In November 2021, the government that happens to rule over the territory where I live announced one of the world’s first compulsory COVID vaccination laws. Beginning this month it will come into force in the Alpine Republic of Austria.
I believe this mandate is unjustified (perhaps extralegal) and problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the new precedent it sets.
This is obviously unprecedented in Europe in the wake of the arrival of COVID-19.
At present count, only the nations of Ecuador, Indonesia, Micronesia, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan have enacted various vaccine mandates on the broader populace, though enforcement has proven to be more challenging than first expected.
Countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and several European countries have imposed industry-specific vaccine mandates or only those targeting certain populations, but nothing as wide-reaching as Austria. Germany, usually the legislative influence for Austria, is currently debating its own mandate.
Regardless, Austria has the first comprehensive vaccine mandate law inching toward adoption and what happens here will either serve as a lesson for other nations.
The exact details of Austria’s compulsory law on vaccination are still somewhat in the air until it is signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen perhaps next week, but what the Parliament draft (passed last week) thus far shows us is a three-phase plan:
- Phase One: Throughout February, every household in Austria will receive information on mandatory vaccinations. Only pregnant women and those who have recently recovered from COVID won’t be forced to get the vaccine. Other medical exemptions apply but will have to be thoroughly vetted by approved clinics, public health officers, and epidemiological doctors.
- Phase Two: Beginning on March 15, police officers and other authorities will begin checking for people's vaccination status. Those who cannot provide proof of full vaccination (or their exemption) on the spot or within two weeks will be fined up to 600 EUR on a quarterly basis (2400 EUR per year). This check would also take place through the central register.
- Phase Three: Reminders will be mailed out to the unvaccinated and appointments will be made. If they don’t show, they could be fined up to 3600 EUR, and if they don’t pay, would be subjected to “substitute imprisonment” (Ersatzfreiheitsstrafen).
This means that by March 15, random checks of people’s vaccination status, will not only be legal, but they would be the basis for a fine if you cannot produce proof of full vaccination (including booster). From what we know from the draft, the fines could also be issued quarterly by mail by checking the vaccination status of citizens and residents in the central health and vaccine database maintained by each Austrian state (perhaps an easy criticism of nationalized healthcare systems).
I know the phrase “random checks” may seem bombastic, but police officers already began checking for proof of vaccination at big box stores and malls in November, after a targeted lockdown was issued on unvaccinated individuals.
It also isn’t bombastic that say that checks will happen because “non-essential” businesses do this anyway, a strange type of private surveillance required by the government. Since January 11, shops and restaurants have had to follow the 2-G, requiring that patrons show proof of full vaccination or a certificate of “recovery” from the last six months (geimpft, genesen). This is apparently set to go away this month, but with the amount of muddled information coming from political and health leaders, it’s all but clear.
I saw it first hand when I went to buy nails at the hardware store and when I picked up some HDMI cables at the electronics shop. In order to shop at these locations, you need to provide your vaccine pass and a photo ID to prove who you are.
This month, the time a second dose qualifies you as fully vaccinated was reduced from nine months to six months. At least for me, that means I had to get the booster to be sure I could still enter shops.
The politics of the vaccine mandate are pretty clear in Austria. It is popular among all parties except one. In the vote in the Austrian lower house, the only NO votes on the mandate were the right-wing FPÖ, four members of the liberal NEOS party, and a sole deputy from the social democrats (SPÖ). Apart from those outliers, it was an easy win of 137 yays to 33 nays. The ruling coalition of the Conservatives (ÖVP) and Greens have staked a of political capital on this mandate, and they hope the population will see it as a significant response to rising hospitalizations.
(On that note, I would recommend Liam Shore’s Vienna Briefing for more analysis on the politics of the mandate and politics in Austria more broadly)
But what about the Austrian people?
At least one poll conducted in late January found that at least 58% of the population believe the vaccine mandate in Austria is the right policy. Considering 80% of Austrians have received at least two shots, this isn’t surprising.
As a Canadian-American expatriate living in Austria, I am appropriately shocked at how this government has chosen to use the force of law to mandate vaccinations.
I believed former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz when he said that for the vaccinated, the “pandemic is over”. I saw this as a small victory for both public health and individual rights.
That was in the summer of 2021. Even during his tenure as chancellor (until a corruption probe pushed him out), any notion of a vaccine mandate was easily brushed off. Now we’re in the winter of 2022, and the Kurz-less government is finalizing its plan without a plan for an end to broader COVID measures.
I should admit that I was never personally skeptical of the COVID vaccines. I saw them as incredible medical innovations invented by entrepreneurs looking to immediately solve a problem. I was happy and willing to get my first two shots in order to still be able to travel and enjoy my life, though I still faced a lower risk to COVID than others.
But a vaccine überalles approach means that we’re neglecting what apparently justified the lockdowns in the first place: the capacity of the healthcare system to accept patients, whether from COVID or not.
Where are the reform plans that will ensure billions of Euros can go to the hospitals and health professionals rather than state media like ORF? Or when will there be some discussion about how to enrich competition in the medical sector so that every small bump in cases or hospitalizations doesn’t push a government to lock down a country?
Similarly, will the threat of fines and punishment be enough to convince the unvaccinated to get their shot or will it only harden their position and make them even more skeptical of government actions?
But we know these types of questions won’t be asked until it is too late.
Whenever they’ve interviewed the same star epidemiologists on TV, radio, or in print, they remain very worried about the virus, very sure of the exact solution, and seem to welcome each and every state intervention to make it so. Federal and state leaders in Austria often cite the statements of a well-known doctor each time they introduce a new restriction.
Epidemiologists are incredibly talented, reliable, and should absolutely be consulted on all medical questions. However, in a democratic republic, doctors do not write or pass laws. Political leaders, held accountable by voters and balancing institutions such as the courts, the legislature, and the press, should use the knowledge provided by doctors and public health functionaries. But they must balance that knowledge and advice with the limits of a free and self-governing society. They must mitigate risk while remaining faithful to a nation’s constitution and its voting public.
As a legal resident with a foreign passport, I know I don’t have much say when it comes to laws, taxes, or mandates in this beautiful country. If I had the opportunity and the right, I would have fought tooth and nail to ensure the vaccine mandate would never see the light of day. But my position, unfortunately, seems to be that of the minority.
Considering what we know about the risk of COVID overall, the lies and manipulations of the World Health Organization and the Chinese Communist Party at the outset of this pandemic, and the severe harm that has been imposed on citizens, young and old, by lockdowns, using the force of law to mandate a vaccine for COVID is an illiberal policy. It stands against our liberal democratic traditions of individual rights, skepticism of centralized power, and rule of law.
That they have stooped this low should represent a failure of the political establishment, and a lesson demonstrating precisely why we should fight against liberal countries adopting illiberal measures.
Should other nations look to Austria’s vaccine mandate as a solution? Categorically, the answer is no.