We journalists tend to be a hard-nosed bunch. We try not to let feelings influence our work. In principle, that's a good approach. Our job, after all, is to observe and analyze the world around us, to compare and contextualize different viewpoints, as well as highlight shortcomings and mistakes. But when you're staring a tragedy in the face, well, then journalists are human beings, too.
A colleague of mine recently visited an intensive care unit to get a firsthand look at how German hospitals are coping with the dramatic spike in coronavirus infections. When she returned to the office, she said she needed to come to grips with what she witnessed. The nurse and doctor she interviewed both broke down in tears over the dire health situation they have recently had to cope with.
Exasperated medical staff
These are medical professionals, people who are confronted with human suffering and death every day. They are at their wits end seeing once perfectly healthy patients die after contracting the coronavirus. People who otherwise would have had many more years of happy life ahead of them.
Currently, more than 200 patients die daily because of the coronavirus — and numbers are increasing. As cases keep rising, Christmas threatens to become a time of mourning rather than festivities. With many loved ones forever gone, ripped from their intact lives, their families.
Many of the deceased will be those who have decided not to roll up their sleeve for a coronavirus vaccination. They have opted against the vaccine, for some reason doubting its safety or feeling under pressure to get the jab. In any case, they will not have considered COVID-19 a particularly severe illness.
Cynical vaccine skeptics
It is November 2021, and Germany finds itself confronted with an even worse coronavirus outbreak than last year. It is a puzzling situation, given that vaccines are available. Yet, not even 70% of people in this country are immunized. The vaccine take-up has been particularly low in the states of Saxony and Bavaria. Why are there so many people here unwilling to get vaccinated? Many of them belong to the "Querdenker," or "lateral thinker" movement, which is deeply skeptical of the German state, politics, the media and mainstream society. What is it that makes them so distrustful, which is fueling outright hatred and threatening to tear society apart at the seams?
There is no single explanation. But German lawmakers certainly carry some of the blame. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have often appeared insecure and indecisive. Germany's federal states have rarely seen eye to eye on how to best contain the pandemic. As a result, the national government was tasked with taking charge. That helped streamline the country's approach to handling the virus — until Germans voted headed to the polls for parliamentary elections in September.
Scared to lose votes
Over the summer, when some European states imposed mandatory vaccinations for certain professions, German parties twiddled their thumbs. They preferred to do nothing, fearing any proactive steps could drive prospective voters into the arms of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which has been courting the "Querdenker" movement and those opposed to vaccination.
During the election campaign, all parties promised that vaccinations would remain voluntary. And that's put them in a bind. Now, they are planning to shut out the unvaccinated. After many months, German state premiers once again held talks with caretaker Chancellor Angela Merkel, deciding to roll out the "2G" ("geimpft oder genesen" — "vaccinated or recovered"), and "2G plus" ("vaccinated or recovered plus tested") rule, making it harder for the unvaccinated to participate in everyday life.
Still a national epidemiological emergency
If only that were really the solution to the problem. Nobody can be barred from essential services. Everyone is entitled to buying groceries and going to work, and those places will have to let in the vaccinated and recovered as well as the unvaccinated who can show a negative COVID-19 test. What about figuring out how to enforce these rules on public transport? Has the incoming coalition government — an alliance of center-left Social Democrats, environmentalist Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats — given this any thought when they passed the new Infection Protection Act?
The protection act replaces the national epidemiological emergency law, which has become legally untenable as a majority of Germans have been vaccinated. Even so, the epidemiological situation remains catastrophic, and politicians should have said as much. Instead, lawmakers have stressed the new act will impose fewer restrictions on everyday life, with stricter rules coming into effect only if coronavirus cases continue rising.
Make vaccinations mandatory
The act puts Germany's 16 federal states back in the driving seat. This will mean that once again, there will be no coherent national pandemic response. Instead, we will have a cacophony of opinions and endless discussions over how to get out of the pandemic.
These, however, are a waste of time, as we already know what needs to be done: get everyone vaccinated! There are plenty of doses to go around — all that is needed is the determination to push the vaccine uptake.
When will lawmakers finally understand that appealing to the unvaccinated and urging everyone to act responsibly is not enough? There is only one solution to this mess: Making vaccinations mandatory for everyone. It's downright unbelievable that vaccinations have not yet been made obligatory for anyone working in Germany's health care sector, in nursing homes, schools and kindergartens.
Learning from mistakes
What we need are leaders who have the courage to act even though any steps taken now will be too late to thwart the fourth wave of infections. By Christmas, many more people will have died after contracting the virus. Unless we change course and take decisive action, the fifth and sixth waves will follow. Only vaccinations, and booster shots, can break this cycle.
This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle.