OPINION: How to explain German vaccine hesitancy?

OPINION: How to explain German vaccine hesitancy?
An anti-vaccine protester in Stuttgart. Photo: dpa | Christoph Schmidt
A look at which Germans are refusing to get vaccinated tells us a lot about their likely motivations, argues Jörg Luyken

Germany’s vaccine campaign has been spluttering to a halt for quite some time now.

Between mid-June and mid-July 10 million people got their first jab. Between mid-July and mid-August that number had fallen to 2 million additional first timers. That leaves 35 percent of the population that hasn’t had a vaccine (although this includes children under the age of 12).

Attempts to motivate adults to get their jabs are becoming increasingly imaginative.

The latest stunt is a Berlin S-Bahn train that people can jump onto to get inoculated while seeing a bit of the city (presumably the main novelty lies in the fact that the carriages have been disinfected and don’t smell like a sewer for once.)

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This initiative was pretty popular, suggesting there is the odd (younger) person out there who simply hasn’t gotten round to being vaccinated yet. But anyone who thinks such stunts will solve low vaccine take up is misjudging the mood among the unvaccinated: they haven’t booked an appointment out of forgetfulness, they are refusing to be vaccinated.

A look at where the refuseniks live is instructive. The states with the lowest vaccine uptake are all in the east.

In Saxony, just 51 percent of the population are now vaccinated. That’s remarkable given the fact that the eastern state has had by far the most deaths relative to its population. Even an initiative to give Saxonians a free Bratwurst with their BionTech couldn’t tempt enough people in the home of Hausmannskost.

Thuringia, which was also hit badly by the winter wave, barely does better on a 55 percent vaccination rate.

At the other end of the scale, the tiny city state of Bremen, which has one of Germany’s lowest death rates, has vaccinated 70 percent of its population.

The fact that Bremen is leading the pack challenges some established cliches. Low vaccine take up is linked to poverty? Bremen is just about the poorest place in the land. And Bremen’s large immigrant population also doesn’t fit easily with the narrative that migrants are suspicious of the vaccine.

READ ALSO: Berlin throws all-night party to drum up Covid vaccine tempo

So what explains the low take up in east Germany?

One school of thought has it that the AfD-voting Ossis have become so embittered and contrarian that they would have rejected Berlin’s pandemic policy whatever it had been: had the government just let life go on as normal, they would have taken to the streets bewailing overflowing emergency care stations.

Another school of thought has it that experience of totalitarianism has led east Germans to value their liberty to a higher degree than west Germans do. On this reading, lockdowns that intruded into the privacy of people’s homes were the type of tone-deaf pandemic response that only west Germans could have come up with.

The second argument isn’t without merit.

The GDR imposed mandatory vaccines on its population for a whole host of illnesses from polio to measles. Volksgesundheit trumped individual rights in the communist state. Or, as historian Malte Thießen told broadcaster MDR recently, “in the eyes of the state leadership, those who rejected vaccinations rejected socialism.”

The GDR had notable success with its vaccine campaigns in the early days, wiping out polio while it was still killing dozens of children in west Germany. But the omnipresent public health campaigns, that included vaccines at holiday camps (sound familiar?), schools and businesses, led to weariness among the public. Since the vaccines were often ineffective and some diseases proved too stubborn to be wiped out, that weariness grew even further.

By the late 1980s, despite the GDR’s heavy emphasis on public health, life expectancy in the east lagged behind the west by three years.

Of course, explaining vaccine hesitancy through east German history alone is too reductive. After all, it is not just east Germans that are unwilling: just 58 percent of Bavarians have had their jabs, ignoring the warnings of state premier and Mahner-in-Chief Markus Söder.

The long and short of it is that over 3 million Germans over the age of 60 have not taken up the offer of vaccination, inexplicably disregarding the dangers they will be exposed to come the winter.

SEE ALSO: Sensible or reckless? What Germans think about the government’s new Covid strategy

Meanwhile, the government is trying to push up its vaccine quota by encouraging teenagers, for whom the virus is no more dangerous than lung infections that have been around for decades, to use up some of the excess Impfstoff.

But, with the vaccinated still able to pass the virus on, jabbing teenagers isn’t going to stop unvaccinated pensioners from catching Covid and getting seriously ill. If anything, it’ll cement their suspicion that the universal vaccine campaign is politically motivated.

So what should the government do when case numbers escalate in the autumn? Does it have a duty to protect old people who chose not to protect themselves? And if it does, how should it do so?

