Mandatory vaccination does not mean that the state will physically force people to be vaccinated, says Austrian scientist • RESPECT

Austria is the country in Europe that puts the most pressure on its citizens to get vaccinated against the covid. Earlier this week, it introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated, banning unvaccinated people from going to restaurants, gyms or shops. On Friday, the government extended the lockdown to the entire population due to the bad epidemiological situation and overcrowded hospitals. At the same time, however, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has promised that after the three-week closure, the lockdown for the unvaccinated will continue to apply – and from February, covid vaccination should even be mandatory for all. So far, only Indonesia, Micronesia and Turkmenistan have introduced compulsory vaccination in the world.

According to political scientist Julie Partheymüller of the University of Vienna, who examines the attitudes of the Austrian public towards covid measures since the beginning of the pandemic, the lockdown for the unvaccinated was relatively successful because it was able to get part of the population vaccinated. However, he came too late to prevent the uncontrollable spread of the pandemic. According to the social scientist, the mandatory vaccinations announced by the government on Friday are unnecessarily demonized. “People imagine that someone will physically force them to insert a needle into the body. These images cause panic, but mandatory vaccinations will not look like this. It will look like you are paying a fine for parking in an unauthorized place. And the fine will not be too high. As a result, we will never reach 100% vaccination, but we do not need it. It will be enough if they are vaccinated hesitant and procrastinating. These people will receive a clear signal that they should be vaccinated, that it is really needed, and therefore, from my point of view, it will help, “he states.

Do you think that the Austrian experiment with a lockdown for the unvaccinated worked in the sense that it forced the unvaccinated to get vaccinated? In other words, is this a way to persuade the unvaccinated to take the vaccine?

The numbers vaccinated for the first time in Austria have started to grow since the government introduced new rules in early November. The first step came when the government introduced the obligation of 3G – which meant that at work you had to be either tested, vaccinated or cured of covid. At the same time, the government also introduced a 2G rule for restaurants, cafes, sports grounds, meaning that only people with vaccinations or illnesses were allowed to go to these public places. In addition, since last Monday, the government has introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated, which has tightened the conditions for the unvaccinated. This week, the unvaccinated were only allowed to go to work, to the supermarket to buy basic groceries and for a health walk. During this period, the number of vaccinees began to grow quite significantly. The first dose managed to increase vaccination coverage by about three percent, which is a success in such a short time. But there are still almost 25 percent of unvaccinated people. Another issue is whether these measures were enough to slow the spread of the virus. It was obviously not enough, so now the government is introducing a complete lockdown for everyone, both vaccinated and non-vaccinated.

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Julia Partheymüller

According to Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, Austria is due to return to the unvaccinated lockdown after the currently announced general lockdown, so the government clearly considers the experiment a success and wants to continue it. At the same time, she announced that the pressure would intensify and she wanted to introduce compulsory vaccination for all from February.

The current lockdown will last ten days, then it will probably be extended for another ten days and then the lockdown for the unvaccinated will continue to apply. The problem will still be there, because not enough people will still be vaccinated to keep the situation under control. At the same time, the debate on compulsory vaccination for all introduced by the government is now fully open.

This is a relatively radical step. Does he have support from the Austrian public?

In our research, we have been asking this question for several months since last year, and support for compulsory vaccination has long been relatively low. Only a third of respondents supported him. In recent surveys, however, support has grown, and I believe that the next time we ask at the end of November, compulsory vaccination will already have more than half the support of respondents. No one wants closed schools, shops and sports grounds anymore. People’s attitudes are also changing due to the epidemiological situation, which has escalated in recent days and weeks.

Also read: I’m going for an injection to keep calm. The pressure on the unvaccinated in Austria has partially eased

In recent weeks, the number of first-graders has increased because people often wanted to simplify their lives, gain access to shops or restaurants. But now they will lose this motivation because everything will be closed. So many people may think that injections will not improve his daily life. Doesn’t that reduce the willingness of the other quarter to get vaccinated?

I think another factor will also play a role, namely the spread of the infection that motivates people to get vaccinated. In the summer and autumn, there was a feeling that the pandemic was over, the infection was spreading slowly. Some politicians have also told people that the pandemic is over and no lockdown will come. Now, when people see that the crisis is still not over, that there is another lockdown and that the hospitals are overcrowded, they may be vaccinated. But it is also necessary to say that in our research we see a group of people who reject vaccination relatively strongly. A large-scale demonstration against government measures organized by the far-right FPÖ, which is trying to win voters in opposition to vaccination, will take place in Vienna on Saturday. It will demonstrate against the restrictions for the unvaccinated and certainly also against the plan to introduce compulsory vaccination for all. There is also general opposition to government regulations in society. The already intense trenches between the vaccinated and the opponents of the vaccination will deepen.

What do you mean?

