By Ed Breton
By vaccinating as many people as we can, surely we’re keeping everyone safe and helping our societies move forward and past the COVID-19 pandemic?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. A persistent minority of citizens worldwide remain passionately opposed to COVID-19 vaccination, with the introduction of vaccine mandates in various nations prompting a backlash that appears to have at its heart a rotten core.
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The benefits of vaccination makes the introduction of mandates something we must consider, but consider with an abundance of caution when it comes to the consequences for our society.
Canada’s capital Ottawa has borne witness to this harsh reality – over the past month the downtown core has been a chaotic soundscape of honking horns and blaring sirens. On paper, conditions weren’t dissimilar from many major city centres in recent months. But then the searing images of angry protesters, assembled before Canada’s Parliament Hill and draped in flags, many extreme, paint a different picture all together.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’, a movement seeking to challenge vaccine mandates and lockdown regulations, particularly vaccination requirements for cross-country truckers to broach the Canadian-American border, paralysed Ottawa for three weeks, while events mimicking those in Ottawa popped up quickly in Toronto and Quebec City.
Despite a largely successful public vaccination campaign, with nearly 85% of Canadians double or triple vaccinated against COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come up against potentially the biggest political and social challenge for his government during the pandemic so far.
While some protesters initially sought to air their grievances, there has been evidence to suggest that the protests and their accompanying Go Fund Me donation page were largely driven by individuals with a somewhat ulterior motive, with Neo-Nazi and racist symbolism used by many ‘Freedom Convoy’ demonstrators.
Mr Trudeau’s policy of mandatory vaccination for cross-country truckers, even if targeted in a specific way to help rebuild Canadian society and the economy, has seemingly failed to convince the unvaccinated to come forward, while shining a light on dark elements of our global society.
Vaccine mandates could provide us with the foundations to re-build after the COVID-19 pandemic, but they also reveal a much wider problem that we face as a global community. As sickening as the images used by the ‘Freedom Convoy’ have been, their actions are not surprising. Nor are the Ottawa protests unique.
Germany has also been rocked by mass anti vaccine mandate protestors. Since the then-outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement of a potential future vaccine mandate for all eligible German adults in December 2021, anti-vaccine sentiment has exploded in a nation which already lags behind many of its EU neighbours; where only 69% of adults are double vaccinated compared to more than 80% in the UK.
More than 100,000 people marched across German towns and cities in a coordinated week of protests in January, with the events evidencing a worrying political escalation amidst reaction to the policy.
The German far-right AfD party has frequently used demonstrations against mandatory vaccination as a megaphone for their platform, particularly linking the pandemic to immigrant communities.
In response, the President of the southern state of Bavaria Markus Söder recently told German television “We have two viruses in the country, we have coronavirus and we have this poison [of vaccine scepticism], which is being spread on a massive scale by the Querdenker [conspiracy theorists] and by parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD)”. This has formed part of a worrying rise in hate crime, contributing to an ongoing trend that has already seen incidents of racism and right-wing extremist activity rocket to a twenty year high during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Austria has likewise witnessed mass protests against mandatory vaccination, with thousands marching in Vienna throughout January, holding aloft signs comparing the requirements for adults to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to Nazi-era rule as well as brandishing the American originating Q-Anon influenced anti-government paranoia, with placards reading ‘hands off our children’.
In response to the backlash, there has been a political readjustment of Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s legislation. Originally intended to cover all Austrian citizens or residents above the age of 14, Austria’s parliament recently raised the minimum age for mandatory vaccine coverage to 18. Like in Germany, the far-right has seen gains, with the latest polling showing the conspiracy touting Freedom Party commanding around 20% of the vote.
The lack of trust in government shown by the prevalence of such themes amongst the protests and the similar dominance of anti-mandate demonstrations by those from the very edge of the political spectrum in both central Europe and across the Atlantic in Canada forewarn political leaders of the consequences of implementing mandatory vaccination, whether widely or in a targeted manner.
The political ripple effect of implementing vaccine mandates in Germany, Austria and Canada has been stark. As a result of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ and its embrace by Canada’s federal Conservative party, moderate leader Erin O’Toole was ousted in early February in an internal party vote. Many federal Conservative MP’s have effectively blurred the lines between their own agenda and the Convoy’s anti-vaccine fuelled extremism that has proved both unpredictable and until recently uncontrollable, with Prime Minister Trudeau invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canada’s history in order to bring the ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Ottawa to an end.
