Europe's Covid predicament – how do you solve a problem like the anti-vaxxers?

Philip Oltermann in Berlin
Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP

In front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate a politically incongruous crowd of protesters gathered yesterday. They wore flowers in their hair, hazmat suits emblazoned with the letter Q, badges displaying the old German imperial flag or T-shirts reading “Gates, My Ass” – a reference to the US software billionaire Bill Gates.

Around the globe, millions are counting the days until a Covid-19 vaccine is discovered. These people, however, were protesting for the right not to be inoculated – and they weren’t the only ones.

For the ninth week running, thousands gathered in European cities to vent their anger at social distancing restrictions they believe to be a draconian ploy to suspend basic civil rights and pave the way for “enforced vaccinations” that will do more harm than the Covid-19 virus itself.

Walking towards the focal point of the protests down the Straße des 17. Juni boulevard, one woman said she believed the Covid-19 pandemic to be a hoax thought up by the pharmaceutical industry.

“I’d never let myself be vaccinated,” said the woman, who would give her name only as Riot Granny. “I didn’t get a jab for the flu either, and I am still alive.”

The alliance of anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazi rabble-rousers and esoteric hippies, which has in recent weeks been filling town squares in cities such as Berlin, Vienna and Zurich is starting to trouble governments as they map out scenarios for re-booting their economies and tackling the coronavirus long term.

Even before an effective vaccine against Covid-19 has been developed, national leaders face a dilemma: should they aim to immunise as large a part of the population as possible as quickly as possible, or does compulsory vaccination risk boosting a street movement already prone to conspiracy theories about “big pharma” and its government’s authoritarian tendencies?

Deputy leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party Beatrix von Storch holds up a placard reading: ‘Freedom of Speech’ during an anti-lockdown protest in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Preliminary results of a survey by the Vaccine Confidence Project and ORB International, carried out when infections in Europe were still rising rapidly in early April, show resistance to a vaccine to be especially high in countries that have managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic.

In Switzerland, where immunologists have proposed that mass vaccinations could take place as early as October, 20% of people questioned said they would not be willing to be vaccinated. In Austria, vaccine scepticism was similarly rife, with 18% of those questioned saying they would reject vaccination.

In Germany, where 9% opposed vaccination in April, the figure may have since increased as the virus has claimed fewer victims relative to other countries. A parallel survey by the university of Erfurt found the number of Germans asked whether they would take a Covid-19 vaccine when it became available had dropped from 79% in mid-April to 63% last week.

In the UK, where ORB International surveyed opinions from 6 to 7 May, 10% of respondents said they were unwilling to be vaccinated.

While scientists predict that immunising about 70% of the population could be sufficient for the virus to vanish, there are concerns that a noisy minority could seize the narrative around vaccination.

There’s a real fear of an unholy alliance between esoteric leftwingers, the far right and the Reichsbürger movement

Natalie Grams, doctor

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas has jokingly advised the public to “keep a lot more than just a 1.5-metre distance” from those spreading conspiracy theories, but fears of the movement growing into a force equivalent to the Pegida protests against Angela Merkel’s asylum policy seem to be shaping the thinking in Berlin’s seats of power.

In spite of some scientists calling for mandatory vaccination against Covid-19, health minister Jens Spahn has said he would favour a voluntary programme, while the mooted introduction of “immunity passports” for those who have been vaccinated or developed antibodies was withdrawn from a new “pandemic law” that passed through the Bundestag this month.

“There’s a real fear of an unholy alliance between esoteric leftwingers, the far right and the Reichsbürger movement,” said Natalie Grams, a doctor and author who specialises in debunking claims about the effectiveness of alternative medicine.

“When it comes to people strongly opposed to vaccinations, you are usually looking at 2-4% of the population in Germany. But with this alliance you are looking at broader resistance among the population.

“While there isn’t a vaccine but everyone is talking about one, the anti-vaccination movement has found a perfect environment to flourish”, said Grams, who used to practise homeopathy herself. “Virologists are weighing up evidence and come up with slightly conflicting advice, while the big health bodies take weeks to formulate their messages. Anti-vaxxers are exploiting this uncertainty.”

In France, anti-vaccination sentiments are seen as a phenomenon of the current millennium, fed by a wider distrust of central government. In German-speaking countries, by contrast, wariness of vaccination programmes dates back to the 19th century.

In the first half of the 20th century, anti-vaxxer views converged with anti-semitism: the Third Reich was rife with conspiracy theories presenting vaccination programmes as a Jewish plot to either poison the German nation or “submit humanity to Jewish mammonism”.

Some historians believe that voluntary vaccination programmes against Covid-19 would not only be less politically risky but also more effective at protecting the population from coronavirus.

“When it comes to vaccination programmes, the debate is rarely about the disease itself but about the relationship between the individual and the state”, said historian Malte Thiessen, who runs the Institute for Westphalian History in Münster. “In Germany this is a question that goes back to the 19th century: can the government force people to be healthy?”