Vaccine debate: Against the constant stirring up of hatred
A call to reflect on what we are actually doing and how we talk to and about each other – for one and a half years
by Ortwin Rosner
[This article published on October 7, 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet.]
The turquoise Minister of Labor, Martin Kocher, has truly succeeded in the very big PR coup when he decreed that unemployed and minimum income recipients should be cut off their money if they are unvaccinated and therefore cannot accept a job. In an ingenious way, he has thus combined the already sufficiently general resentment against the long-term unemployed with the catastrophic image of the "vaccine refuser" and thus created the ultimate enemy image: Because what is worse than one who is unemployed and unvaccinated!
This is a fine example of how a politician is abusing the heated mood in the pandemic to capitalise on his own causes that have nothing to do with Corona. Corona serves him only as a pretext to implement a neoliberal program from which he made no secret when he took office:fewer unemployment benefits, fewer pensions and longer working hours, tax cuts for corporations, working on Sundays.
The situation may be similar with Zurich's health director Nathalie Rickli, a member of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), who has gone so far as to put the following in the room: Anyone who is an opponent of vaccination "should actually fill out a living will, in which he confirms that he does not want hospital and intensive care in the event of a Covid illness. That would be real personal responsibility." A radical speech, which she immediately relativized again, but which made its waves into the Austrian media landscape and demonstrated how the protagonists at the levers of power try to sound out how far they can go in the current situation. For the time being, it was just a thought experiment. Temporary.
Aggressive propaganda against a population group
The social mood that is being made against the unvaccinated is indeed gradually becoming eerie. Because if it is possible to create such a gruesome mood against a certain population group, then also against any other. This is interchangeable. It can also affect you or me tomorrow if the situation is like that. A separate group dynamic has been set in motion. That is why none of us should be indifferent to this, even if we are vaccinated, even if we disagree with those affected on the matter itself.
The speeches are literally overflowing, and the lowest instincts are being used. "Full hardness against the unvaccinated," a free newspaper, for example, literally beats in a jubilant tone on its front page. ¹ But anyone who openly opposes vaccination is automatically accused of making common cause with "lateral thinkers". This is what happened, for example, with the television stars Nina Proll and Til Schweiger. The actress Eva Herzig is depicted by the boulevard like a criminal and written about it in large letters "vaccine denier". ² Whatever this word is supposed to mean, the main thing is that it sounds horrible.
The general tenor is that this population group does not deserve pity, and it must be cracked down on. For example, in the words of the President of the Association of Municipalities Alfred Riedl, who according to a report³ "tears the thread of patience" and who takes the view that consideration for these people "is not feasible". They should, as the catchy wording in the report says, "be asked to pay".
Such inhuman language prepares the ground for more. Above all, it is worrying how unvaccinated people are only portrayed as a danger and burden for the general public, as a cost factor, as an obstacle, as a disturbance, as a culprit, as a kind of well poisoner, who are to blame for illness and death due to their iniquity. They are accused of "lack of solidarity", "selfishness" and "irresponsibility". They seem to be the evil in themselves. The only thing missing is that someone puts into the world that they are "greedy", and the structural anti-Semitism would be perfect. Hardly any more is spoken of them as of equal subjects, rather as of mere objects with which one has to proceed one way or another. The analogy to para-fascist stigmatization and exclusion processes is obvious, even if the participants are not aware of it.
Unfortunately, this also applies to the chairwoman of the Bioethics Commission, Christiane Druml, who should actually know better. Although she rejects Rickli's idea of refusing treatment to unvaccinated Covid patients in an interview, she ultimately does not take a fundamentally different position on this if she considers it quite conceivable to discuss that such patients have to pay for the costs themselves. It is downright shocking that an ethics expert does not notice that with such a speech she is taking part in a social parasite debate from the bottom drawer. In a broader context, she euphemistically speaks of "motivation" for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. In fact, with her statements, she is working to create a social climate of intimidation, fear and denunciation. If you call this "motivation", then you are of course not completely wrong.
Vaccination apartheid and the brutalization of public discourse
The pressure that now weighs on the unvaccinated is indeed massive. In view of this, it is audacity when Druml, and with her the government politicians and many opinion makers, assert that there is no compulsory vaccination. In the strict sense of the word, this does not exist, but in fact everything is now arranged in such a way that unvaccinated people are hardly able to live a normal life due to the constant obligation to test. In addition, they are deprived of basic rights in turn. De facto, therefore, a compulsory vaccination has long been exercised.
