Vienna, Austria - November 22. Credit: Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Penalties for the unvaccinated

The Austrian government is demanding a lot from an already mostly acquiescent population

“The unvaccinated have to be punished”. A few days ago, this sentiment became official government policy in Austria.

Those without the right paperwork were stopped from participating fully in normal life. Being a law-abiding citizen, paying your taxes, being civil to others, meant nothing. If, for whatever reason, you or your spouse decided against two injections, you were physically excluded from restaurants, bars, hotels and more. Your card was marked.

Witnessing the humiliation of couples being frogmarched out of restaurants was when this newly sanctioned apartheid became vividly real.

The policy will comes to an end, today, Monday 22 November, with the whole country going into lockdown.

The Austrian Republic is proposing to play the role of Nurse Ratched

Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s relatively new chancellor, has identified the unvaccinated as the scapegoat, declaring, “we are demanding a lot from the vaccinated people in this country, because the unvaccinated people have not shown solidarity”.

Vaccination will be mandatory from on 1 February, 2022. But how will the large population of miscreants be punished should they refuse to inject government-mandated drugs into their veins?

The Austrian Republic is proposing to play the role of Nurse Ratched, the cold, passive-aggressive tyrannical head-nurse, immortalised in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over a Cuckoo’s Nest. Citizens will be left to play the role of Randle McMurphy. He ends up lobotomised; she stays in control of the facility.

The message is one of crisis. There is no alternative. Compulsion is necessary. Indeed, Covid cases are now 15,000 per day, a third higher than they were during last year’s peak. Every headline tells us that Austria is lagging behind its west-European counterparts. Over 2 million Austrians are not (fully) vaccinated. Something must be done.

We don’t have to dig too deep, however, to see that the scorn poured on millions of law-abiding Austrians is fundamentally incurious.

The Organisation of European Co-operation and Development (OECD) tells us in its “Highlights for Austria” that she “had the thirteenth highest vaccination rate across 37 OECD countries on 1 July, but had fallen to the fourteenth lowest as of 1 November”. In other words, Austria was never first and never last but has, in the main, remained in the middle peloton.

Around 63 per cent of Austrians have high levels of confidence in their government

The European Centre for Disease Control gives us some extra insights. It makes a distinction between the partially vaccinated and fully vaccinated. On average, in Austria there is an 8.5 per cent gap between first and second jabs. So, three quarters of the population is at least partially vaccinated.

Why the gap? We might assume, from the record-breaking demonstration in Vienna last Saturday that Austrians’ lack trust in their government. However, up to now, surveys conducted by the OECD tell us around 63 per cent of Austrians have high levels of confidence in their government — some of the highest levels in the developed world in fact. In contrast, only a third of British respondents trusted their governing class.

The most obvious place to start regarding the “plateauing” of second vaccination take-up might simply be that Covid is no longer perceived as the threat that it once was. Numbers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) do seem to show a large upsurge of Covid cases, but with low death rates.

On 19 November this year, the WHO reported 14,212 cases on 19 November 2021 and 24 deaths. This represents a death-to-cases ratio of around 0.16 per cent. On 5 December 2020, however, the same organisation recorded 3,656 cases and 125 deaths. That death-to-cases ratio was around 3.5 per cent. Covid was therefore nearly 22 times more deadly last year than it is today.

If the population at large rightly perceives the threat to have receded to such an extent, the push factor to extra jabs has essentially been removed.

The citizenry is able to read, see and feel situations as they arise and make adjustments as necessary. In a functioning democracy, this pas-de-deux is the necessary dance in which the governed and the government take-part. Democracy in other words is perpetual negotiation. The pull factor is demography.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, a very large minority of Austrians lives in the countryside: they split 55 per cent urban, 45 per cent country. The largest metropolitan area is Vienna, where last Saturday’s anti-segregation and vaccine mandate demonstration took place. Vienna’s population is under two million (compare that to Birmingham’s greater metropolitan area which exceeds 3.6 million). Other significant cities like Salzburg are smaller than Reading.

Austria is a country two-thirds the size of England, but with a population of barely 9 million is parcelled out across 9 federal states that are dominated by lakes, impenetrable forests and high mountains. Close to half of the population lives considerably more than a cough away from their neighbours. Overwhelmingly, Austrians do not live on top of one another and can see that the virus has turned from a deadly one to something altogether much more benign.

The question is why the government is acting as it is? Austria is at the heart of Europe and the Austrian government is sending a signal requiring total submission from — ironically — an already mostly acquiescent population.

Other governments are looking on and wondering whether they too should follow suit. That, surely, is reason enough to hope that the demonstrators in Vienna, Gratz, Linz and Salzburg are heard.

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