German Vaccines Lag, Cases Spike, With Troops on Standby to Help
Germany is being battered by a fourth Covid wave, with low vaccination rates in its eastern states a big reason the virus has regained a foothold.
The four regions registering the lowest vaccination rates -- Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony-Anhalt -- are all in the formerly communist East. No state in eastern Germany has an inoculation level that exceeds the nationwide rate of 67.5% fully vaccinated, with the exception of once-divided Berlin, according to health ministry data.
Germany’s military will put as many as 12,000 troops on standby to help overburdened health clinics and to speed the rollout of booster vaccines, Der Spiegel reported Saturday. At the previous critical points in the pandemic as many as 10,000 soldiers were deployed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz -- the Social Democrat aiming to be sworn in to succeed her in early December -- will hold a video conference with state leaders on Thursday to discuss the next steps.
Merkel made an urgent appeal for more citizens to get their shots in her weekly podcast on Saturday.
“There is a very clear link between the vaccine rate and the number of cases,” Merkel said, without mentioning the eastern regions by name.
“That has serious consequences,” she added, including overstretched hospitals, patients having to be shifted around, and operations for other health conditions canceled.
“We are facing some very tough weeks and you can tell that I am very worried,” Merkel said. She suggested Germany’s leaders should agree on a threshold for hospital capacity that would automatically trigger tighter regional restrictions.
The East-West disparity reflects a legacy of alienation felt by Germans in the poorer states that joined the Federal Republic in 1990. There’s lingering resentment among those who grew up under a communist regime, and many still harbor suspicions against central authority in Berlin.
Those attitudes are at least partly responsible for the country’s lagging performance among western European peers, where nations such as Spain, Italy and Portugal have far outstripped Germany on vaccines. By contrast, inoculation rates in Eastern Europe are far lower.
Merkel, who’s called for stricter measures to contain the latest wave, lauded Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa during a visit outside Berlin this week, calling his nation’s vaccination rate “fantastic.” Portugal has reached 87% fully immunized.
“If enough people get inoculated, that’s our path out of the pandemic,” Merkel said Saturday, urging people to “join in, and try to convince relatives and friends.”
“If we stand together, and focus on our own protection and think considerately about others, then we can do much to protect our country this winter,” she added.
The tepid vaccine take-up has also helped catapult Germany into a devastating new outbreak as it heads toward winter. Daily infection rates are breaking records set last winter when the population was mostly defenseless against Covid-19, waiting for the first vaccines to arrive.
To be sure, recent deaths from the virus, while on the rise, have been far below levels seen last winter. Yet German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who’s called the latest cycle a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” warned that some hospitals are already overwhelmed.
“We’re already seeing the effects of too few vaccinations and too many infections in the intensive-care stations in some regions,” Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Friday, exhorting Germans to take more precautions and above all get vaccinated. “Otherwise it’ll be a bitter December for the whole country.”
Germany and neighboring Austria, whose fully-vaccinated rate is near 65%, straddle a sharp divide among European Union member states, with low vaccine take-up in the once Soviet-dominated east lagging higher rates of inoculation in the west, particularly in countries that were hit hardest at the beginning of the pandemic.
Full vaccination rates among Germany’s Western European neighbors range from France’s 78% to over 80% in Spain, while to the east, inoculations are much lower. Poland stands at 53% and the Czech Republic at 58%. In Bulgaria, just 23% have been vaccinated, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
Germany’s east-west divide reflects a similar pattern. Saxony, a state of 4 million that borders Poland and the Czech Republic, registers 57.4% as having received full protection. At the top is the western city-state of Bremen on the North Sea, Germany’s smallest state with fewer than 700,000, of whom almost 80% is fully vaccinated.
Coronavirus cases in Saxony have reached an incidence level of 621 new infections per 100,000 people over seven days. Bremen, where cases have also risen, is at just over 100 per 100,000. It trails only the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which has kept the fourth wave relatively in check.
The east-west divide is only one facet of Germany’s tepid vaccination program, though -- the wealthy southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, without the Communist legacy, also lag. But the psychology of vaccine resistance, often associated with general distrust of authority, is one that’s been prevalent in the poorer east since reunification.
A study released in October by the research consultant Forsa showed that two-thirds of unvaccinated Germans cast doubt on the authority wielded by federal authorities in fighting the pandemic.
That view’s been a hallmark of the east -- and has engendered a broader sense of grievance and protest, said Forsa researcher Peter Matuschek.
“There are a lot of reasons, including experiences with authority, living under authoritarianism, that have continued,” Matuschek said in an interview. “A lot also has to do with the experience of transformation after reunification.”
Matuschek tied vaccine resistance directly to the political environment, where Germany has followed a broader European pattern in which far-right politics have been associated with opposition to vaccines, including in Austria.
The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has become a political home for vaccine skepticism, hitting out at various Covid restrictions and spearheading protests, many of which have turned violent.
Among unvaccinated Germans who cast their ballot in the Sept. 26 federal election, 50% voted for AfD, according to a Forsa survey of political preference of 3,048 people over 18.
The pollster called political preference “the most important factor” influencing citizens’ readiness to get the jab. “Above all, it’s ideological,” Matuschek said.
On Thursday, AfD was the only party in Germany’s lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, to oppose rules requiring lawmakers to be vaccinated or show a negative Covid test to enter the chamber. Hours later, news broke that AfD co-leader Alice Weidel had tested positive and entered quarantine. She’d repeatedly said she hadn’t been vaccinated.
The AfD received the most votes in Saxony in this year’s election, beating Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which has led the state since reunification. The party had more than 20% support in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt as well as Saxony -- all of them vaccination stragglers.
The political backdrop creates a grim outlook if Germany hopes to inoculate nearly 18 million people over the age of 12 who’ve so far resisted health officials’ efforts -- even as booster programs are up and running. The holdouts include 3.5 million people age 60 and up, or about 14% of that bracket deemed at higher risk if they contract Covid-19.
Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, offered some hope in getting Germany’s vaccine program back on track. Setting aside ideological anti-vaxxers, he said, authorities could target groups that are unvaccinated because of a lack of information or access -- such as immigrants and jobless citizens.
“These people are reachable if you make a concerted effort to bring the vaccine to them, or if you create an arrangement whereby they simply must get vaccinated,” Drosten said this week on Das Coronavirus-Update, a podcast put out by broadcaster NDR.
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