Vaccinated versus unvaccinated: Europe’s cultural war against Covid

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ANNABERG-BUCHHOLZ, Germany – Sven Müller is proudly unvaccinated. He believes that the Covid vaccines are neither effective nor safe, but a way to make money for the pharmaceutical companies and corrupt politicians who deprive him of his liberty.

Under state rules to contain coronavirus infections, he is no longer allowed to go to restaurants, bowling alleys, movies or the hairdresser. From next week, he will also be banned from entering most stores. But that only strengthened his resolve.

“They can’t break me,” said Mr Müller, 40, a bar owner in the town of Annaberg-Buchholz, in the Ore Mountains region in the state of Saxony, where the vaccination rate is 44%, the lowest in Germany. .

Mr. Müller personifies a problem that is as acute in parts of Europe as it is in the United States. If Germany had red and blue states, Saxony would be crimson. In places like this, pockets of unvaccinated people are behind the latest wave of contagion, filling overworked hospital wards, jeopardizing economic recovery and sending governments scrambling to prevent a fourth wave of contagion. pandemic.

Even though studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent infection – and avoid hospitalization or death if infected – persuade those who are deeply skeptical of vaccines to turned out to be almost impossible. Instead, governments in Western Europe have increasingly resorted to thinly veiled coercion with a mix of mandates, incentives and punishments.

In Italy, the northern province of Bolzano – on the border of Austria and Switzerland, where 70 percent of the population is German-speaking – has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Experts have linked a sharp increase in infections to frequent exchanges with Austria, but also to a cultural inclination of the population towards homeopathy and natural remedies.

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

In fact, Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland have the largest proportions of unvaccinated populations in all of Western Europe. About one in four people over the age of 12 is not vaccinated, compared to around one in ten in France and Italy and almost none in Portugal.

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

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

“Radical anti-vaccines are not a huge group, but they are big enough to cause a problem in the pandemic,” Ms. Lamberty said. “It shows the success of far-right cheerleaders on this issue and the failure of mainstream politicians to take it seriously enough.”

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

In Austria, where the government has gone furthest in restricting the unvaccinated, a newly founded anti-vaccine party recently won three seats in a northern state parliament, long a stronghold of the far right. In France and Italy, anti-vaccine hot spots remain where national populists dominate.

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

The AfD has stabilized nationally, but in the former Communist East, anti-vaccine sentiment has come naturally to many voters who often already have deep mistrust of government, globalization. , big business and mainstream media.

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

The problem is so loaded that Mr. Schmidt will not say if he himself is vaccinated. “My big problem at the moment is to maintain social peace in this city,” he said.

In Annaberg-Buchholz, a former medieval metal mining town near the Czech border, the split is visceral and visible.

Every Monday, diehard anti-vaccines organize a noisy little rally in the city center. This week there were about 50 demonstrators, shouting slogans like “vaccine kills” and raging against the government in Berlin, which they say is a dictatorship like communism, “only worse”.

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

One of them is Mr. Müller’s bar, Salon, where he serves over 90 types of gin to clients who are mostly unvaccinated like him, he says. A sign in the door quotes the German Constitution and says: “It doesn’t matter whether you are (not) vaccinated, (not) tested, you are welcome as a HUMAN BEING!”

The sign turned him into a minor celebrity: people stop to take photos, a cafe owner up the street copied his text.

Karin and Hans Schneider, two retired bystanders who both grew up in Annaberg-Buchholz and are vaccinated, said the only way to get skeptics to get the shot was to make it nearly impossible not to. “This is nonsense,” Ms. Schneider said. “You can’t argue with them; you have to be tough.

In Germany, the new government wants to impose stricter rules on unvaccinated people, including requiring that they get a negative coronavirus test before using public transport.

But Austria has done the most, limiting travel for anyone over the age of 12 who has not been vaccinated to travel for work, school, grocery shopping and medical care and giving the police the power to check vaccination papers on the street.

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

Austria’s so-called lockdown of the unvaccinated was a topic of discussion in Saxony, where many felt the new restrictions coming next week were the same thing under a different name.

Saxony was the first German state to exclude unvaccinated people from much of public life by requiring proof in most social places of being vaccinated or having recovered from a Covid infection. From Monday, all non-essential shops will also be banned for them.

Many, like Mr. Müller, feel betrayed by the government. “They promised there would be no vaccination warrant,” he said. “But this is a backdoor vaccination warrant.”

A 10-minute drive from Annaberg-Buchholz, Constanze Albrecht injected a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine into the arm of a 67-year-old man. Dr Albrecht has been on the road with one of the 30 mobile vaccination teams that crisscross Saxony to encourage people to get vaccinated.

So far, there is no clear indication that the new restrictions have led to an increase in demand for vaccinations. Most of the injections Dr Albrecht gave that day were reminders for people who had been vaccinated months ago.

Many of those who come for their first shot make it clear that they feel pressured, Dr Albrecht said. One man said he was doing it only so he could continue to take his son to his sports club. One woman muttered that she “had no choice”.

Mr. Schmidt, the mayor, warned that by distinguishing the unvaccinated, the government is sowing division. “This story, ‘These bad unvaccinated people, they are responsible for the increase in cases,'” he said. “This is not helpful.”

Mr. Schmidt prefers to bring people together. He is pushing to allow the city’s famous Christmas market to take place without restrictions for the unvaccinated – instead, a test warrant for all.

At Annaberg-Buchholz, half of the stands are already in place, with the opening scheduled for November 26. But Mr Schmidt fears it may yet be banned by the state government.

“It would be the last straw,” he said. “For our region, it’s more than 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 it.

The report was provided by Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Jason horowitz From Rome, Constant Meheut from Paris, Anton Troianovsky from Moscow and Niki Kitsantonis of Athens.


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