Western Balkans,” Nehammer said.
The Chancellor. I couldn’t believe it, but he really said it like this:
“… and then thanks to those coming back from traveling, and especially those who spent the summer in their home country, we brought the infections back to the country.”#Press conference pic.twitter.com/ITj832hxZm
– Lukas Riepler (@lukasriepler) December 2, 2020
AGES told Al Jazeera that in August just over a third of infections were due to a source of infection overseas.
Since Kurz and Nehammer’s comments have been interpreted as blaming foreigners and minorities, there has been outrage among the ruling administration’s coalition partner, the Green Party.
Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler of the Green Party accused Kurz of “lack of sensitivity”.
One Twitter user said: “My mother from the Balkans has coronavirus. She was also not infected in the Balkans, but at the hospital where she works. People “from the Balkans and Turkey” clean Austrian hospitals and treat… infected people, although they have not seen their families at home for a year. “
In a follow-up interview, Kurz said: “Anyone who knows me knows how closely connected I am to the Western Balkans and in my opinion every accusation is therefore somewhat absurd.
“Since becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs, I have been fighting for the Western Balkan states to become members of the EU.”
He added that he often travels to the Western Balkans, maintains friendly relations with governments there and maintains friendly relations with people of Western Balkan origin.
But the damage was already done.
“The statement made by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last week is counterproductive and narrow-minded. Playing people against each other and scapegoating minorities is an anti-human rights strategy, ”Heinz Patzelt, head of Amnesty International Austria, told Al Jazeera.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge. If there is one thing that the last months of crisis have shown, it is that selfishness and purely national initiatives are getting us nowhere. That is why we need politicians whose sense of responsibility does not stop at the national border. A policy focused on Austria cannot be the way to find the best solution. “