With the introduction of the 2G rule in Vienna, unvaccinated people are excluded from significant social participation. One is not afraid to divide the population into two parts, one that, in druml's words, "should get its rights back" and one that is not the case. But this language alone is treacherous: it is the language of princes who speak of rights as well as acts of mercy that are granted. Such words express the prevailing neo-feudal or post-democratic social order, in which the decision-making social classes only negotiate about those affected, but do not talk to them on an equal footing.
In the meantime, there is even a demand to exclude unvaccinated people from university life. At the latest here, however, the alarm bells should ring in our heads. When people are sorted out in this way, it is ultimately about the setting of measures that are increasingly reminiscent of concepts of totalitarian states that were actually believed to have been overcome. How is it possible, one has to ask oneself, that we are debating such a thing, how can such a proposal be announced and seriously considered in public? What must have happened in the last year and a half? What must have changed in our minds during this time? Because before the pandemic, it would have been inconceivable that something similar would have been even considered.
One explanation lies in the language we use, which affects our thinking. I have already warned elsewhere about the brutalization of public discourse that manifested itself in the course of the Corona crisis. For a year and a half, people have made it a habit to cover dissenters with aggressive invective and derogatory fighting words. Without ceasing, all those who deviated from a certain line were covered with a bombardment of such expressions, exposed to constant contempt as "covidiots," "conspiracy theorists" and "Aluhuträger. With the means of language, one has successively dehumanized a part of the population. Only against the background of these dehumanizing terms, to which we have become accustomed, is it possible to understand that the fate of the unvaccinated is now being discussed as if it were that of basically lawless subhumans.
In addition, the cognitive ability to differentiate has been completely lost through the excessive use of nebulous fighting terms. Equations are constantly being suggested that are simply not true. For example of the following kind: "Corona denier" = "lateral thinker" = "right-wing extremist" = "conspiracy theorist" = "covidiot" = "Aluhuträger" = "mask denier" = "vaccination denier".
Are vaccination opponents the same as right-wing extremists?
All this is more or less lumped together. What is completely ignored is what is basically known, namely that the critics of the measures are in fact a highly heterogeneous group and represent their positions from completely different ideological backgrounds. However, one also clearly sees that this long chain of false equations carries the aggression, which is directed against the currently last link of the chain, precisely against the "vaccination refusers". For these are somehow attributed in a blurred way to the "corona deniers", "right-wing extremists" and "covidiots".
Yet it is precisely those who have chosen not to be vaccinated who often have nothing whatsoever to do with "Corona deniers." On the contrary, they are often people who are very afraid of corona. But they do not really trust the mRNA vaccination. And here there is another equation, which is simply not true. Namely, when people who have decided against the Corona vaccination are labeled "vaccination opponents" or "vaccination refusers". There one imagines any in the Middle Ages stuck fools, who are against vaccinations at all. However, this is true in very few cases. Most of the public's concerns are specifically about the mRNA vaccination method, and that is neither groundless nor irrational for such a completely novel biotechnology.
As an example may serve the courageous outing of the system consultant, lawyer and writer Mechtild Blankenagel in the "Berliner Zeitung", who took the not small risk to admit in public that she is unvaccinated and to explain her point of view. Anyone who is willing to do so can read this text, and then he will see that this woman has nothing in common with an angry nonsense-talking Attila Hildmann, a recklessness-preaching Herbert Kickl or a wild-eyed QAnon conspiracy theorist of the caliber of Xavier Naidoo. You don't have to agree with her, but she explains calmly, reasonably and comprehensibly how she arrived at her position. Touching and crystal clear, she also expresses the dilemma in which people find themselves who have decided against vaccination:
"I object to the fact that I, as a mature person who thinks for myself, am readily labeled a conspiracy theorist and a corona denier. People like me, who are not conspirators and do not deny Corona and yet do not immediately and enthusiastically vaccinate, do not officially exist in our country. At best, I am regarded as someone who has been too lazy so far, who just needs to overcome his inertia or his 'inner pig dog', as Robert Habeck puts it, in order to take the only correct and only acceptable action. The fact that I have - after thorough and ever new reflection - very many well-founded reservations in me, does not appear in the media and political reporting about 'vaccination refusers' like me."