One thing seems certain, Berlin’s preferred tool of lockdowns and intrusions into personal liberty would have the paradoxical effect of entrenching elderly Germans’ opposition to the medical inventions that could help them survive.

Jörg Luyken is the creator of The German Review. You can sign up to his bi-weekly newsletter on German current affairs here.


Member comments

  1. 1) I see a big change in people. I witnessed so many situations where somebody was screaming at someone for not wearing a mask (outside!) or because somebody was standing too close. It was very disturbing. Now indeed it is better. However, I still do not understand why politicians decided for such drastic measures if COVID is harmless for most of us. Based on current statistics for Germany, the death ratio is 1% BUT this includes deaths with co-existing conditions. Prof. Dr. Bertram Häussler from Berlin estimated that probably 80% of reported deaths are not related really to COVID. Same in USA. only 5% of all reported deaths are truly deaths of COVID. How we can than justify all restrictions which harm our society? Ruined businesses, burned savings, depression, increase home violence and high inflation. Plus now the sanitary segregation of society and who knows what else is coming. This is a bill of closing the world and people for something which is as deadly as flue. I don’t see how it is justify. 2) Most of people I know are absolutely fine after vaccination. I do not argue that vaccines are dangerous for all of us. However, I prefer to wait and see if there will be no surprising side effects in a long term. Knowing 2 people with blood clots is not helpful to decide to get a jab. 3) Of course we should take care of each other and especially of our beloved ones. At the beginning of the pandemic I wouldn’t dare to see my relatives. Only later , when I could see that the virus ís not that dangerous as estimated. Now whomever wanted or needed to be vaccinated is! So how am I a threat to them? Please note that if you are vaccinated you can still get and pass the virus. Vaccination only prevents you from having severe symptoms. I can still understand the argument against congestion at the hospitals. But this winter cannot be worse than the previous one, if ca.65-70% will be fully vaccinated 4) Good to hear that!

  2. Here are few reasons 1) COVID -19 is not dangerous for vast majority. The panic around it is incomprehensible. I blamed media and politicians for that.2) Vaccinations has been created and approved in record time. The regular process takes 3 years. It is not unreasonable to be skeptical about it. Personally I know 2 people who suffers from blood clots after 2nd dose (those are middle age, very fit men btw.) 3) Attack on my personal freedom. The more state try to force me, the more I will resist. It is up to me how I want to protect myself. And no, I do no accept the argument I put in danger others or the health system. I am active and I eat very healthy – I am responsible for my health 4) lack of open debate in media and on political arena. There were scientists and medical professors criticizing the approach of our politicians. However, their voices were silent. Anyone with different opinion was immediately called anti-vaxx or far-right. That’s not how democratic system should work

    1. I think this statement sums up everything “The more state try to force me, the more I will resist”. You are against any kind of authority. All the rest you wrote is just you trying to rationalize it, i.e. you look for and cherry-pick evidence that supports your view.

      1. I wrote several arguments but you decided to address the only one which is indeed personal and emotional. So if somebody is cherry picking it is you. Not so easy to dismiss the others, right?

        1. 1) The majority of people are behaving quite ok imo. The panic crowd (as well as the “no new normal” crowd, for lack of a better term) are not so big, but are loud, and social media makes sure that their voices drown out everything. It’s the sad reality, wish we could do something about it.

          2) I really have trouble believing this. First of all, blood clots are caused by AZ (and to a lesser extent by J&J, which is not such a popular vaccine), and they are common after the 1st shot, not the 2nd.

          For example, in the UK they had 44 cases of blood clots (overall cases, not deaths) after the 2nd shot of AZ (out of 23.9 million shots administered). Germany did only 3.4 million 2nd shots with AZ, so I will extrapolate and say that around 10 people maybe got clotting after the second dose. I find it extremely unlikely that you would personally know two of these people.

          In any case, people could choose another vaccine, once these side effects were discovered. I personally decided to go for AZ even though I knew the risks, but people shouldn’t risk blood clots or death from a vaccine. But now you don’t have to make that choice.

          3) Again, you may be healthy, but if you get asymptomatic covid that ends up killing e.g. your grandparents, even if you don’t care for society as whole, you could still harm your close ones.

          We saw on several occasions what happens when you let the virus go unchecked (e.g. Bergamo, NY etc). We can’t cope with that, it strains the health care system too much, and the case fatality ratio goes way up once hospitals are full.

          Overall it’s a tricky subject, and your personal freedom can very easily infringe the freedom of others, if you are reckless.

          4) I agree with you on this one.

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