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Vaccine mandate: A political disaster

Thurau Jens Kommentarbild App
Jens Thurau
April 10, 2022

Germany wanted to make everything better by introducing a COVID vaccine mandate, which hardly any country has done. Now, the proposal's failure is undermining trust in the government's pandemic plan, says Jens Thurau.

Photo of a small sign saying 'Impfpflicht' (vaccine mandate), with a drawing of a syringe, in the grass in front of the Bundestag, next to a medical mask
The German parliament has voted against introducing compulsory vaccination against COVID-19Image: Political-Moments/imago images

First of all, let's be clear: Worldwide, there are very few countries that have introduced general mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. Those that have include Ecuador, Indonesia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

However, many others, including Germany, have made vaccination obligatory for people in certain occupations – health care workers, for example. Austria has a vaccine mandate, but this has been suspended, because there, as everywhere in the world, the current dominance of the omicron variant of the virus is encouraging the belief that it will be possible to get through the pandemic without making vaccination obligatory for all.

So it was hardly likely to damage the still-new German government if it had waived its plans for a vaccine mandate. But it didn't. And the damage is now considerable.

Strangely indifferent chancellor

On Thursday, the Bundestag rejected several motions in favor of compulsory vaccination. It was already clear in advance that the coalition government of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP did not have a majority in favor of a mandate, because many FDP politicians were balking at the proposal.

Nonetheless, a strangely indifferent-seeming Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) went ahead and suffered this public defeat in parliament. The right-wing populists of the AfD [Alternative for Germany] party – who were firmly on the side of the COVID deniers, and opposed to mandatory vaccination in any form – are still crowing.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz, wearing a mask, casts his vote in the Bundestag, putting it into a clear box
Chancellor Olaf Scholz voted in favor of a mask mandate, but accepted the defeat of the motionImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Vaccination primarily for one's own benefit

Currently, 76% of people in Germany have had two vaccinations; 59% have had a third. Many countries are doing better, but there are also many that are not. It's also apparent that the vaccine cannot guarantee protection against subsequent infection, but it can prevent serious illness. So anyone who gets vaccinated now is doing it primarily for themselves.

However, the last few weeks have shown that no argument in the world is going to convince the 24% of people in Germany who are not yet fully protected. This was also an argument against even attempting to introduce a general vaccine mandate.

Jens Thurau, profile picture, brown suit, red tie
DW's Berlin correspondent, Jens Thurau

Why the government let things continue nonetheless, only to crash and burn, is something only it can answer. Apparently it was counting on the CDU and CSU, whose state premiers were all in favor of the mandate, ultimately supporting the motions and making up the majority needed for them to pass. But the opposition wouldn't go along with it.

Now Chancellor Scholz has tersely stated that there will not be another attempt to introduce a vaccine mandate, which his health minister, Karl Lauterbach, had hinted at after the defeat. Scholz is clearly calculating that he does not want to endure another such defeat.

Government is undermining trust

What exactly is the damage that has been done? Last winter, when the government had only been in office a few months, all its leading members argued in favor of a vaccine mandate. Its failure now undermines people's trust in the coronavirus policy overall. Infratest dimap's most recent national "DeutschlandTrend" survey clearly shows that a majority of supporters of the CDU, CSU, SPD, and Greens are still in favor of a mandate. What are these people supposed to think when the Bundestag debates it for hours and fails to get a result?

This could all have dire consequences if infections, including serious cases, rise again in the autumn, especially among older, unvaccinated people – and if politicians are forced to reimpose restrictions, such as banning people from meeting up, or ordering shops to close. Why should citizens then comply without question? So far, the vast majority of people in Germany have put up with all the impositions, which have only now, after many months, been lifted: the masks, the closed shops and restaurants. If, in the autumn, the worst comes to the worst, and the government is unable to convince citizens of the need for such restrictions, its half-hearted approach to the issue of compulsory vaccination will be partly responsible.

Let's hope for the best. Right now, that's all we can do. It still makes sense to call on people to get vaccinated. By now, though, many are tired of hearing it.

This article was translated from German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau