Omicron May Be the Final Straw in World Leaders’ Patience With Anti-vaxxers

With the appearance of the new COVID omicron variant, countries are taking on a harsher stance on vaccines. The pandemic is breathing down our necks, and leaders are fed up with hesitation, opposition and deliberation, and may push for mandatory vaccination

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Omicron could push countries to mandate COVID vaccinations. Pictured: Shuttered Vienna, in November
Omicron could push countries to mandate COVID vaccinations. Pictured: Shuttered Vienna, in NovemberCredit: Lisi Niesner\Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The outbreak of the omicron variant may be marked in the future as a seminal moment in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It is pushing countries around the world toward a weighty decision that leaders, governments and health officials have so far managed to avoid or reject out of hand: whether to make vaccination compulsory.

Omicron is only a random variant of the coronavirus, a series of genetic “typing errors,” but its appearance could become a historic event marking the point in the pandemic when an individual’s right over his or her body was taken away.

Rightly or not, the appearance of omicron and the rise in infection rates after almost a year of vaccination (in Israel), which was characterized by rises and falls in waves of infections with different variants, is causing leaders and countries to forgo the spirit of tolerance and gentle attempts at persuasion, and instead taking over the steering wheel like a driving instructor when his learner is about to cause a collision. The sense is that the pandemic is breathing down our necks, and leaders are fed up with hesitation, opposition and deliberation.

In recent days and weeks, several countries are taking more extreme action on vaccination, embracing the concept that the only way to contend with the pandemic is by vaccinating the entire population, even as new variants appear. The effectiveness of vaccines with the appearance of each new variant is important, but there is a wide consensus among experts that the coronavirus is not altering its nature or changing completely, and that its scope for change is limited.

Even in its various versions, it is familiar to the immune system, more or less, of people who are vaccinated or recovering, while for unvaccinated people, encountering the virus is like meeting a violent stranger in a dark alley.

Austria recently decided to impose a total lockdown after the virus-induced death rate rose threefold within weeks. Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg announced that from February 1, 2022, vaccination will be mandatory. A few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the European Union should consider making vaccination mandatory given the omicron’s spread.

Von der Leyen, a physician by profession, expressed her support for countries that have mandated PCR tests before travel within the Union. “We have vaccines, they save lives, but they are not used appropriately everywhere. This exacts a price, a huge cost in health. How can we encourage or think about mandating vaccines within the European Union – this requires a discussion which we must have,” she said. She added that the challenge posed by the variant is a race against time, calling to “prepare for the worst.”

In Israel, too, one can hear sentiments that have not been heard before. After launching the child vaccination campaign in a spirit of tolerance, without rush, allowing for deliberations, coronavirus chief Prof. Salman Zarka said “all alternatives must be examined, including the one mandating compulsory vaccination.”

Israel, where routine vaccination rates are 95 or 98 percent, has never faced such a dilemma. Not when polio broke out in 2013 and not when German measles spread. The corona pandemic is completely different in every parameter, including considerations for and against getting vaccinated.

The attempt to promote compulsory vaccination, if it happens, is expected to lead to friction between the legislative and judiciary branches. It could conceivably lead to the Supreme Court having to rule on whether the risks of the pandemic are such that public health and the requirement to get vaccinated override individual rights involving human dignity and autonomy over one’s body.

Yet the appearance of omicron after almost two years of pandemic is not only a cause for despair, a sign that the menace is far from disappearing. It also lays out a new value system, embodied in the attempt to combat the pandemic. Will this solution be a positive or negative one? That depends on one’s perspective. At this point, world leaders and professionals increasingly believe that rapid vaccination is the only way out.

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