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COVID-19

How the spiritual ‘Waldorf’ movement is connected to German vaccine scepticism

An explosion of coronavirus infections at a German Waldorf school has put a spotlight on "anthroposophy", the spiritual movement behind the education system, and raised questions over how it may be contributing to stagnating vaccinations.

Waldorf School in Hildesheim
A sign directs people to the entrance of a Waldorf School in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

After a turbo-charged inoculation campaign in the spring, Germany’s jab rate has struggled since the summer to climb to the 70-percent mark.

Likewise, neighbouring Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland have seen their vaccine curve flatten.

For Spiegel writer Tobias Rapp, who went to a Waldorf school, among the reasons is “the vaccination scepticism of a special middle-class group which has its centre in southern Germany and Switzerland”.

In particular, Rapp wrote, the group is made up of adherents to anthroposophy, a philosophy developed by Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century.

Centred on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and connections to the spiritual world, anthroposophy teaches that illnesses are a necessary challenge that must be overcome naturally.

Michael Blume, who specialises in political and religious sciences, also points to geography for providing a breeding ground for such esoteric ideas to thrive.

Vaccine scepticism is particularly high in mountainous regions across southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, he said, as an anti-authoritarian streak stoked by federalism and the proximity to nature provide further ingredients for ideas like anthroposophy to thrive.

READ ALSO: Why are so many Germans reluctant to get vaccinated?

“Many anthroposophists believe in the rule of karma, which is that illnesses can help atone for misdeeds in previous lives and bring about spiritual development,” he told AFP.

“That’s why there are unfortunately in some Waldorf schools many sceptics with regards to vaccines. Some also subscribe to conspiracy theories,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Waldorf or Steiner schools – 200 in Germany and popular for their alternative method allowing children to learn at their own pace – often found themselves in the spotlight for measles outbreaks.

Waldorf School in Freiburg
A teacher draws on the blackboard at a Waldorf School in Freiburg. Before Covid, Waldorf Schools frequently made headlines due to measles outbreaks. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Patrick Seeger

Even if not all parents who send their children to Waldorf institutions are corona-sceptics or anti-vaxxers, over the last 20 months of the raging pandemic, the schools have been repeatedly linked to rows over Covid vaccines and mask-wearing.

At the school in Freiburg where 117 infections were recorded in late October, investigators found that of 55 medical certificates exempting students and teachers from wearing masks, only two or three were valid.

Meteorite iron

While Germany counts only 12,000 anthroposophists among its 83-million-strong population, the influence of the movement is far more pervasive in society.

Besides the schools, anthroposophy is also at the root of the Weleda cosmetic group, also created by Steiner. A major organic supermarket chain Alnatura and drugstore giant DM were also both founded by self-professed anthroposophists.

There is also a federation of doctors who subscribe to the philosophy.

A network of anthroposophist clinics includes a hospital in Berlin which deploys ginger compresses and iron from meteorites as part of its medicinal toolbox on Covid patients.

“Meteorite iron is a medicine that we use in phase two of a Covid illness – when the first symptoms of sickness are showing. We also use it in post-Covid syndrome – when tiredness and weakness set in in the convalescence stage,” said Harald Matthes, who heads the Havelhoehe hospital, in an interview with the daily Tagesspiegel.

Alnatura in Potsdam
A branch of Altnatura in Potsdam, Brandenburg. Organic supermarket chain Altnatura has been linked to anthroposophism. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Soeren Stache

But some anthroposophist doctors reject the charge linking them to Germany’s anti-vaxxers.

“We are not aware of any empirical data showing that anthroposophists have more concerns than others about vaccinations,” Stefan Schmidt-Troschke of the umbrella federation of anthroposophist medicine in Germany DAMiD told  broadcaster ZDF.

He also said the federation had “from the beginning welcomed vaccination for the fight against the pandemic” and prioritised jabs for the elderly and the most vulnerable.

READ ALSO: Fact Check: Could Germany legally introduce compulsory vaccination?

But for children, that’s a different story, he argued, because “their risk of developing serious illness is extremely low, we also view the vaccination with great caution – as do many other medical societies”.

Covid vaccines are considered safe for children, and countries such as the United States and Israel have already been giving the jabs to five-to 11-year-olds.

Germany is also expected to approve them for children in the coming weeks.

By Mathieu Foulkes

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COVID-19 RULES

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now

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