In February, a controversial new law to make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for all over-18s in Austria was introduced.
The law, the first of its kind in the EU, was suspended by the government in March, due to the milder Omicron variant and the existing impact of Austria’s vaccination campaign.
The decision will be reviewed in the coming months and the mandate could still be introduced, if necessary.
The vaccination mandate has been a huge issue for Austria, both socially and politically, but what could the long-term impacts be?
To find out, The Local spoke to Dr Barbara Prainsack from the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna.
Attitudes towards vaccination before Covid-19
As with many controversial topics, the Covid-19 vaccination mandate led to months of debate between politicians and experts, as well as protests across the country.
But in pre-pandemic times the topic of vaccination in Austria was not so contentious, so what happened?
Dr Prainsack told The Local: “Attitudes towards vaccination weren’t as politicised as they are now [before the pandemic], but that applies to many countries as well.
“In Austria, a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment comes from esoteric circles and the German speaking world has a long tradition of different groups idealising an untainted nature.
“There are some good things that come out of it, such as organic farming, but one effect is that people idealise the natural course of things and don’t want to inject anything artificial into the body.”
A study by the University of Vienna found that people’s attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccination are largely influenced by their previous experiences of vaccination.
For example, some people that accepted the Covid-19 vaccine had an acceptance of vaccination in general. Whereas those with a rejection of all vaccinations, or concerns about the approval process, were more likely to reject the Covid-19 vaccination.
The study also revealed that trust in institutions can impact attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccination, something that has deteriorated in Austria over the course of the pandemic.
Dr Prainsack said: “We had a very high approval rate of pandemic management in the beginning then it declined sharply from as early as summer 2020.
“Trust in pandemic management and in government and other institutions has declined drastically since the early days and it’s now very low.”
In a February 2022 Statista survey, 69 percent of Austrian residents were less satisfied or not satisfied at all with how the federal government was handling the pandemic.
What caused the backlash against the Covid-19 vaccination mandate?
Figures from the Austrian Corona Panel Project (ACPP) show that the vaccination rate and the willingness amongst Austrian residents to get vaccinated stagnated at the start of 2022 – just before the mandate was set to become law.
Additionally, a poll for Profil magazine in January revealed that 51 per cent of those surveyed were against mandatory vaccination.
Dr Prainsack describes the backlash as “absolutely predictable” and says a more communicative approach to boosting vaccination rates could have been more successful.
She told The Local: “The people who already rejected vaccination were very much against it, but the people who were in the middle – those who were hesitant with concerns – would have benefited from sitting down with a doctor to answer their questions.
“Instead, the government told people they had to get vaccinated, so people thought there must be something wrong with the vaccination for there to be a mandate, which meant the sceptics were right.
“The mandate didn’t convince the anti-vaxxers and it lost the support of many of those that were sceptical but might have eventually got vaccinated if there wasn’t a mandate.”
According to Dr Prainsack, the pandemic and debates surrounding the mandate has increased the politicisation of vaccination in Austria, and resulted in less attention being placed on other societal concerns.
She said: “The mandate changed Austria in the sense it has contributed to the further politicisation of vaccinations, and the radicalisation of vaccination opponents.
“As a society, we lost a lot of time discussing a vaccination mandate instead of discussing more important issues, such as, how do we protect people who are vulnerable besides increasing vaccination uptake?”
What could be the long-term impacts on Austria?
The Covid-19 vaccination mandate might be suspended for now, but the episode has left questions about the long-term impacts of the controversial measure in Austria.
Dr Prainsack said: “This will depend on the political situation and if the government now tackles the important issues, learns from their mistakes and drops the idea of the vaccination mandate.
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“I’m not saying that vaccination is not important – it’s possibly more important than ever. One reason Omicron is less severe is due to immunity from vaccination, which means less people are being hospitalised.
“We should continue to think about how to get more people vaccinated but also consider issues like moving people above the poverty line, and helping people that need psychological support, childcare or affordable housing.
“These issues are relevant for the next healthcare crisis – and they should be high on the agenda of the government.”
Since the suspension of the mandate, the federal government has launched a new campaign to encourage more people to get vaccinated under the slogan #GemeinsamGeimpft (vaccinated together).