In the questionnaires, for example, we examined how intensely people perceive the conflict between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Already in September, it turned out that this is currently the most conflicting issue in society, which also exceeds the view of immigrants or economic inequality in society. Society will increasingly polarize this issue, and compulsory vaccination will make it even stronger.

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How large do you think the group of people who will not be vaccinated under any circumstances is?

In our questionnaires, about 15 percent of people now refuse to be vaccinated. However, within this group, some people say that they are waiting for a new type of vaccine to appear on the market, either from Valneva or Novavax. So these people are not sworn opponents of the vaccine who would reject the vaccine as such, at least according to the survey. Then, of course, there are rock opponents of vaccination who don’t want to be vaccinated with anything and a dot. According to our estimate, they are only about seven percent of the population. In addition to these 15 percent, there is a group of people who are still hesitant. These are mainly young people who have not yet been sure whether they need vaccinations because they are healthy and do not feel threatened by coronavirus. They are also unsure whether vaccinations will protect the people around them. However, in my opinion, this group will shrink rapidly with the government restricting the unvaccinated’s access to leisure activities. They are not big opponents of vaccination, rather they were not interested in the topic. Some will be vaccinated, some may also be radicalized by opponents of the vaccination and join the protests.

Austria makes Covid vaccine compulsory, imposes lockdown
Vaccination queue in Vienna • Author: Profimedia

To what extent do you think Austrian society is divided in terms of vaccination? From what you describe, as well as from the number of vaccinated people, it seems that there is a large majority of supporters and only a small group of opponents of vaccination.

Three-quarters of the adult population are vaccinated with at least one dose, which is the vast majority of society. If 75 percent of voters voted for an election, it would be an almost socialist victory for the vaccine. But we are not in an election, but in a pandemic. In a pandemic, we need to get closer to 100% vaccination. Researchers say we need to achieve at least 85 percent vaccination to keep the pandemic under control. In my opinion, the vaccination campaign was relatively successful, but even so, it was not enough and a new wave of infection came that filled the hospitals. We relaxed in the interest of vaccination just before the target tape, because a lot of people said that the pandemic was over.

What should have been done differently?

If the 2G or lockdown restrictions for the unvaccinated had been introduced a little earlier, we might have had a higher vaccination coverage – and now it would not be necessary to introduce area lockdowns. The unvaccinated could also be given the financial incentive to get vaccinated. Compulsory vaccinations may also have been introduced for certain occupations or vulnerable groups. In the 65-75 age group, 15 percent are still unvaccinated, and this is a relatively vulnerable group. These people are afraid of side effects, they are not convinced that the vaccine will prevent infection, they do not believe that the vaccine is the way out of a pandemic. A booster third dose could also be offered to people a little earlier. We have known from data from Israel for a long time that the effectiveness of the vaccine is declining over time, but only now is the strengthening campaign for the third dose fully launched. There is a lot of interest in her now, but it’s a little late to stop the fourth wave.

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If vaccination starts to be compulsory in Austria at the beginning of next year, how large do you think the group of people who prefer to pay a fine to the state and will not be vaccinated?

It is possible that it will be the seven percent of rock opponents and a few percent hesitant. Let’s say 10 to 15 percent. But when new vaccines emerge, the group may shrink. Even if it is 15 percent, we will still have 85 percent vaccination coverage, which should be enough to handle the pandemic. The finish line seems to be close, just a short distance.

Austria makes Covid vaccine compulsory, imposes lockdown
Better than a fine? • Author: Profimedia

Is mandatory vaccination a really good idea? Isn’t this too much interference with people’s personal freedoms? No European country has yet taken such a measure.

It’s an invasion of personal rights, so you can’t set fines for refusing a vaccine too high. So the fine will not be high in my opinion. It’s a signal for people to think. We are now seeing the effects of not being vaccinated all around us: hospitals are full, doctors are exhausted. The obligation to vaccinate will intensify this debate, and if you still oppose it, you will pay at least a small fine to help solve the problem. You can’t force people to have a needle stuck in each other. The law would not even suggest that. We are talking about smaller fines. The debate is polarized because people imagine that someone will physically force them to inject the vaccine. These images cause panic, but mandatory vaccinations will not look like this. It will look like you are paying a fine for parking in an unauthorized place. As a result, we will never achieve 100% vaccination coverage, but we don’t even need that. It will be enough for them who are hesitant and delayed to be vaccinated. These people will receive a clear signal that they should be vaccinated, that it is really needed, and that is why it will help, in my view.

When you talk about a small fine, what amount are we talking about?

This will certainly be discussed, but I imagine it will take 100 euros. In my opinion, this will be a similar amount as if you do not comply with another state regulation, such as the mandatory registration of permanent residence. It is possible that the fine will be small at first and will increase if it does not work. It is also possible that restrictions on the unvaccinated will remain in place in the long term, forcing people to get vaccinated. In some countries, for example, children are not allowed in kindergarten without measles vaccination. It is possible that the covid vaccine will be the same.

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