What began in Austria has spread to Germany, then the Czech Republic and now Slovakia. Lockdowns for the unvaccinated are sweeping across central Europe, with Austria now declaring that vaccinations will be made compulsory in the country.
Why did these extreme lockdowns become so popular in central Europe? Part of the reason is that the region is at the epicentre of the global pandemic. But in trying to protect their healthcare systems, these countries are essentially creating two-tier societies – which are likely to become the perfect breeding ground for bitterness and resentment.
When Austria imposed Europe’s first lockdown for the unvaccinated at the start of this week, few in the Czech Republic foresaw similar measures arriving so soon in their own country. But in a process eerily reminiscent of the first weeks of the pandemic in Europe, governments throughout the region have been unable to resist imitating their neighbours.
The German regions of Bavaria and Saxony imposed restrictions on the unvaccinated a day after Austria, with the domino effect continuing into the Czech Republic on Wednesday and Slovakia on Thursday. Unlike in Austria, unvaccinated Germans, Czechs and Slovaks will be allowed to leave their homes but they will be excluded from accessing public events and services. Austria’s campaign against the unvaccinated has since taken an even more extreme turn, with vaccination to be made compulsory for the entire population from February.
Leaders in the region have made no bones about portraying the unvaccinated as a risk to their healthcare systems. Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtěch described the situation as an ‘epidemic of the unvaccinated,’ criticising those who have refused the jab and saying those considering getting vaccinated should not delay ‘for a single day’. A minister for the Baden-Württemberg region in Germany warned that healthcare systems would become overloaded ‘because some are too comfortable to get vaccinated,’ while the minister-president of Bavaria, Markus Söder, said limiting contacts for unvaccinated people is the only way to stop the healthcare situation ‘slipping out of our grasp’ over the winter. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has issued a desperate plea for more people to take up the vaccine, describing inoculation as ‘the only solution’ to the Covid crisis. But in a region where Covid vaccine scepticism is common, a vaccine lockdown risks creating even greater levels of resistance to government policies.
Covid vaccine coverage in Germany and Austria is comparable to that of the UK; but in their neighbours to the east, scepticism is far greater. In the Czech Republic, less than 60 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, while in Slovakia the number is even lower, at 43 per cent. The latest data meanwhile suggests the unvaccinated could indeed be driving an increase in cases and deaths. The Czech Republic introduced its lockdown for the unvaccinated after a record 22,497 cases were announced on Wednesday, 69 per cent of which were recorded in people who had not been vaccinated. Ninety-five Covid-related deaths were recorded on the same day.
Locking down the unvaccinated may be justifiable from a health perspective then – but what about the moral dimension? Health experts and politicians in these countries seem to be ignoring these important issues. It is now common for Covid vaccine sceptics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to compare the level of state control being exercised against them to the authoritarianism they witnessed in the twentieth century. A regional head of the Czech state healthcare body responsible for enforcing pandemic restrictions recently complained that members of the public were comparing them to the Czechoslovak secret police during the Communist era.
It’s unclear as well whether this heavy-handed approach will change many minds. If anything, the Czech government’s lockdown and ‘brutal’ vaccine promotional campaign (which has shown images of corpses in Covid wards) have fostered a sense of defiance in the face of state intimidation.
All this is worrying health officials who see the unvaccinated as a serious threat to hospital capacity over the winter. Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the problem is, at least in part, one of their own making. In Slovakia, a protracted drama over the approval of the Sputnik V vaccine gave little impression that the government had confidence in the efficacy of the shots it was doling out to its citizens. Sputnik V also proved divisive in the Czech Republic and Austria. These governments have struggled to contain the spread of disinformation about the supposed ill-effects of Covid vaccines, allowing what some have described as a ‘question everything’ mentality to take hold.
Still, it’s clear that what started out as concern about the health implications of the Covid vaccine has now morphed into a political crisis. At stake is the matter of free will; in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany, those who choose not to be vaccinated face becoming social outcasts. In Austria, even this measly freedom of choice is being done away with in favour of compulsory vaccination.
In many respects scrutiny of Covid regulations has been stronger in central Europe than in the UK throughout the pandemic – indeed, it has already been confirmed that the Czech Republic’s restrictions on the unvaccinated will be challenged in the courts.
Yet the stark segregation set to be imposed in the region now makes Britain seem a paragon of liberalism. Whether lockdowns for the unvaccinated will be successful in encouraging more people to get jabbed is questionable; but they are certain to deepen the social divides caused by Covid.