‘Parallel society’: Despite mandate, 1 in 5 Austrians still unvaccinated

As Austria prepares for a law making vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory to come into effect this week, around 20 percent of the eligible population remain unvaccinated, raising fears of stigmatisation and social divides.

Covid protest Vienna
Some of those who protest against vaccine mandates argue that the law will create social divides and is an infringement on personal freedoms. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Despite the mandate, musician Katharina Teufel-Lieli insists she won’t bow to pressure to get the jab.

“I have the right to decide over my body… to simply say ‘no,'” the harpist told AFP at her home in Neumarkt-am-Wallersee, not far from the western city of Salzburg.

Austria this week becomes the first European Union country to make Covid-19 vaccination legally compulsory for adults.

READ ALSO: How does Austria’s vaccine mandate compare to other countries?

Under the new law, those holding out against the jab can face fines of up to 3,600 euros ($4,100) from mid-March after an introductory phase.

According to government data, as of January 30th 75.57 percent of the total population had received at least one vaccine dose against the virus, which is 79.43 percent of the population eligible for vaccination. 

Teufel-Lieli, 49, is one of tens of thousands to have joined massive demonstrations against the law and other coronavirus-related measures since November, when plans for the legal change were announced.

Austrian musician Katharina Teufel-Lieli speaks during an interview with AFP about compulsory vaccination against the coronavirus (Covid-19) at her home in Neumarkt am Wallersee, Austria, on January 24, 2022. - Come Friday when vaccination against Covid becomes mandatory in Austria, unjabbed musician Katharina Teufel-Lieli will find herself flouting the law and facing a hefty fine. Undeterred, she insists she won't bow to the pressure and change her mind about getting the jab. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austrian musician Katharina Teufel-Lieli. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

The mother of six said that she used to be “apolitical” but the state is “overstepping the mark” by “attacking people” through this act of “totalitarianism”.

Access to certain services has already been restricted since last year under government-imposed measures. Entry to restaurants, hairdressers, hotels, non-essential shops, sports and cultural venues has only been permitted since November to those who are vaccinated or recently recovered.

This has sparked complaints within the retail sector about staff having to act as “an auxiliary police” in checking vaccine passes in shops. It has also led to several cases of faked vaccine passes.

ANALYSIS: How right-wing extremists are exploiting Austria’s vaccine debate

Frustrations since the beginning of the pandemic have also led opponents to create a new political party, known by its acronym, MFG which stands for People, Freedom, Fundamental Rights (Menschen, Freiheit, Grundrechte).

One of three MFG representatives to have already won a state legislature seat, Dagmar Haeusler, said that she just did not see the point of compulsory Covid vaccination.

“If there was a valid reason, as with smallpox which has a mortality rate of 20 to 30 percent, we could talk about mandatory vaccination, which would benefit everyone.

“But in the case of Covid-19, I don’t see the point,” the 38-year-old biomedical scientist and MFG co-founder told AFP.

Dagmar Haeusler, member of the Upper Austrian state parliament and co-founder of the MFG Party (short for People, Freedom, Fundamental Rights), speaks during an interview with AFP about the legally compulsory vaccination against the coronavirus (Covid-19) in Austria, in Eugendorf on January 24, 2022. - Austria this week becomes the first European Union country to make Covid-19 vaccination legally compulsory for adults. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Dagmar Haeusler, member of the Upper Austrian state parliament and co-founder of the MFG Party. Photo: Alex Halada

Demonstrators and other opponents say the measures just create a “parallel society” — with the unvaccinated forced to do things under the radar.

According to Teufel-Lieli, there are already hairdressers willing to cater to those not vaccinated or cured, while people still have coffee together in private meet-ups, mostly organised over social networks.

“In fact, there is already this parallel community. It’s already being built. There is already everything,” she said.

The government insists the law is needed to boost the currently 72-percent vaccination rate, but says it will loosen restrictions for the unvaccinated as long as hospital capacities allow it.

“Our top priority is to keep the restrictions as minimal as possible and only [in place] for as long as absolutely necessary,” conservative Chancellor Karl Nehammer, who heads a coalition with the Greens, said last week.

As an incentive, a lottery solely for the vaccinated is being launched in mid-March, with 500-euro vouchers to be won.

Those who don’t comply with the new mandatory vaccination law can initially expect an official letter before being slapped with a fine. Checks are also to be carried out by police, including randomly in the street but with a focus on crowded areas.

More than 60 percent of Austrians support a vaccine mandate, according to a recent opinion poll by Public Opinion Strategies.

But MFG’s co-founder Gerhard Poettler stressed it should be optional.

“We are criticised for being opponents of vaccination… (but) we want to have the choice, that’s all. And not to face restrictions if we refuse,” the former health sector manager in his mid-40s told AFP.

Set up last year, MFG has 23,000 members and saw three representatives — including Haeusler — elected to Upper Austria’s 56-member state legislature in September.

READ ALSO: New Covid-sceptic party enters Austrian parliament

According to a December poll, six percent of Austrians said they would be ready to vote for MFG.

Poettler said it was a “worrying development” that shopping centres were demanding proof of vaccination or cure to enter — sometimes handing out wristbands to those allowed in — with customers even “telling on” traders who don’t do this.

“We are stigmatising part of the population,” he warned.

By Blaise Gauquelin/AFP

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EXPLAINED: How Austria’s compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

The much-debated policy sparked controversy since before it was approved in February, meaning that May could be a definitive month in the country.

EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

Austria’s Federal Government has a ticking time bomb on its hands: an ordinance that suspended its vaccine mandate law is set to expire by the end of May, which means that the controversial mandatory vaccination would be again in place as early as June 1st.

In order to keep that from happening, Austria’s Health Ministry needs to extend the current regulation or create a new one.

If it doesn’t, the Covid-19 mandatory vaccination law would automatically be back in June.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Since, by June, the vaccine mandate stated that non-vaccinated would start getting fines, the resumption of the law would mean that, from next month, those who are not vaccinated could be fined in routine checks, such as traffic checks.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage of it was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining about vaccines and about the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if they were not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

The law was suspended for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the relatively high vaccination coverage the country had already received, along with the lower virulence of the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

To create a new regulation or extend the existing one stopping people from being fined, Rauch must await the report of the vaccination commission, which should be ready in May, according to the Ministry.

The coronavirus commission will assess whether the Vaccination Act is suitable and useful from a medical and legal point of view. A previous report said there were arguments for and against mandatory vaccination for those who were completely unvaccinated.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Der Standard reports there is little political support for compulsory vaccination and says there are still technical problems regarding automated fines. However, according to the Ministry of Health, the infrastructure should be completed in June.