Moreover, Blankenagel reveals with a few apt words the absurdity inherent in the stereotypical notion of the fundamentally "selfish unvaccinated": "[...] I derive no benefit from this status, at least I do not feel it, on the contrary. [...] If I would just get vaccinated, here and now, I would save myself a lot of stress."
Indeed, couldn't one just as well, or even more justifiably, call the vaccinated "egoists"? Are they not, in fact, the ones who have made themselves comfortable without thinking of the consequences?
Unvaccinated as scapegoats
It is obvious that the unvaccinated have become scapegoats. They have to serve as scapegoats for a Corona policy that has never been able to keep its promises from beginning to end. Let's look back a year and a half. What was said then, in the spring of 2020? "Flatten the curve," was the slogan back then. A few weeks of lockdown, a little perseverance, and then it will all be over, then we can hug our grandma and grandpa again, we were promised. What were we promised in the summer of 2020? Wear the masks, there is "light at the end of the tunnel". What was the result? The next lockdown in the fall of 2020, followed by a rather chaotic back and forth of lockdown and opening steps that extended well into the spring of 2021. As a result of all these harsh and sometimes confusing measures, a huge number of people lost their jobs, became economically ruined and mentally ill. Nevertheless, the majority of the population obediently went along with it. Then we were promised the salvation of vaccination, that it would bring the end of the pandemic.
The fact is: all these measures never brought what we were promised. Even with vaccination, it was soon clear that it could not deliver the promised "herd immunity" because it did not work as expected. This is because even those who have been vaccinated twice transmit the virus, and even fall ill and die from it. There have been major problems and even deaths with AstraZeneca's vaccine. With all that has happened in the past year and a half, politicians and opinion leaders should not be surprised at the distrust they are met with. And they should be less scolding about the "vaccination refusers" and more humbly glad that no major unrest has broken out yet. It is an impertinence, but logical, that those who are responsible for this whole misery and have always predicted wrong things are now haughtily pointing the finger at others and pillorying them. After all, you need a scapegoat to distract you from your own failures.
Restriction of what can be said and Böhmermann as chief virologist
It is alarming how even people who are mildly critical of government policy are now coming under fire. The absurd forms this can take are illustrated by a particularly curious example from Germany. The TV presenter Markus Lanz was accused by the news magazine "Der Spiegel" of being "responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Why? Well, he had invited the "wrong" experts, those who should not be invited, namely Alexander Kekulé and Hendrik Streeck.
Now one must know what these two virologists are about. They are by no means nonsense-spewing "corona deniers", but internationally renowned experts, and they by no means advise against vaccination. They nevertheless question the nature of the discourse on the subject, and Kekulé admits: "Even among seasoned virologists and immunologists, there are few who can comprehensively assess the benefits and potential risks of mRNA and vector vaccines." Such thoughtful statements, however, are now enough to get one labeled with the popular fighting term "controversial" and lose one's good reputation.
But this debate was made particularly absurd by the interference of TV satirist Jan Böhmermann, who leveled accusations of "false balance" against Lanz: "I find it difficult when you give a stage to people who hold an opinion that you only publish because you say you have to see the other side, too." He later added on Twitter, "Opinions in the public space should stand up to strict, comprehensive media and social quality control."
But now you have to consider the absurdity of such an intervention. So a TV satirist, who himself is anything but an expert and presumably has very little idea about virology and immunology, wants to authoritatively dictate to a TV presenter who is a "real" virologist that one may invite and who is not. And he should ask himself why he claims the right to discuss the subject of Corona, when only a very select elite of experts are allowed to make more statements on the subject under strict supervision of "quality". He wants to forbid the stage to Kekulé, an expert who has been awarded numerous scientific prizes and who, after all, was an advisor to the German government in the matter of epidemic protection for many years, and to Streeck, who also enjoys a high international reputation - but he claims it for himself. And he believes that this would be the "right balance"? That is satire, though, truly.
Who is really on the right here?
