Would vaccine mandates work for Germany?

Back in 2009 l did a year-long masters programme on Middle Eastern politics. For my dissertation I wrote about US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq after the invasion in 2003.

I read the accounts of policy makers and soldiers, who described the cognitive dissonance that was taking place in Washington at the time.

The US military and its allies had arrived as liberators - armed with democracy and freedom - yet after only a few months of occupation a violent rebellion sprung up that seemed to grow in strength the more the US captured or killed its members.

For years after 2003, Washington policy makers were trapped in a form of self-deception. Convinced that they were bringing progress, they couldn’t understand why normal people were siding with the extremists and not with them.

This led to a zero-tolerance approach to dissent. Insurgents’ family members were detained as a means of coercion. Entire villages were encircled with barbed wire. The Marines’ counter-insurgency manual didn’t distinguish between student protests, workers’ strikes and armed attacks.

The result - wholly unsurprising in hindsight - was the creation of a population that loathed the occupying forces and was prepared to open their doors to armed rebels. Locals confronted with US strong-arm tactics didn’t see democrats, they just saw foreign soldiers.

The most influential advisors in the White House at the time were not Middle East experts versed in the complexities of Shia-Sunni-Kurdish ethnic disputes. They were Chicago academics, who understood history in terms of wooly ideas like “democratization theory.”

It took three years, and hundreds of thousands of deaths, before these wonks lost the President’s ear and a new strategy based on working with the traditional Iraqi leadership emerged. Compromising with reality finally brought results.

Perhaps it is hyperbolic to compare a strategy that ended in bloody civil war with pandemic-struck Europe today, but I can’t help but notice a similar contradiction in the logic of current policy-making.

Pandemic policies hare presupposed on the belief that the government knows what’s best. And if the population can’t see that, then coercion is a justifiable, even necessary, means of making them obey.

Advisors to the German government have repeatedly emphasized that the vaccine is the only way out of the pandemic. And if there is only one way out of a crisis, it makes sense that basic liberties must be sacrificed until that thing has been established. The end justifies some rather dubious means.

Public life was halted for over a year while the vaccine was being developed and distributed. In an echo of counter-insurgency strategy, quarantined housing blocks were fenced off and guarded. Young people who were at minimal risk of suffering serious illness were restricted to their homes. Transgressors faced heavy fines.

For German policy makers, the logic of waiting for the vaccines is self-evident. They are safe and effective and offer the only sensible repost to the virus. They have been so convinced of this logic that they fail to even recognize that their policies have driven many people into the arms of the Querdenker movement.

When the intelligence services warn of increased radicalization among Querdenker, the establishment response is to tut about the poorly educated masses who’ve been tricked by conspiracy theorists on social media. They are incapable of comprehending their own role in the crisis.

For authoritarian politicians like Bavaria’s Markus Söder the solution is clear - we need coercion on vaccines to tackle low take up and more surveillance of the extremists.

By the logic of the past 20 months, this makes sense. After all, the vaccine is the only way out of this.

More careful people might look at the riots that have engulfed the Netherlands and Belgium in recent days, or the mass protests in Vienna, and wonder if coercion that intrudes inside people’s bodies is such a good idea.

What will be necessary to make such mandates effective? Will the police be given powers to ask for vaccine passports on the street? Will refuseniks face prison?

Such a strategy not only seems reckless, it is unnecessary. Vaccines were never the only way out of this crisis.

In fact, the wild optimism that they would be able to stop sickness and transmission has proved to be a delusion - one that politicians probably should have been more careful about encouraging.

It remains a mystery to me why restrictions were not completely lifted in either of the past two summers, something that would have allowed for people to build immunity at a time when our natural defences are strong and when the health system can cope. Research in the UK has found that the ending of measures there in July has helped stopped a winter surge now.

Secondly, the belief that “vaccines are the only way out of this” has been zealously interpreted to mean that everyone has to get vaccinated.

The absurdity of this zealotry can be seen in the goings-on in Bayern Munich’s dressing room, where footballers who refuse to get jabbed are in a standoff with the club, which has fined them. The chances of a young athlete like Serge Gnabry or Joshua Kimmich ending up on an intensive care ward are vanishingly thin - but they are still expected to fulfill a creepy societal duty of acting as a Vorbild.

A sensible government would have hedged its bets by investing in health care resources, allowing young people to live their lives and build up natural immunity, while targeting vaccines at those who need them.

Instead Berlin politicians have reduced their circle of advisors to a few lab geeks with no experience in politics, whose solutions are too mechanistic to account for their unpredictable side effects on human behaviour.

If Iraq has anything to teach us it’s this: if a population is becoming increasingly radicalized as you pursue a good policy, perhaps its time to reassess that policy.