Academic events have not been held in the auditorium of the Dresden Polytechnic University for days. The massive glass-fronted building is now a walk-in vaccination center to encourage stragglers to get immunized without leaving campus. Jennifer Hilgert, a 22-year-old Sociology student, is here for her booster dose. He has put it on as soon as possible, he says, because there is a cancer patient in his family. Others come for the first, but don’t want to talk about it. Either they are ashamed to admit it or it bothers them to have to justify themselves. “I don’t need them, but they force me,” mutters a boy who avoids standing up. Hilgert also has an unvaccinated friend: “She says she’s young and she’s not going to get sick.” The student believes that vaccination should be mandatory. “One’s freedom ends where the rest begins. Look what is happening for not having protected all of us before ”.
What happens in this eastern federal state, bordering Poland and the Czech Republic, is that only 58% of the inhabitants have been vaccinated, by far the lowest rate in Germany, more than 10 points below the average. As a result, Saxony is the land where the fourth wave of the pandemic hits with greater virulence. The incidence is three times the average for the country (1,225 compared to 442 cases per 100,000 inhabitants) and hospitals, already saturated, have had to send critical patients to other regions. Saxony has become the epicenter of vaccine resistance and an object of study for academics trying to understand why it happens and what role the radical right-wing movements that are so successful in elections play.
A Europe on alert faces “the pandemic of the unvaccinated”, in the words of the German authorities. There is still a third of the population, that is, about 150 million people, who remain unvaccinated. The wave that is sweeping the continent and the omicron threat have focused on the unvaccinated population, and the debate on whether to force immunization is erupting throughout the EU. In Germany, where until a few weeks ago such a possibility was not contemplated, there is now an agreement to bring it to Parliament and to enter into force in February. The next chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will vote in favor. He has changed his mind, like the liberal Christian Lindner, his coalition partner. The parties will allow freedom to vote and a high-voltage session is expected.
Austria, which this week has approved to extend confinement for another ten days to try to get to Christmas in a better situation, will fine up to 7,200 euros to those who do not get vaccinated from February. Greece will also impose fines of 100 euros per month on those over 60 who refuse to be immunized. Meanwhile, all countries tighten restrictions due to the uncertainty of the new variant.
The Altmarkt Christmas market in central Dresden provides a perfect metaphor for what happened to Europe with the fourth wave. Traders set up traditional wooden stalls one day and the market was canceled the next. The booths are still there, closed, as a testimony of the optimism with which the continent faced this phase of the pandemic. In a half-empty cafeteria overlooking the square, Professor Hans Vorländer, director of the Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy (Midem) at the University of Dresden, explains that the heterogeneity of the anti-vaccine and denial movement is precisely what makes the authorities so difficult reach out to these people and convince them.
Right-wing populist organizations have tried to capitalize on the protests, but among the skeptics there are also people who simply distrust authority, naturopaths, users of alternative medicine, members of esoteric circles … There are also people who have doubts, or fear of possible side effects . These can still be reached. To some supporters of radical movements, probably not. And there are experts who warn that mandatory vaccination can even be counterproductive and generate even more resistance and aggressiveness.
The role of parties like AfD has been very relevant in Saxony and other regions. “They take advantage of the dissatisfaction of a part of the population, which they feel as a lack of recognition, to unite them and give them a voice,” explains Vorländer. At the beginning of the AfD pandemic, it called for stricter measures, but immediately saw that it could obtain more revenue by positioning itself as the only alternative to the existing parties and turned towards rejecting the restrictions. It is very common to hear party leaders talk about the coronavirus dictatorship and how Merkel’s government has taken advantage of the pandemic to restrict freedoms.
In Saxony, in addition, an extremist movement, guarded by the secret services, called Freie Sachsen (Free Saxons), has caught the heat of the latest restrictions. They compare the treatment given to the unvaccinated with that given to Jews in the Nazi era and have carried out some attacks on journalists who report on their marches in small towns south of Dresden. As the protests are prohibited they call them “anti-corona walks”. The local media have reported that the Police have not only not dissolved them but that in some cases the agents have strolled with them. On Friday night, a group of about 30 protesters against the restrictions gathered, carrying torches, outside the home of Saxon Health Minister Petra Köpping. On Saturday, five journalists were attacked in various protests in Berlin.
“We are talking about small and closed communities, which feel united compared to outsiders,” explains Vorländer. The Protestant tradition in the area also explains, more than in Catholic Germany, that skepticism towards the government, adds the expert, who has just published a work that shows how the pandemic has increased support for right-wing populists in Germany. and in other European countries. Saxon health authorities are going to rely on the study to specifically target the socio-demographic groups it identifies. They are “low-income, self-employed or salaried people with secondary education, between 31 and 40 years old and supporters of AfD,” says a spokesman for the Saxon Ministry of Health.
A Forsa Institute poll revealed in November that half of the unvaccinated in Germany – there are currently more than 14 million unimmunized adults – voted for AfD in the federal elections in September. Another work has just confirmed the statistical association between infections and support for the extreme right that the sociologist Matthias Quent, from the University of Jena, pointed out last winter. The study ruled out that other factors, such as income, education or proximity to the border, could explain the higher incidence in these areas. They observed the phenomenon both in eastern Germany and in the west. And they also demonstrated a connection between the proportion of abstentionists in the past and the current numbers of the pandemic. Christoph Richter, co-author of the study, assures that this indicates that the citizens of these regions have long mistrusted the democratic system.
Dresden, the Saxon capital, is like a city idling. Commerce has lost income, restaurants complain of a lack of customers, and hotels can no longer accept tourists. You cannot enter a store or cafeteria without showing the vaccination certificate. On the street, no one admits to being unvaccinated, although in some cases it is understood. “I don’t want to give an explanation to a journalist,” blurts out a man in his 40s who even mentioned the subject seemed to have no problem describing the restrictions in Dresden. “I have endured all kinds of insults from very aggressive people,” laments Sandro, a waiter at the Palastecke restaurant. “There are those who still have not understood what we have been suffering for almost two years.”