Ahe fourth wave of Covid-19 infections threatens to overwhelm intensive care units in hospitals from Brussels to Berlin, European governments have started to appear exasperated and anxious. German Health Minister Jens Spahn made clear on Monday what is at stake for the coming winter, in terms designed to work as a wake-up call. By spring, Spahn warned, the vast majority of Germans would be “vaccinated, cured or dead.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called violent protesters against restrictions on non-fools “foolish”, while his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo said similar scenes in Brussels were “absolutely unacceptable” .
The words of MM. Rutte and De Croo explicitly targeted the violent fringe that hijacked protests in the Belgian capital and Rotterdam. But there is a more general sense of frustration among political leaders in Western Europe: While an expected fall wave duly arrives, a significant minority of citizens are aggravating the crisis by refusing to be vaccinated. Dealing with this segment of the population, who are much more likely to need hospital treatment after infection, has become a major political dilemma for governments seeking to juggle civil liberties with the need to protect interests. of society as a whole.
It is dangerous ground for any liberal democracy. The developing policy response has been to put gradual pressure on the activities of the unvaccinated, in the form of Covid passes and restrictions. These are now hardened. In Belgium, proof of vaccination or a negative test will be required to enter cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, and the vaccination of caregivers has become compulsory. In Germany, similar restrictions are being introduced in states that have a high rate of Covid-related hospitalizations. Director of the Robert Koch institute – the national disease control agency – said immunization rates urgently needed to be increased from 68% to well above 75% if a disease was to be avoided. generalized crisis.
These are understandable and justifiable measures, given the exponential rise in infection rates and rising death rates. Nonetheless, governments will need to exercise exceptional caution when taxed. They should avoid following the lead of Austria, which announced last week that vaccination would be compulsory from February. As the World Health Organization pointed out on Tuesday, a “vaccine plus” approach, emphasizing the importance of social distancing and mask-wearing for all citizens, is needed. And while libertarian arguments cannot override the need for social solidarity in the context of a pandemic, formal discrimination against those who remain unvaccinated must be complemented by more vigorous efforts to inform, persuade and listen to people. reluctant and skeptical.
This is especially true in sections of the population where confidence in government is at an all-time low and a sense of civic deprivation is already prevalent. A two-tier Covid society, if allowed to persist for a significant period of time, will become a gift for far-right parties in search of fertile ground. The Austrian Freedom Party, recently hit by a corruption scandal that saw its popularity drop, is using anti-vaccination protests as a means of rehabilitation. In Germany, a heated debate is currently underway as to whether the switch to compulsory vaccination would violate the constitutional right to “bodily integrity”. In Berlin and elsewhere, it is vital to find a more consensual path.