The German government has announced a lockdown for the unvaccinated and is considering making Covid vaccines mandatory, after weeks of record infections in the country and much of German-speaking Europe.
In Austria, thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against a string of measures: from February, the government will be introducing compulsory vaccines for all, with exemption for those unable to receive a jab on medical grounds.
Vaccination rates in both Germany and Austria are lagging behind the rest of western Europe, with under 70% of the populations having had two jabs.
People from both countries explain what they make of the current situation, and what they think of vaccine mandates and restrictions for the unvaccinated.
Max, 26, lives in the German state of Baden Württemberg and has chosen to remain unvaccinated against Covid.
“I have a medical condition, an autoimmune disorder, which raises my risk of side effects from the current set of vaccines, and led my GP to recommend that I not take them. We are both closely following the development of alternative vaccines, which may not have this elevated risk.”
Max is exasperated by the restrictions for those in the population who have not been immunised against the virus.
“Public health bureaucrats have decided that they know more about my medical circumstances than my own doctor. The personal risk analysis that was once the hallmark of good clinical care is now strongly discouraged by the Robert Koch Institute [Germany’s federal health agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention], and doctors are told to make decisions based not on their patients’ needs but on the assessments of bureaucrats.
Watch: Merkel makes final appeal to Germans to get vaccinated
“Because I decided to listen to the honest medical advice of my doctor, I have been subjected to an increasingly insane series of ‘measures’, openly designed to make my life functionally unliveable, until I take a medical intervention that I know is not right for me.
“These measures have done absolutely nothing to convince me – they have simply made my life harder and lonelier. I am now barred from public life; I can’t go to the shops, and I am subject to a ridiculous personal curfew that makes it illegal for me to leave the house after 9pm.”
Donovan, 27, a geoscientist from Potsdam, Germany who got vaccinated as soon as it was possible and has had his booster jab, is comfortable with restrictions for the unvaccinated, but is feeling very ambivalent about a possible vaccine mandate for the general population.
“I don’t like mandates. I’m uncomfortable with any government, anywhere, telling any person what they are obliged to do with their body, and I sincerely hope that, as Austrian ministers have said, the mandate will be a tool for persuasion, rather than an actual mechanism to pressure people into getting vaccinated.
“People in this region in particular were required to do things they didn’t want to do for a long time, historically speaking, and I hope that the new coalition government in Germany will uphold every person’s inviolable autonomy over their own body.”
Distrust in government is especially rife in east Germany, he says, where the population was spied on and controlled for decades by the former communist regime.
“This distrust is a bigger issue in my view than anything else. But I have hope that some people will change their minds.”
What exactly a vaccine mandate would mean in practice, however, remains as unclear in Germany as in Austria.
“I support measures that significantly reduce the personal freedoms of the unvaccinated, given the risk they pose to society.”
“I additionally support vaccine mandates in the care sector, and I would support further measures, like those taken by companies in the USA, which would require unvaccinated individuals to pay higher health insurance or social care contributions. Those of us who are vaccinated should not continue to subsidise the medical costs of the unvaccinated.”
In the state of Brandenburg, where he lives, only 61% of people had had two doses of the vaccine when he looked it up about a week ago.
“That’s simply not enough. I don’t want anyone to lose their job because they didn’t want to get vaccinated, but I understand that in these extraordinarily difficult times, extraordinarily difficult measures may have to be taken.”
Heike*, 68, a pensioner from Munich, echoes Donovan’s views, and feels uneasy about compulsory vaccinations.
“I’m fully vaccinated, and just had a booster, but hesitate about vaccines becoming mandatory. We should preserve freedom of choice, but I don’t have a problem with the unvaccinated becoming severely restricted regarding restaurants, cafes, travel, visitors, employment, social events and shopping for anything else but essentials.”
People here are very black and white about things. The conversation has become very aggressive
The unvaccinated, Heike believes, have soaked up unscientific advice that is clouding their judgment, but a constructive dialogue between pro- and anti-vaccine camps that might convince sceptics to be inoculated no longer seems possible.
“People here are very black and white about things. My husband would support it if people would be restrained and forcefully vaccinated. The conversation has become very aggressive.”
Many of those refusing to get jabbed favour alternative medicine, Heike thinks.
“All my friends who aren’t vaccinated always visit homeopathic doctors. There are horrible consequences as a result of this refusal to get the vaccine – cancer operations are cancelled, for instance.
“My friend thought it was OK for people to forge vaccine certificates. These people should be jailed in my view.”
Thomas Steiner, 49, a video producer from Vienna, believes a widespread lack of appreciation for science in Austria is one of the root causes of the country’s low vaccine uptake.
“I have no idea where this comes from, but Austria, like Germany, is an esoteric hotspot. Alternative medicine and homeopathy are big business here and sold in pharmacies; it’s deeply ingrained. A lot of people say that’s one of the culprits for the situation we have now.”
But, he adds, the matter is complex. “The reasons are of course multifaceted, and the other major factor is political: our governing party, ÖVP, announced the end of the Covid crisis on massive billboards this summer, and said from now on it would be a private matter for individuals to deal with. ‘We have beaten the pandemic, fought the crisis. Finally, together again,’ one of these billboards read. That was the message.
“In addition, not enough was done to promote vaccines. The rightwing FPÖ party is openly against vaccination. In this political climate, everything is an uphill battle.”
Overall, Steiner thinks there is no way around a general vaccine mandate. “We need one to counter our low vaccination rate, like we had in the 70s against smallpox. It won’t be a challenge to get this mandate through the courts.
“It’s not what everyone wanted, but here we are.”
• Some names have been changed