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HAMBURG–Germany is scrambling to deal with a raging fourth wave of COVID-19 as the country this week recorded its highest number of cases yet amid flatlining vaccination rates, fractured political decision-making, and an increasingly radical anti-vaccine movement.
More than 16 million people aged 12 or above—around a third of the country’s population—remain unvaccinated, according to Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control agency, and health minister Jens Spahn has publicly blamed those people for what he calls a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
On Thursday, Germany recorded more than 50,000 new daily COVID-19 infections and reached its highest seven-day incidence since the beginning of the pandemic, at 249.9 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. The Robert Koch Institute said unvaccinated or partly vaccinated people now face a “very high” risk to their health.
Some 97,000 COVID-related deaths have been reported in Germany since the pandemic began two years ago, but according to Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Charité Berlin, if the crisis continues on its current path there could be a further 100,000 deaths.
Recent polling suggests the German government is unlikely to persuade those who are unvaccinated to get jabbed. A survey commissioned by the German health ministry, which was published in October, found that 65 percent of those who have so far refused the jab said they would “definitely not” take a vaccine in the next two months, while a further 23 percent said they would “probably not” be immunized.
Public health experts point to the vast regional differences in policy being enacted across the country. Under Germany’s federal system, health authorities in the 16 states—rather than central government—are responsible for deciding health restrictions and infrastructure.
“There should have been stronger measures taken,” Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at the University of Hamburg, told The Daily Beast. “This rise was expected. But in some states in Germany, prevention was not done with too much enthusiasm and now there’s an overload of ICUs and hospitals. This is a very regional phenomenon.”
But those states that have opted to enforce stricter rules are suffering increasingly aggressive pushback from anti-vaxxers. On Monday, Saxony became the first state to introduce mandatory so-called “2G” rules, meaning only the fully vaccinated, and those who’ve recovered from COVID-19 in the last six months, are allowed to dine indoors at restaurants, visit bars or many other areas of public life. No longer can the unvaccinated get by by showing a negative COVID test. Thousands of anti-vaxxers protested that policy in the city of Leipzig over the weekend, leading to dozens of arrests.
Anti-vax demonstrators have, on numerous occasions, attacked police officers, defied civil authorities and last August, during a 40,000-strong protest in Berlin, jumped police lines and mounted the German Parliament’s stairs.
The growing extremism has prompted serious concern among security officials. Earlier this year Germany’s intelligence service said it would surveil members of the anti-vax movement risking the “delegitimization of the state.” Last week Stephan Kramer, head of the domestic intelligence agency in the eastern state of Thuringia, also warned radicalization among coronavirus deniers was increasing.
According to Pia Lamberty, a psychologist and expert in the German conspiracy scene, this escalation comes down to German authorities’ fundamental failure to address the situation of anti-vaxxers since the pandemic began.
“There are huge numbers of groups that try to mobilize against the vaccines,” Lamberty told The Daily Beast. “The violence that comes from these movements was underestimated by the government. They have been radical for a long time. We should have taken preventative measures, but now we are in an emergency situation.”
According to Lamberty, anti-vax sentiment in Germany dates back decades to the time of National Socialism. But even now, she says, the movement is known for its use of antisemitic tropes. Vaccine sceptic members of the QAnon movement have been linked to neo-Nazi networks and in Bavaria, anti-vaxxers have held signs stating “Vaccination makes you free” in allusion to Nazi concentration camps.
“I’m worried about the violence that I see on a daily basis,” adds Lamberty. “Many doctors have been receiving death threats. There must be a faster response from police and more done to tackle right-wing beliefs and disinformation.”
Over the past year, Germany’s anti-lockdown measures have created a motley alliance of anti-vaxxers, who make up 5 to 10 percent of the German population, the equivalent of up to eight million people, according to the Robert Koch Institute.
In the run-up to the Sept. 26 general elections, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a German right-wing populist party that won almost 13 percent of the vote in the last elections, campaigned on an anti-vax, anti-mask agenda. A poll by Forsa found that half of unvaccinated people said they were AfD voters.
Kai Arzheimer, professor of political science at the University of Mainz, says the far-right is successfully using the pandemic to gain support. “It’s based in this distrust of the government,” he told The Daily Beast. “There has been very mixed messaging. The array of changing regulations in Germany has contributed to the mess that we’re in. That really chimes with what the AfD is doing.”
Experts warn that political indecision is costing lives as vaccination rates lag behind those in the rest of western Europe. Following the German elections in September, the interim coalition government has proposed a set of COVID rules—including bringing back free coronavirus tests for all—but critics say stricter measures such as mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers have been neglected, that not enough is being done to tackle extremism, and that the coalition is sending the wrong message by planning to let a state of emergency lapse at the end of November.
Instead fears are that, with reduced staffing at hospitals, an abandoned pop-up testing infrastructure and an increasingly mobile population, the country is facing a resurgent virus as winter approaches with weaker defences than ever before.
“It’s very important that the government acts, but we have a problematic situation with the recent elections,” virologist Schmidt-Chanasit told The Daily Beast. “They are not really in charge. It’s a critical moment for decisions but they can’t be properly made yet.
Peter Yeung is currently an IJP George Weidenfeld Bursary fellow in Hamburg.