Helge Braun, chief of staff of Chancellor Angela Merkel, fueled a debate in German politics after saying that restrictions for unvaccinated people may be necessary if coronavirus (COVID-19) infection numbers reach new heights in the coming months.
The idea is tyrannical at its core and brings back memories of Germany under the Third Reich. It’s also totally polarizing even with the purest of intentions. Braun said that unvaccinated people may be barred from entering venues like restaurants, movie theaters or sports stadiums “because the residual risk is too high.”
“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” Braun said, adding that such policies would be legal because “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens.”
Earlier this month, Braun said many areas that were completely closed in the past must remain open to the vaccinated population.
Even without an official vaccine mandate, Germany’s vaccinated people are already getting preferential treatment. They’re getting privileged access to restaurants and bars that would otherwise require a recent COVID-19 negative test.
German politicians were deeply divided Sunday, July 25, after learning Braun’s remarks – even within Merkel’s own Christian Democrats party. Its candidate to replace Merkel as Germany’s leader, Armin Laschet, said he opposes any formal or informal vaccine requirements for the time being.
“I don’t believe in compulsory vaccinations and I don’t believe we should put indirect pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told the German broadcaster ZDF on Sunday. “In a free country there are rights to freedom, not just for specific groups.”
Laschet said other options could be considered if Germany’s vaccination rates remain too low this fall, but not now.
With the highly transmissible delta variant spreading in Germany, politicians have debated the possibility of compulsory vaccinations for specific professions, including medical workers. No such requirements have been implemented yet.
Germany’s vaccine efforts have slowed in recent weeks and that has led to discussions about how to encourage those who haven’t yet received a vaccine to do so. More than 60 percent of the German population has received at least one dose while over 49 percent are fully vaccinated.
Merkel ruled out new vaccine requirements “at the moment,” but added, “I’m not ruling out that this might be talked about differently in a few months either.”
Other elected officials have struck a similar tone. Baden-Wurttemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann, a member of the Greens, noted Sunday that the delta variant and others that may emerge could make vaccine requirements more attractive down the line.
While there are no current plans to require people to get vaccinated, he said that he can’t forever rule out compulsory vaccinations.
Karl Lauterbach, a health expert from the center-left Social Democrats, spoke in favor of possible restrictions. He told the Suddeutsche Zeitung that soon one of the only remaining options to fight new variants will be “to restrict access to spaces where many people come together.”
Others immediately pushed back against Braun’s comments on Sunday. Some expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of such restrictions, while others warned against having rights based on one’s vaccination status. (Related: German domestic intelligence agency surveilling COVID-related protests.)
“Of course, we need incentives to reach the highest possible vaccination rate,” Marco Buschmann, parliamentary group leader for the pro-business Free Democrats, told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group.
But he added that to impose such restrictions on the unvaccinated “would be a violation of their basic rights” if unvaccinated people who have been tested or recovered from the virus pose no greater danger than vaccinated people.
Rolf Mutzenich, head of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, said politicians should be focusing more on getting willing citizens vaccinated than penalizing the unvaccinated. “We’re not going to sustainably change the vaccination behavior of individuals with threats,” he said.
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