Vaccinated vs. Unvaccinated: Europe’s Covid Culture War

Annaberg-Buschulz, Germany – Sven Müller is proud not to have her vaccinated. He believes that Covid vaccines are neither effective nor safe but a way to make money for drug companies and corrupt politicians who are usurping his freedom.

Under the country’s rules to stop infection with the coronavirus, he is no longer allowed to go to restaurants, a bowling alley, the cinema or the hairdresser. Starting next week, it will be banned from most stores as well. But that only strengthened his resolve.

With a vaccination rate of 44 per cent – the lowest in Germany – said Mr Muller, 40, a pub owner in the town of Annaberg-Buchholz, in the Ur mountain region in eastern Saxony. .

Mr. Mueller embodies a problem as acute in some parts of Europe as it is in the United States. If Germany had red and blue states, then Saxony would be crimson. In places like these, pockets of unvaccinated people are driving the last round of infections, filling strained hospital wards, jeopardizing economic recovery and sending governments averting a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Even when studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection – and to avoid hospitalization or death if infected – it has proven impossible to convince those who are deeply skeptical about vaccines. Instead, Western European governments are increasingly resorting to covert coercion with a mixture of mandates, inducements, and punishments.

In Italy, the northern province of Bolzano – which borders Austria and Switzerland, where 70 percent of the population speaks German – has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Experts have linked the sharp increase in infections there to frequent exchanges with Austria, but also to the cultural inclination among the population towards homeopathy and natural remedies.

“There is some association with far-right parties, but the main reason is this trust in nature,” said Patrick Franzoni, the doctor who is leading the county vaccination campaign. He said the German-speaking population trusted fresh air, organic products and herbal teas more than traditional medicines, especially in the Alps.

In fact, Germany, Austria and the German-speaking region of Switzerland have the largest proportion of unvaccinated populations in all of Western Europe. About one in four people over the age of 12 is not immunized, compared to about one in 10 in France and Italy and almost none in Portugal.

Sociologists say that in addition to the influential culture of alternative medicine, vaccine resistance is fueled by a strong tradition of decentralized government that tends to fuel mistrust of rules imposed from the capital — and by a far-right ecosystem that knows how to exploit both. .

Opposition to vaccines is in some ways the long tail of the populist nationalist movements that have rocked European politics for a decade, said Pia Lamberti of CeMAS, a Berlin-based research organization focused on disinformation and conspiracy theories.

“Radical anti-vaccination isn’t a huge group, but it’s big enough to cause a problem in an epidemic,” Lamberti said. “It shows the success of far-right cheerleading on this issue and the failure of key politicians to take it seriously enough.”

As a result, she added, in parts of Europe, “whether or not you get vaccinated has become almost as politically determined as in the United States.”

In Austria, where the government has gone to great lengths in restricting the unvaccinated, a new anti-vaccine party recently won three seats in the state parliament in the north, a long bastion of the far-right. In France and Italy, anti-vaccine hotspots remain where nationalist populists dominate.

In Saxony, anti-vaccine sentiment and support for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD – the most powerful political force here – are greatly intertwined.

The AfD has emerged steadily nationally, but in the former communist East, anti-vaccine sentiment has proven a natural fit for many voters who often already have a deep suspicion of government, globalization, big business and the mainstream media.

“The vaccine is polarizing,” said Rolf Schmidt, mayor of Annaberg-Buchholz. “I hear it from morning till night: Everyone has their own ultimate truth and their own channel on social media to promote that truth. The other side is all lies.”

So the fraught issue is that Mr. Schmidt will not say whether he has been vaccinated himself. “My biggest problem now is maintaining social peace in this city,” he said.

In Annaberg-Buchholz, a medieval mineral-mining town near the Czech border, the division is deep and visible.

Every Monday, anti-vaccination hardliners hold a small but noisy rally downtown. This week, there were about 50 demonstrators, chanting slogans such as “a vaccine that kills” and pushing against the government in Berlin, which they say is a dictatorship like communism, “only worse”.

Many restaurants have rebellious messages in their windows blaming “political decisions” in the strict new rules that exclude unvaccinated people from entry.

One of them is Mr. Muller’s Bar, Salon, which serves more than 90 types of gin He says mostly unvaccinated shepherds like him. A sign in the door refers to the German constitution and reads: “Regardless of whether (unvaccinated) or (untested), you are welcome as a human being!”

The banner turned him into a little celebrity: people stopped to take pictures, and the owner of a street cafe copied his text.

The only way to lure skeptics to get the shot, said Karen and Hans Schneider, retired passersby who both grew up in Annaberg-Buchholz and were vaccinated, said the only way to lure skeptics to get the shot was to make not doing so nearly impossible. “It’s stupid,” Schneider said. “You can’t argue with them; you have to be tough.”

In Germany, the next government wants to impose stricter rules against unvaccinated people, including requiring them to test negative for coronavirus before using public transport.

But Austria did the most, restricting the movement of anyone over 12 and unvaccinated to travel for work, school, grocery shopping and medical care and giving police the power to check vaccination papers on the street.

“This is an unprecedented violation of our constitutional freedoms,” said Michael Brunner, president of the MFG, the new anti-vaccine party.

Austria’s so-called shutdown of non-vaccinators has been a moot point in Saxony, with many feeling the new restrictions coming next week were the same by another name.

Saxony was the first German state to exclude unvaccinated people from most public life by requiring proof in most social settings of either vaccination or recovery from a Covid infection. From Monday, all non-essential stores will be off-limits to them as well.

Many, like Mr. Mueller, feel betrayed by the government. “They promised there would be no vaccine mandates,” he said. “But this is delegating a vaccine through the back door.”

About a 10-minute drive from Annaberg-Buchholz, Konstanz Albrecht was injecting a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine into the arm of a 67-year-old man. Dr Albrecht was on the road with one of 30 mobile immunization teams across Saxony to entice people to get an injection.

So far, there is no clear indication that the new restrictions have led to an increased demand for vaccinations. Most of the shots Dr. Albrecht gave that day were boosters to people who had been vaccinated months earlier.

Dr. Albrecht said that many of those who came at the first shot made it clear that they felt pressured. One man said he was just doing it so he could keep taking his son to his gym. “She has no choice,” muttered a woman.

Mayor Schmidt warned that the government, by singling out the unvaccinated, is sowing division. “This narrative,” he said, “those unvaccinated bad guys, are responsible for the increase in cases.” “That’s not helpful.”

Mr. Schmidt prefers to bring people together. He’s pushing to let the city’s famous Christmas market go ahead without restrictions on the unvaccinated — instead, mandate testing for everyone.

In Annaberg-Buchholz, half of the stalls are already ready, on schedule to open on November 26. But Mr. Schmidt worries the state government will ban it.

He said, “This will be the straw that broke the camel’s back.” “For our neighborhood, this is more than just a Christmas fair, it’s who we are as a city and as a region. It’s a feeling, it’s an identity. Big cities don’t understand that.”

Contribute to reporting Christopher F Schwitz from Berlin Jason Horowitz from Rome, Constant Mihot from Paris , Anton Troyanovsky from Moscow and Nikki Kitsantonis from Athens.

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