Markus Söder, Bavaria's state premier and the chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU) party, has worked for his reputation as a particularly strong leader during the coronavirus pandemic. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that he has become the most prominent German politician to push for the mandatory vaccination of health and care workers.
Alarmed by reports that people's willingness — and that includes nurses and doctors — to be vaccinated is not as high as expected, Söder is breaking a taboo that German politicians have kept since the beginning of the pandemic: They have been saying for months that, even when vaccines are available, inoculation would be voluntary.
There are good reasons for that approach. There is the widespread belief that restrictions on personal movement because of the pandemic, such as limits on social contact and the closing of bars, restaurants and schools are contrary to basic rights. For months, many people have felt that they no longer have a say about key issues in their own lives. And the question of whether or not to be vaccinated is a very personal one.
History of vaccinations
Mandatory vaccinations are not unheard of in Germany. Older Germans remember polio vaccinations, and in East Germany vaccinations were commonplace for many infectious diseases. In the fall of 2019, just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, voted to require children and staff in community or health care facilities, including day cares and schools, to be vaccinated against measles. The Federal Constitutional Court has always rejected objections to mandatory vaccination. Legally, it would not be a problem to enforce mandatory vaccination against COVID-19.
Day by day, we realize how much the pandemic has changed our lives. So, when politicians can't comprehend the comparatively low level of willingness to vaccinate among nurses and doctors, they should listen carefully for a moment before raising the specter of mandatory vaccination. After almost a year in a state of emergency, many employees in the health care sector, in clinics and homes, are working at the limit: They are beyond overwhelmed.
Health and care workers were celebrated as the heroes of society in the spring of 2020, but little has changed for them. Their paychecks have not increased, and their workload has not decreased. Many are skeptical because the vaccines were developed and approved at record speed, and others are upset by the sluggish start of the inoculation campaign in Germany. It is unlikely that many are opposed to vaccinations on principle. In addition, it remains unclear whether people who have been vaccinated can pass on the virus. However, Söder justified his push for mandatory vaccination on the grounds that it would protect elderly patients and nursing home residents.
Stopping the spread
The number of infections is frighteningly high, and the partial shutdown implemented in November has had little effect. Stricter restrictions are in place, though the measures are not nearly as thorough as those in place in Spain and France. For many weeks to come, Germany will not have enough doses of the vaccine to go around either.
Key to controlling the pandemic is appealing to people's understanding of the restrictions. The police cannot enforce the stricter restrictions on contact: They simply lack the personnel. Policymakers must rely on people to cooperate voluntarily — and hope that they become gradually convinced that the vaccine is a blessing.
Söder has chosen the worst possible time to start thinking out loud about mandatory vaccinations.
This commentary has been adapted from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.