Alpine Pioneer – Why has Austria made Covid-19 vaccines compulsory?

By Sanna Sailer

“We don’t want a fifth wave, we don’t want a sixth and seventh wave.”

austrian chancellor alexander schallenberg

AUSTRIA’s harsh Covid vaccine law came into force this month despite a spate of resistance from the population.

It became the first country in the European Union to introduce a compulsory Covid-19-vaccination for all adults.

With a broad majority, including parts of the opposition, parliament passed a law to make the Covid-19 vaccine compulsory for everyone over the age of 18.

Those who nevertheless resist may face fines of up to 3,600 euros four times a year. To create additional incentives, the government is spending one billion euros on vaccination lotteries –a measure that causes incomprehension among many.

In many ways, the small Alpine republic has now become a pioneer of vaccination through this measure.

Enforcing the law is an admission that politicians have failed to convince enough people to get their immunizing shots. Instead of admitting the mistakes made, Schallenberg blames the unvaccinated and declares them “lacking in solidarity”.

Currently, Austria’s vaccination rate is scraping the 75 per cent mark and is thus in the middle of the European field. In some municipalities, however, only every second person has been vaccinated. Scientific scepticism is one of the reasons for low vaccination readiness.

An argument for the introduction of compulsory vaccination was the critical state of the health system at the end of 2021.

Some hospitals had to perform triages, where medical staff had to decide which patient would rather be given an intensive care bed.  Routine operations or chemotherapies were postponed. Chief physicians were forced to publicly call for tougher measures as their staff was running out of energy.

But masses of people have protested loudly against the “deprivation of their liberty”.

Up to 40,000 people turn up weekly in Vienna when the far-right party FPÖ invites them down.

Among the protesters, however, there are not only right-wing ideologies. The pandemic led to the formation of new, disgruntled citizen groups.  

Lukas Thürmer from the University of Salzburg told Redaction Report: “People seem to experience their vaccination status as a group membership, with a divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. And when people belong to different groups, a debate based on arguments becomes increasingly difficult. In fact, our research shows that criticism between groups can lead to hostile actions.”

The controversial party leader and former interior minister Herbert Kickl acts as the leading figure of the anti-government protests.

With aggression, the deliberate spreading of misinformation and an active anti-vaccination campaign, the politician endangers not only a division of society but also the health of his supporters.

Even after the introduction of compulsory vaccination, he refuses to take the shot and thus deliberately opposes the current law that “paves the way to totalitarianism in Austria”, according to Kickl.

Politicians now need to counter the threat of a division in Austria society. “We first need to become aware again that we in Austria are in this together, as one group,” , Thürmer suggested.

“Then we will be able to have debates where the arguments count rather than who says them.”

The vaccination measures were introduced despite mass testing being commonplace in Austria.

Up to 500,000 tests are carried out in one day, with only Cyprus testing more in Europe.  

Whether this strategy is effective in the fight against the pandemic is questionable, however According to the Ministry of Health, the state spent up to €1.6billion on providing free tests in 2021.

If the vaccination rate increases due to an obligation, the state expenditure for the tests would probably also decrease. This is a not unimportant argument for a vaccination mandate, which is nevertheless rarely mentioned in the discussion.

Austria is unlikely to be the last country to make the jab compulsory, but the general trend is still not visible in Europe. So far, only neighbouring Germany has seriously engaged in the debate of compulsory vaccination as of March.

It remains to be expected that Europe will eagerly await Austria’s experience.

Featured Image: Jernej Furman @ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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