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COVID vaccines: Why some say no

July 15, 2021

The number of people who are against getting a COVID-19 vaccine seems to be going up, even as ever more people get vaccinated. What do they base their arguments on?

Person carrying a baby on their back and a sign with a syringe and red line through it
COVID-19 vaccine? No thanks! But why?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Schmidt

"No, no photos and no names, please! I'd rather not be labeled as some crazy conspiracy theorist. I just don't want the vaccine!"

Fair enough, I think. So let's call them ... Richard and Susanne.

I meet the pair in a park on the outskirts of Cologne. Richard works in the packaging industry, and Susanne works in administration at a hospital. Both are in their 50s, so they're among the higher-risk groups for COVID-19.

We agree to meet because I would like to understand why they are against getting vaccinated. I, myself, have recovered from a COVID-19 infection, and am vaccinated. 

Infografik Impfstatus Deutschland EN (17.07.2021)

I've written a lot about the virus and its vaccines. And I've been wondering: Why do some people not want to get vaccinated? What are their concerns? Where do they get their information, and how do they argue their case? 

Doubters on the rise

"I feel that a vaccine is a huge intervention in my body. Everyone should make this decision for themselves. And just because you don't get vaccinated, it doesn't mean you're irresponsible or tired of life," says Richard, while Susanne nods in agreement.

This couple is not alone. Although in Germany nearly half of the population (45%) is fully vaccinated and more than half (59%) has received at least a first dose as of July 15, the rate of vaccination is slowing down.

A person at a COVID protest holds a sign reading "Spinner," the German for whacko
'Just because you don't want a vaccine doesn't mean you're crazy' ('Spinner' in German)Image: picture-alliance/D. Kubirski

Richard and Susanne wouldn't say they were against vaccines in principle. They got the standard vaccines when they were kids. But they say they don't trust the vaccines for COVID-19. 

Their friends and acquaintances don't understand. They say they have experienced rejection and a lack of understanding.

"They think the vaccine makes them immortal. But they could still get infected, despite the vaccine," says Susanne indignantly. 

Calculated risk?

But a vaccine can decrease your risk of a severe infection, I say. 

"That may well be, but it's no more than a risk-benefit analysis. You can get infected with anything, anytime," says Richard. "But even if it does happen ... I have a lot of colleagues and friends who've had COVID-19 and their symptoms were either weak or it was just like a normal flu."

Susanne jumps in: "You hear these stories about severe cases and deaths in the media. That people have died either directly or indirectly because of COVID-19. But if you then ask how old they were, you find out they were already 87 or something. That just doesn't convince me to get a vaccine."

Man holds a sign reading "Lügenpresse," the German for fake (lying) press, at a protest in Frankfurt
Richard and Susanne refrain from calling the German media 'Lügenpresse' or fake (lying) press — they just say they don't trust the media's coronavirus coverageImage: Daniel Kubirski/picture alliance

Germany's Federal Statistical Office (DESTASIS) says there were about 36,300 deaths from COVID-19 in the country last year.

In its most recent report, DESTASIS says that in about 30,100 cases in 2020, COVID-19 was the cause. And in a further 6,200 cases, COVID-19 was an accompanying disease.

Many of those who died due to a COVID infection were indeed older or elderly people. But they were certainly not the only ones who died.

But it also has a lot to do with how you live, say Richard and Susanne: "We don't live in the city, we don't go to any clubs, and we don't hug everyone we meet. I think we can calculate our risk."

COSMO Study on vaccine willingness

People's willingness to get vaccinated in Germany is decreasing. In a study called COSMO, 41% of those asked said they wanted to get vaccinated. That's much lower than at the start of June, when 57% of participants wanted to get vaccinated. Run by the University of Erfurt with the Robert Koch Institute and other research bodies, the study involved 1,011 people.

Many were inclined to weigh the pros and cons, just like Richard and Susanne. They lacked trust in the vaccines; or they felt they needn't bother with so many other people vaccinated. 

"If you're worried about COVID-19, get vaccinated. But the chances of my getting infected are a lot lower, now that so many other people are vaccinated," says Susanne. 

Graphic on vaccination rates in different continents

Distorted images in the media?

Richard and Susanne also feel the media has exaggerated the risks of COVID-19. 

"It's always the same experts and always the same opinions," says Richard.

COVID patient in India, lying in a hospital bed, suffering from an accompanying fungal infection called Black Fungus
Many COVID patients in India have had an accompanying fungal infection called Black FungusImage: Uma Shankar Mishra/AFP/Getty Images

"Naturally, the images out of India were shocking, but can we really compare our situation with theirs? Just look at the hygiene standards there and the terrible state of their hospitals! I bet almost every disease turns into a catastrophe there. But that's not the case here," he says.

Susanne picks up the lead: "Take all that wrangling about AstraZeneca — there were conflicting statements. Or mix-and-match vaccinations." She points to how experts and agencies were at first against mixing and matching vaccines, but now at least partially support it.

"And vaccines for kids. In America, they tried it on a few hundred kids, and based on that the FDA [United States Food and Drug Administration] decided it was okay to vaccinate all kids and young people," she continues. Some European countries are also ready to approve vaccination of children, but many agencies still think it's too risky. "And that's 'based on science,' is it?" 

Finland trials BioNTech shot on kids

The two of them seem pretty wound up as they bat the arguments back and forth. You can tell they often deal with critique. 

"We've definitely spent more time thinking about the issues than someone who's naively taken the jab," says Susanne.

Vaccination as a job requirement

The researchers behind the COSMO study say vaccination programs in workplaces or in the education sector may improve access to vaccination. In their report, the experts write that this would make it easier to reach groups of people who are in contact with lots of other people.

When I suggest that some employers may even want to make vaccination mandatory, Susanne and Richard get pensive.

"That would be a problem," says Susanne, "Not everyone wants it, but it is conceivable that our employers might demand it. And if you refuse, they may see that as grounds to make you redundant or not extent your contract. They do that in Russia. It probably wouldn't be legal here, but it is possible."

"I could get vaccinated through my employer right now," Susanne adds.

After that, there's a moments' silence. We watch the other people in the park, who seem to be enjoying their reclaimed normal lives.

Parting words

"Stay healthy," I wish the two as we part. 

They nod, a little agonized: "You too," they say. "And please don't write us up as crazies. We just feel that everyone should be able to decide for themselves whether they want a vaccine or not. This is our decision, our risk, and everyone else should just accept it." 

I leave the two sitting in the park and start to wonder whether I should have tried to persuade them to change their minds. And if so, how? I wonder whether their vaccine status is even actually my business, or to what extent they really should be allowed to decide for themselves.   

My biggest takeaways from our conversation is that Susanne and Richard are annoyed about confusing information in the media and one-sided reports, and tas a result feel anxious and insecure about the situation. 

But I still don't understand a lot of their arguments. And the counter-arguments I did pose don't seem to have moved them much, either. It leaves me confused, with a lasting feeling of incomprehension — which is probably mutual.

Person hold sign, reading "Impflicht ist kriminell" (the German for mandatory vaccination is criminal)
'Vaccination requirements are illegal' reads this protest sign — to date, the German government has said it it does not plan to introduce mandatory vaccination for COVID-19Image: Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance