Austrian doctors speak out after suicide of GP following Covid threats
Lisa-Maria Kellermayr was targeted by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers before taking her own life
Austrian medical representatives have called for greater protection for doctors after a GP who faced months of violent threats from anti-vaccination activists and pandemic conspiracy theorists took her own life.
Lisa-Maria Kellermayr was found dead in her practice in the lakeside resort of Seewalchen am Attersee on Friday. Prosecutors told the media they found three suicide notes and were not planning to carry out an autopsy.
Her death prompted a wave of vigils and demonstrations. There have also been calls for laws against bullying and psychological warfare to be tightened, including making it easier to prosecute perpetrators in other EU countries, after at least two of the people believed to have targeted Kellermayr with death threats were identified as coming from Germany.
Thousands of people gathered outside St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Monday evening and across the country to pay tribute to Kellermayr, 36, in candlelight vigils. Many participants wore pink, her favourite colour.
The Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, led the tributes, laying flowers outside Kellermayr’s practice and appealing for an end “to this intimidation and fear-mongering”.
Kellermayr was described by her friends, family and patients as a passionate, caring and plain-speaking doctor who lived for her work. At the start of the pandemic, she volunteered to visit coronavirus patients in their homes for weeks of round-the-clock shifts, telling her friends and family that as a single person with no dependants, “I belong on the frontline”.
She was one of the earliest people to share her observations that patients who used asthma inhalers were often better able to deal with the symptoms of the virus.
Kellermayr was also an enthusiastic supporter of vaccines, sharing her thoughts and ideas on Twitter, and was interviewed regularly, earning praise for her clear communication.
However, she drew a wave of hate mail after tweeting her fury when, in November 2021, anti-vaccination demonstrators and supporters of the “Querdenker” coronavirus conspiracy theory movement surrounded a clinic she had worked at in nearby Wels and blocked a main entrance used by emergency vehicles.
Kellermayr urged the police to offer her protection, but she claimed they did not take her situation seriously and she employed a security guard to stand outside her practice and check patients before they entered.
The guard told German and Austrian media in February that he had frequently turned people away and removed several butterfly knives from others who entered the practice.
Kellermayr said in June she had spent €100,000 (£84,000) on security costs, adding: “It would be cheaper to shut the practice and to fly to the South Pacific with my staff.” Last month, she said she had been forced to close her practice for good.
In her final interview, with the respected Austrian daily Der Standard, Kellermayr said she felt abandoned by the Austrian state. “What has happened to me can happen to any citizen who is not well known or is not well connected,” she said.
Police in Germany, meanwhile, told Kellermayr that they were unable to act against a man who was sending her threats because his messages were sent from the darknet, to which they had no access.
But reporters from Der Standard said they had little difficulty in tracing the suspect to the Berlin area, identifying him as a figure from the neo-Nazi scene. Journalists also managed to trace a man from Upper Bavaria who had threatened to put Kellermayr before a “tribune of the people”, accusing her of treason.
Austrian police have rejected the claim that they failed to take the threats against Kellermayr seriously. A spokesperson for the Upper Austrian police, who had previously urged Kellermayr to “stay out of the limelight”, told the Austrian agency APA: “We have been in constant contact with the doctor since November and have tried to offer her protection. We did everything that was possible with regards to security as well as investigating [the threats].” Investigations are continuing, he said.
The vigils on Monday were supported by the Austrian government, including the health minister, Johannes Rauch, who said he was “deeply shocked” by Kellermayr’s death.
He said: “Hatred against people is inexcusable. This hatred must finally stop.”
Johannes Steinhart, the president of the Austrian Medical Association, urged doctors to join the vigils “in order to send a forceful message for solidarity and against violence and hatred”. Hundreds of doctors and medical staff attended, as well as scientists involved in fighting the pandemic.
Ministers said they came to the conclusion that this would do little to raise one of western Europe’s lowest vaccination rates and that it threatened to exacerbate the social divide over the public health strategy around the virus.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.