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Austria takes big step toward COVID vaccine mandate for adults

  • Kaly Soto, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-01-21 12:05:56 BdST

A doctor vaccinates a person with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Vienna, Austria Apr 26, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Austria’s lower house of Parliament voted Thursday to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for almost everyone 18 and older, putting the nation on the path to be the first in Europe with such a wide-reaching mandate.

The law would take effect Feb 1. The bill must still pass in the upper house and be signed by the president, Alexander Van der Bellen, but both are considered formalities at this point.

While Austria’s bill is the first of its kind, other European nations are pushing large segments of their populations to get vaccinated. Italy has made vaccines mandatory for those older than 50, with fines for those who do not comply, and Greece has mandated vaccines for those 60 and older. Other European countries have made vaccine passports compulsory for certain activities.

Under the Austrian law, people who are pregnant or cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 will be exempt.

Once the law goes into effect, all households will be notified. The government said it would begin routine checks of vaccination status in mid-March, including during traffic checks.

Once the vaccine checks begin, people who can’t immediately produce proof of vaccination will be reported to authorities and can be fined up to 600 euros ($685). If people contest their fine, it can increase to 3,600 euros (about $4,000).

The law is set to last until 2024. Austria’s current rate of vaccination is 75%, similar to that of France and of Italy, and new cases are averaging 17,846 a day, according to a New York Times database.

The government announced plans to mandate vaccines in November. At the time, the country had just introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated, who were driving a surge of infections.

Europe’s vaccination campaigns have been met with protests and political jousting between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Even as studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to avoid hospitalisation or death if infected, Western European governments are increasing resorting to thinly veiled coercion with a mixture of mandates, inducements and punishments.

The opposition to the lockdown and vaccine mandates in Austria is being fueled in part by the far-right Freedom Party, which has used its platform in the Austrian Parliament to spread doubt about the effectiveness of the vaccines and to promote unproven treatments.

Tensions in the country were aggravated by weeks of paralysis after Sebastian Kurz resigned as chancellor in early October amid a scandal, and calls to depoliticise the pandemic followed.

Austria’s current chancellor, Karl Nehammer, has said that the “freedom” that many protesters insist they want can be achieved only through vaccination.

“It is not a question of ideology, it is a question of convincing; we can’t do and try enough to convince so that the unvaccinated get vaccinated,” Nehammer said late last year.

© 2022 The New York Times Company