Austrians have expressed shock and anger this week at the suicide of a doctor who was the target of a spate of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination activists.
The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a vigil outside after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead in her practice on July 29.
She had long been the target of death threats for her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.
An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken his own life.
Austria is deeply polarized because of the coronavirus restrictions and in particular a – later dropped – government policy to make vaccination against the coronavirus mandatory.
Kellermayr, who practices in the Upper Austria region with particularly low vaccination rates, had complained several times about the threat.
“For more than seven months we have received … death threats from opponents of coronavirus measures and vaccination,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from a netizen who said they were posing as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.
She described how she had invested “more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure the safety of her patients and was on the verge of bankruptcy.
At the end of June, Kellermayr then announced on her professional website that she would not be receiving any patients until further notice.
Daniel Landau, who organized a vigil for them in Vienna, said Kellermayr had become a real recluse in the past few weeks.
“She didn’t dare to leave her office,” Landau told the AFP news agency.
– stir up aggression –
Aggressive behavior towards medical staff is not new, but “fired up and noticeably intensified” by the Covid-19 and vaccination debate, said the chairman of the Austrian Medical Association, Johannes Steinhart.
Police, who previously suspected Kellermayr was taking advantage of the situation to attract attention, insist they did everything they could to protect her.
Local prosecutors also dismissed suggestions that they could have done more.
“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we forwarded it to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.
On Friday, prosecutors in the neighboring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a unit specializing in hate speech.
Austria’s Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen, where Kellermayr lived, earlier this week to lay flowers in her memory.
After the news of her death broke, he appealed to the Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.
– ‘They gag us’ –
But in some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.
“Some people celebrate their deaths, others believe the vaccine killed them,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author covering online disinformation.
There are already “strict laws” against online hate, but not enough is being done to implement them, Brodnig said.
A government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office for such cases.
Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.
French infectious disease specialist Karine Lacombe described how she was vilified for her work as part of a doctors’ collective to combat coronavirus-related disinformation.
She too complained that the authorities’ response to threats was not robust enough and has scaled back her public appearances this year.
“In the end you think the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP.
“In that sense, (the attackers) won, they gag us,” she said.
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