When recently interviewed by the BBC, provincial health minister for the German state of Saxony Petra Köpping recounted instances of protesters surrounding her home, flaming torches aloft, opposing her efforts to protect provincial citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Köpping pointing to how discontent surrounding vaccine mandates had been “stirred up and exploited by the far right”.
Austria’s domestic intelligence chief Omar Haijawi-Pirchner has also made public his fears that anti-vaccination rallies in the country are being exploited to fuel dangerous political radicalisation, telling the AFP that “right-wing extremists are using the gatherings to spread their ideology, including anti-Semitism, and we see a lot of people that are very highly radicalised”. Haijawi-Pirchner has also pointed to a trend of “a lot of people threatening critical infrastructure at the moment”, particularly identifying media figures, healthcare leaders and politicians as being at an ever greater risk due to anger over the country’s incoming vaccine mandate.
It is fair to acknowledge that vaccine hesitancy has been generally higher in both Germany and Austria than in the rest of Europe over the past 12 months, with vaccine mandates having done little so far to counter this, although this cultural nervousness surrounding mandatory vaccination is understandable considering both countries’ recent historical past. In light of this, we need to be fully aware that vaccine mandates do indeed pose significant civil issues themselves, especially pertinent to both Germany and Austria as nations which have experienced tragic periods where many citizens’ rights were violated in the most extreme of ways.
Can we force individuals to be vaccinated? Inherently no, but in a world reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination can be considered a responsibility of social citizenship, as a duty of care to one another in the same way as obeying traffic laws or paying taxes, yes limiting our raw freedom but ensuring a standard of life for our society and ourselves.
However, the ability of anti-mandate protests to create chaos, fear and disruption in our society globally has seemingly prompted the UK government to pre-empt any potential backlash, even regarding a vaccine mandate that is less wide-ranging than that planned by Canada, Germany or Austria.
While the UK has experienced some anti-vaccine demonstrations, discontent towards vaccination, much like the government’s policy surrounding it, has been altogether more targeted and has bubbled largely below the surface. Up until the end of January, the UK government had pursued an official line whereby NHS workers in front-facing roles were required to be fully vaccinated. However, after unease amongst many NHS leaders and those on the health frontline itself about a looming recruitment crisis as a result of the policy; which threatened to bleed into an already spiralling social care emergency, this line was softened on January 31st, with vaccination against COVID-19 within the NHS for those in patient-facing positions instead described as ‘advisory’ as opposed to ‘mandatory’.
This seems like a relatively small change, but it signals an awareness within the UK government that although mandatory vaccination, especially in the context of healthcare, makes sense medically and helps give society as a whole the security needed to move forward, it may end up significantly contributing to the growth of what has so far been a relatively benign anti-vaccine movement in the UK, against the backdrop of an already relatively high vaccine coverage of around 85% across the UK population.
Mandatory vaccination is on paper a pragmatic policy to introduce, not only because of the evidence to suggest it protects the most vulnerable, but because of the breathing space it will consequently give to our societies and economies to start moving forward again, after what has felt like a two year long bad dream. Especially for those of us as part of the younger generation, it holds the potential to allow us to move on with our lives after the effective holding pattern of the post-2020 world.
But, we should be markedly aware that it also has the potential to unleash dark corners of our society and the political sphere, which will be emboldened by such a move – Ottawa’s Freedom Convoy sparked copycat protests from France to New Zealand, while members of the Convoy were only removed from Ottawa’s centre and key trade routes linking Canada and the USA through emergency legislation not used in it’s previous three decades of existence.
With this in mind, vaccine mandates can only be considered if our governments can be viewed as honest brokers by those who are most opposed to vaccination, especially if they are already pushed to the edges of our society. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ‘Partygate’ scandal has undermined the UK’s government’s credibility and trust amongst the British people as a whole, with this likely damaging confidence in the government’s health advice going forward as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
If we are to consider vaccine mandates, even logically focused on professions such as healthcare, we must have faith in those who champion such a policy, which starts with honesty and openness right at the very top. Only then can we begin to combat the extremism and darkness that appears to be sown straight into the seam of the global vaccine mandate backlash.
Should we consider vaccine mandates? Yes. Are they without risk to our society? No. Is the backlash that will inevitably come as part of such a policy worth enduring, managing, fighting? Maybe. Either way, our society better be on guard for what it is letting itself in for, no matter how much sense a vaccine mandate makes on paper in our COVID-19 weary world.
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