So, Austria’s experiment to persuade more people to get vaccinated by placing the unvaccinated in lockdown didn’t last long. A week, to be precise. From Monday, the entire country will be placed under stay at home orders and other restrictions — this, after it seemed that the era of lockdowns was over. But perhaps more significantly is Austria’s announcement this morning that from 1 February next year Covid vaccination will be compulsory, with large fines for those who refuse to be jabbed.
Remarkably, in doing so, Alexander Schallenberg’s government is taking a step that even the Chinese Communist party considered going a bit too far — back in April, when some regional governments were trying to impose compulsory vaccination on their populations, the central government ordered them to stop. Austria will join a tiny number of countries that have attempted to mandate vaccination — including Indonesia, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, although the latter two have not actually enforced compulsory vaccination with any sanction, financial or otherwise.
The Austrian Chancellor says he has been forced into making the move because of low rates of vaccination in the country. It is true that Austria’s vaccination rate — 64 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated, while a further 4.4 percent have had one jab — is a little below that of many other European countries, albeit higher than Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But shouldn’t the government be asking the reasons for that and work out why persuasion is failing?
The success of Covid vaccines is there in the data for all to see. As with Covid, as with smallpox and the many other diseases that have been tamed over the past couple of centuries, vaccination is one of medical science’s greatest gifts. It can be puzzling to work out why anti-vaxxers should get so worked up against a medical intervention that has saved many millions of lives over the past couple of centuries. Yet as I have written here before, the vast majority of people who have been refusing Covid vaccines — at least in Britain — have not done so because they have some ideological objection to vaccination. On the contrary, an ONS survey of people who had not been vaccinated revealed that only 8 per cent of them had an opposition to vaccines in general. The biggest single reason given — by 44 per cent of respondents — was that they were worried about side effects from Covid vaccines in particular, not least because, rightly or wrongly, they felt that these vaccines had been rushed through the approval process.
Such concerns are not completely unreasonable: 73 people in Britain have been killed as a result of blood clots attributed to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine, too, has been linked with cases of inflammation of the heart in young people, especially boys. These risks, of course, have to be balanced against the risk of catching Covid, and in most cases people may be better accepting a vaccine. But not everyone is going to come down to the conclusion that they, personally, would be better off having the vaccine.
Even if the Austrian government disagrees with such people, does it really want to go to war against them? There have already been loud protests against last week’s lockdown for the unvaccinated. Trying to introduce compulsion is inevitably going to stir things up to a new level, with people starting to ask questions: is this the thin end of the wedge of healthcare dictatorship, in which public healthcare systems start to decide what is good for us and force us into treatments that we might prefer not to have? As for the argument that this is different from, say, chemotherapy for cancer because unvaccinated individuals are a risk to others not just themselves, it doesn’t stand up. While Covid vaccines have proved very effective at preventing serious cases of disease, they have proved much less effective at preventing infection.
Throughout the past few months, some have sought to portray vaccine refuseniks as either perpetrators or victims of nasty right-wing, white supremacists. The data suggests otherwise, with vaccination rates lowest among black and Asian ethnic groups. That is another can of worms that the Austrian government is about to open — it will find its new law affecting disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities. I suspect it will end up in deep regret.