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Austria is the 1st Western democracy to require vaccines for most adults


Austria has become the first Western democracy to require vaccines for nearly all adults. People who are pregnant have medical conditions or have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the policy, while others will be required to show proof of vaccination during random checks by the police.

NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about this. Hi, Rob.


FLORIDO: When does this law come into effect? And how are Austrians responding to this mandate?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, so the law has actually been in effect for the past week, and it is set to expire in two years, possibly earlier, if the pandemic is slowed sufficiently by then. Authorities won't start checking people's vaccination status until mid-March. If people are caught not to be fully vaccinated, though, they'll face fines ranging from $700 to the equivalent of $4,000.

FLORIDO: Wow. And how many Austrians are unvaccinated and likely to face those fines?

SCHMITZ: Nearly three-quarters of Austrians are fully vaccinated, and that leaves around 2 million people who still need to vaccinate by mid-March. But many in this group do not want to get vaccinated and have taken to the streets to protest this mandate for the past several weeks. Many of these protests have been violent, but for the majority of Austrians who are vaccinated, this mandate enjoys wide support. The country's COVID cases spiked dramatically over the winter, and they think that a mandate will help bring those numbers down so that they can return to normal life again without the fear of being infected.

FLORIDO: And how optimistic are authorities in Austria that this mandate will motivate the unvaccinated to actually finally get vaccinated?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think that's an open question, and it's a source of considerable debate within the country at the moment. We spoke with Alwin Schonberger, managing editor of the science desk at the popular Austrian weekly magazine Profil. He says there's no evidence from studies on other mandates that compulsory vaccinations increase the vaccination rate overall. In fact, he thinks this mandate could easily backfire and spur the unvaccinated to dig in their heels. Here's what he said.

ALWIN SCHONBERGER: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Adrian, he's saying here that many anti-vaxxers are already taking to the streets and causing problems, and he thinks it's clear that a mandate is simply serving as what he calls a pseudo excuse for them to cause even more trouble, and that this will give them even more attention than they deserve. And it's worth noting here that Austria's far-right anti-vaccine Freedom Party says it will fight this mandate in court and that this new rule paves the way for what they call totalitarianism in Austria.

FLORIDO: Rob, COVID-19 is raging in your part of Europe. Are other countries considering similar mandates?

SCHMITZ: Yes. Last month, Italy made vaccinations mandatory for people over the age of 50, as well as for teachers and health workers. Here in Germany, the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz threatened a vaccine mandate late last year. But for the past month, this initiative has lost steam, and Parliament is dragging its feet on bringing forth a bill to pave the way for a mandate. And that could be because, due to sort of Germany's history in World War II and beyond, government mandates are a sensitive topic here.

There are more than 15 million Germans that remain unvaccinated, and large groups of them are also protesting throughout the country on a weekly basis against existing COVID restrictions. So if a mandate does end up becoming a reality for Europe's largest country, I'd imagine we'll see a ratcheting up of intensity of these types of protests.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.