Skip to main content

My train pulled into Copenhagen last week just as the new signs were going up. Having missed dinner, I grabbed a sandwich and a beer to go – only to have the woman behind the counter point to those signs and tell me she now had to check my digital vaccination passport and confirm it against my photo ID, even for takeout orders.

I felt surprise, then relief, then anger.

Surprise, because Denmark, alongside the Netherlands, had announced two months earlier that there would be no restrictions. No physical distancing, no vaccine passports to enter buildings or dine out or travel. Other European countries had also been dialling them down. The past few months here have been a giddy, delusional celebration of the pandemic’s end – without the vaccination rates to actually end it.

Relief, because those countries would now be compelled to act. This week saw infection rates in Northern and Eastern Europe go through the roof. Accordingly, hospitalization and death rates are also horrifyingly high – almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. Still with a quarter to a third of the populations in those countries still somehow not fully vaccinated, that’s a lot of victims.

So there have been tough, panicky measures. Austria, the hardest-hit, first imposed a novel lockdown for the unvaccinated, but is now extending it nationally beginning Monday. Mandatory vaccination will start in February. The Netherlands has a partial lockdown, and masks are back on. Germany has started requiring proof of vaccination for trains and buses and has eliminated testing as a substitute at restaurants. Even Sweden, where a laissez-faire approach has so far prevailed, on Wednesday announced that vaccine passports would be needed to attend some events.

Finally anger, because this was all preventable. There is no reason why anyone should be suffering a lockdown, why masks should be on any faces or vaccination checks on any streets in the late autumn of 2021. There is no reason why people should still be sick or dying of the coronavirus in Europe.

After all, these are the countries that manufacture most of the world’s vaccines, have the world’s most extensive and sophisticated public-health systems – and have the infrastructure and information systems to have inoculated their entire populations by the end of the summer, if not earlier. They could have reached the level of vaccination – typically above 90 per cent of adults – that stops viruses from circulating and makes precautions unnecessary. They could have ended the pandemic.

Why didn’t they? Some analyses have attributed the failure to the unvaccinated themselves, noting that they have become a political cult – in Germany, for example, 65 per cent of unvaccinated people vote for far-right or conspiracy-theory parties.

But this idea is disproven by the example of France, where a very strict, early requirement that citizens show proof of vaccination in order to do almost anything made the unvaccinated dwindle in size. France now has a much higher vaccination rate than those Germanic countries and isn’t being hit by the latest wave of infection.

The real mistake – one we see repeated in Canada and elsewhere – is how politicians pander to the unvaccinated. Legislators continue to view them as something like an ethnic group or disability community – people who have rights to be respected, rather than a problem to be solved urgently.

Imagine if we extended that treatment to other outsider groups such as “haven’t paid their taxes” or “drive their cars on the sidewalk.” We need to see vaccine hesitancy or ideological opposition to vaccines as an anomalous but temporary dereliction of civic responsibility, one to be confronted quickly to make life work for the rest of us.

Even now, European governments have a hard time seeing them that way. This week, the three parties about to govern Germany could not agree to make vaccination mandatory for people working in child-care centres or long-term care homes – surely a minimum requirement. Coalition talks in the Netherlands were paralyzed by arguments over the “rights” of people whose civic irresponsibility is costing lives – even as several of the MPs fled the talks after testing positive.

These arguments make no sense – not when we’ve spent decades learning exactly what needs to be done. Vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella has been uncontroversially mandatory in many major European countries and in Canada for years. During the 2010s, when misinformation and conspiracies caused vaccination rates to drop below 90 per cent in some communities, we saw outbreaks of measles and mumps that killed children.

As COVID-19 death tolls mount, some politicians strain to capture the votes of the unvaccinated – even though those politicians could transform them, with the wave of a hand, into the vaccinated, bringing this thing to a stop.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles