Austria on Monday ended its second strict coronavirus lockdown and is applying softer measures, which will include entry restrictions in the coming weeks.
Those rules are designed to limit travel into 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 where the virus could be imported into Austria.
“We had very low infection rates in the summer after the lockdown and then returning travellers, especially those who spent the summer in their countries of origin, have brought infection back into the country,” said Kurz.
The two officials based their statement on data from the Agency for Health and Food Security (AGES).
“At least 30 percent of infections were from returnees from abroad and over 72 percent of infections were from returnees especially from the Western Balkans,” said Nehammer.
Der Kanzler. Konnte es kaum glauben, aber er sagt es wirklich so:
"… und haben dann durch Reiserückkehrer, und insbesondere auch durch Menschen, die in ihren Herkunftsländern den Sommer verbracht haben, uns Ansteckungen wieder ins Land hereingeschleppt."#Pressekonferenz pic.twitter.com/ITj832hxZm
— Lukas Riepler (@lukasriepler) December 2, 2020
AGES told Al Jazeera that in August, slightly more than one-third of the infections were due to an infection source abroad.
Since Kurz and Nehammer’s comments were understood as blaming foreigners and minorities, there was outrage among the ruling administration’s coalition partner, the Green Party.
Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, from the Green Party, accused Kurz of a “lack of sensitivity”.
One Twitter user said: “My Balkan mum has coronavirus. She didn’t get infected in the Balkans either, but in the hospital where she works. People ‘from the Balkans and Turkey’ clean Austrian hospitals and care for … infected people, while they have not seen their families at home for a year.”
In a follow-up interview, Kurz said: “Everyone who knows me knows how closely I am connected with the Western Balkans and in my view, every accusation is therefore somewhat absurd.
“Since I was foreign minister, I have been fighting for the Western Balkan states to gain an EU-membership.”
He added that he visits the Western Balkans often, has friendly relations with governments there, and enjoys friendships with people with Western Balkan origins.
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 making scapegoats of 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 the past few months of crisis have shown, it is that selfishness and purely national initiatives are not getting us anywhere. That is why we need politicians whose sense of responsibility does not end at the national border. An Austria-first policy cannot be the way to find the best solution.”