Austrian and German plans to enforce COVID vaccinations are a worrying authoritarian step in the wrong direction.
In recent days it has been announced that, next year, Austria will become the first country in the world to make COVID vaccinations mandatory across its entire population, and it is reported that Germany may be about to follow suit.
I am a big supporter of vaccinations, and I have been double-vaccinated against COVID after suffering from the disease myself. I will also admit that the ending of lockdown was traumatic for me, and as a result of it I have a mild form of agoraphobia. So it may come as a surprise to some people to hear that, whilst I believe it would be ideal if entire populations protected themselves and others by being vaccinated, my natural libertarian instincts lead me to consider mandatory vaccinations a dangerous and authoritarian step. I think it is a move that could set worrying precedents for the future, and one that could cause far more societal issues than it solves.
In the United Kingdom, our children are customarily given a whole host of vaccines from an early age. These are automatically administered unless parents opt out – and few do. There are similar situations across Europe. For example, in France, whooping cough, influenza and meningitis jabs are given to children before they attend school – and those parents who refuse to comply see their child benefit cut. These are choices that are made with a bit of arm-twisting in France, and a spot of societal manipulation in the UK: lose some free money in France, look embarrassingly like the odd one out in Britain; but this is not the same as legal compulsion. Societies have always exerted pressure on people to conform to particular rules or norms; but forcing people, by law, to have something injected into them against their will, is a totally different ball game in the free world.
In Germany, in particular, there are precedents for making vaccines mandatory. In Imperial Germany it was smallpox, and in East Germany it was diphtheria and tuberculosis. While there are still a number of legal challenges and decisions pending, only last year the German republic mandated measles vaccinations. Ironically, the German public at large appears to be highly supportive of mandatory vaccination – but then, this would not be the first time they had limited their own democratic right to make choices!
I remember the misinformation that went around about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine when the three-in-one jab began in the UK, and a paper in The Lancet in 1998 led thousands at the time to panic about their children developing autism as a result of this new jab. Most of the paper’s co-authors later retracted assertions made in that piece, and while the number of MMR vaccinations dipped for a while, they have since become the norm again. Nowadays we see misinformation on a grand scale, on social media. It somehow seems easier for conspiracy theorists to engage with people to disseminate fear-provoking nonsense than it is for many politicians to provide simple and honest answers to ordinary questions – and I believe that social media outlets do far too little to stop ridiculous claims. Perhaps the funniest notion I have heard is that “the COVID vaccines are a secret way to inject us all with microchips” — as if Joe and Joanne Bloggs’ humdrum lives, watching the telly with a fish finger sandwich, are of any interest to the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world!
I believe there is a straight forward two-part solution that would persuade, rather than force, ordinary people to be vaccinated. First, misinformation needs to be quashed by government. This could easily be done with powerful messages in simple language, by laughing at the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers and by showing easy-to-follow graphs that display comparative risks of serious illness and death between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. This requires politicians to realise that ordinary people need simple, straight forward answers to combat their fears. Second, let the markets decide. Restaurants, bars and shops have the perfect right to serve or not to serve whomsoever they wish. If they refused entry to the unvaccinated, most people would comply within a few weeks. The tiny minority that did not, would at least no longer endanger the rest of society as they hide away in their burrows, and vaccination programmes would be as successful in the European Union and across the rest of the world as they have been in the UK.
I believe that Austria and Germany should be the last countries in Europe to consider enforcement as the key. Forgetting for one moment the issue of COVID-19, a single step onto this slippery authoritarian slope is far more than just divisive. It also leaves the door ajar for the rebuilding of dystopian landscapes and lays the groundwork for other authoritarian steps to be taken in the future; and, eventually, for the further erosion of democracy… and we all know what happened last time Austria and Germany walked down that route.