In an earlier commentary for The European Conservative, I took a stand against the use of ‘vaccine passports,’ arguing that those that are vaccinated can still infect others and that bullying a part of the population into undergoing a certain medical procedure is a poor precedent, given the dystopian applications of the instrument that one can imagine.
It hasn’t taken long for these dystopian applications to become visible. In Israel, a vaccine passport is no longer valid unless one has obtained a third vaccine shot. Now, Austria is requiring that anyone not getting a booster dose nine months after being vaccinated is no longer considered vaccinated.
Especially since the outbreak of the COVID Delta variant waves, there is a pretty solid inverse correlation between vaccination rates and total excess deaths rates. In countries with high vaccination rates, like Spain, Portugal, and the UK, there generally are very low excess deaths. In countries with a low vaccination rate, like Bulgaria, Russia or South Africa, there have been very high excess deaths. In sum, the vaccine works.
There is much less consensus on the question whether a vaccine booster is needed for all. To give one example: according to Steven Van Gucht, a leading Belgian virologist who works for the Belgian Health Ministry, stated that, “For high-risk patients, people with disturbed immune systems and people over 65, such a booster shot is a very wise decision.” However, he also said: “A third or even fourth shot for everyone, as suggested in Israel, does not really make sense, in my personal opinion.”
He said this last month, and—regarding the latter point—it’s likely that he’s wrong. There is now more and more evidence that vaccines gradually lose their protective force and only offer about half the protection after six months. In Israel and the UK, their governments’ respective booster campaigns are now seen as one of the reasons why the countries are managing the fourth wave relatively well, unlike in European countries, where governments are currently rolling out new lockdown measures in the panicky manner to which citizens have become accustomed.
As much as a booster is a good idea, however, the point here is that that there was genuine scientific doubt about its use. The policy to no longer consider those who have not got a booster as ‘vaccinated’ effectively comes down to governments bullying people into certain medical procedures that do not enjoy broad scientific support.
To add insult to injury, there is the so-called 2G system implemented in Austria and parts of Germany. This means that one can only enter restaurants, hotels, hairdressers, and events if one is either vaccinated (geimpft) or recovered (genesen): to have been tested (getestet, as in the “3G” system) is no longer sufficient. This means that vaccinated people who can infect others are able to enter these venues—but the unvaccinated who have been tested cannot. It makes it very clear that this isn’t about protecting people from COVID infection directly but only indirectly, to encourage people to get vaccinated. (It should be noted that just prior to the national lockdown, the Austrian Bundesland of Vienna implemented the ‘2G+’ system, which requires one to be vaccinated or recovered and to have a recent negative test result.) But Austria’s decision as the first Western country to openly intend to make COVID vaccination mandatory doubles down on the same habit: pursuing a laudable policy goal— convincing people to get vaccinated—with the unacceptable methods of blatant discrimination and stating the state will use force to impose medical procedures. Supposedly Austria will limit itself to fining the unvaccinated and will not engage in actual physical coercion, but this is truly alarming.
Apart from the fact that Europe was late with recommending the third dose, as opposed to Israel, explanations as to why the continent is once again facing lockdowns range from low vaccination rates—in Romania and Bulgaria, vaccinates rates are below 40% and 30% respectively, whereas also in Germany, Austria and Switzerland at least 20% still hasn’t received a single dose—to the lack of natural immunity.
Perhaps the most extreme measure was taken in Latvia, where unvaccinated MPs have been deprived of their voting rights. This effectively amounts to a coup d’état by the parliamentary majority in the country and the question is whether Latvia can now still be considered to be a democracy and should be allowed to co-decide EU legislation.
So, what to do instead?
First, governments should simply grant people who want a booster vaccine the option of doing so. For the fourth wave, it is likely already too late, but it’s a good idea for any fifth wave.
Second, more clarity is needed about the usefulness of non-FFP2 mouth masks. There is much scientific uncertainty about the usefulness of cloth or surgical masks, whereas the consensus is that FFP2 masks do offer the wearer protection against COVID. Governments should therefore send a signal to those wishing to protect themselves that they should wear an FFP2 mask—as well as ventilating spaces, obviously.
Third, the emphasis must be shifted from checking whether people are vaccinated—which doesn’t prevent them from infecting others—to checking whether people are infectious carriers via testing. People should not be under the impression that they are no longer a danger to the weak in, for example, nursing homes and hospitals with a sanitary pass, in cases where they have not been tested. The extent to which all visitors should be tested is another question, but it seems appropriate for care staff. Europe’s sanitary passes have failed spectacularly to curb the fourth wave, so it is better to scrap them altogether and replace this with more targeted testing.
Finally, as I have argued before, it could be an idea to levy an extra fee for the non-vaccinated, if it can be effectively proven that they impose an extra burden on healthcare. After all, those who take extra risks should not pass the costs on to others. This is not a perfect idea, but ultimately it is in line with the insurance principle; and is already applied to kinds of other behaviour, such as smoking. The more insurers know about behaviour, the more they can reduce the price for everyone. I am of course aware that with our mixed public-private systems, such a system would face challenges to implement, but with other questionable measures being considered, this seems to me the most effective and the least harmful.
Moreover, in the near future, we can expect medication to treat COVID. In sum, there are good prospects of finally escaping this public health crisis. That is one more reason not to sacrifice our hard-fought free society to COVID passes, institutionalised discrimination, and arbitrary government policies.
Pieter Cleppe is the editor-in-chief of BrusselsReport.eu, an online magazine covering EU politics. He is on Twitter @pietercleppe.