There is a noticeable development toward authoritarianism. But by no means only - as it was claimed only recently by a study - with the "Corona deniers", "vaccination refusers" and so on, but just also in the middle, with the vaccination supporters. Just look at common formulations in the meantime, such as: "Those who do not want vaccination must suffer consequences". This is a return to the cane, the call for a strong hand to take action.
These authoritarian tendencies of the center are not entirely new. So far, however, they have tended to vent their aggression on individuals: For example, people rage against a writer to whom they would prefer not to award the Nobel Prize for Literature because of his politically inopportune views, they engage in "cancel culture," and political correctness has long thrived on reprimanding or even pillorying people. Yes, people are not afraid to rewrite books if the expressions used in them are ideologically unpalatable. What is new about the current situation, however, is that an entire population group is becoming the target of authoritarian aggression, and I probably don't need to explain how dangerous such a development is. In part, people here are already speaking in a tone reminiscent of the style in which they spoke about "pests of the people" almost a hundred years ago.
If a Martin Sellner or a Gottfried Küssel is spotted somewhere on the fringes of a Corona demonstration, the hysterical tabloids immediately headline it in big letters: "Right-wing march at mega-demo"⁴. But I myself see only more right-wingers everywhere, there and there, and especially among those who nowadays falsely call themselves "left-wing".
It's just that people don't know anymore what "left" really means. The awareness of this has been lost in recent decades. Once upon a time, being truly "left-wing" meant attempting something like a fundamental analysis of society as a whole, advancing a critique of existing conditions, an intellectually sophisticated critique of domination, instead of merely moralizing in all complacency, throwing slogans around and indulging in cheap accusations.
The open right-wing extremism coming from a Sellner or a Küssel is in truth insignificant, the danger emanating from an FPÖ is already more concrete, but all this worries me much less than this veiled extremism coming from the center, from people who imagine they are "left-wing", while in fact they themselves advocate more and more totalitarian positions and breed a climate of intolerance precisely in the name of anti-fascism.
It is an extremism that comes from an outrageous arrogance of the social center, which claims to be allowed to label everything that deviates from its standards with its cruel labels. For example, I wonder what is going on in the ORF news presenter Armin Wolf when he proudly presents the court decision that confirms that he is allowed to call someone a "Corona denier". Does he seriously believe that he has achieved something good for mankind? In fact, he has only contributed his mite to the progressive brutalization. If someone like that also believes that he is a "leftist," then he is thoroughly mistaken. And many people are fed up with the constant hatred that is now raging from all sides. But I myself am frightened by these developments, and I confess it openly.
Let's see what will happen in a few years.
I myself have wavered over whether or not to get vaccinated, for very similar reasons to Blankenagel. After weighing the risks, I finally decided to get the injection, but it could just as easily have turned out differently. Convinced, like so many others who eventually gave in, I did not. Who knows, in a few years I may pay for it with health difficulties I have no idea about now. Would I have my children vaccinated if I had any? I don't think so. I can only decide for myself to take this risk, not for others. That's why I certainly don't require anyone to get vaccinated, and I think it's completely illegitimate to put pressure on anyone in that direction. Such a thing has to be the decision of everyone himself.
Blankenagel has a very weighty argument on her side, which is in principle also mine as well as that of an unvaccinated friend and corresponds approximately to the above quoted statement of Kekulé: Even if now one after the other innumerable studies and experiments are shaken out of the sleeve, even if now still so many experts stand up and affirm that the vaccine is "safe": In truth nobody can know at the present time, what an mRNA vaccination causes everything in the body. Predicting the long-term consequences of Covid-19 vaccination at this time is simply impossible. These are things that won't be known for another ten years. That's why the comparison to vaccination for smallpox and measles is baseless. This is a conventional vaccination technology that has been proven over very long periods of time. So this is a completely different debate.
No approval procedure, no matter how highly developed, can offer absolute safety in the case of mRNA technology, because experience is simply lacking here, as anyone familiar with the difficult problem of drug damage can confirm. Even with conventional drugs, quite unexpected things can happen despite approval. Mechanisms of action are often very complex, and it sometimes takes a very long time before the first symptoms appear, and then it often takes many more years before they are gradually associated with a particular medical treatment. Of course, especially with such a special and novel technology as mRNA vaccination, such a scenario cannot be ruled out. Everyone who is vaccinated is taking a risk that none of us can estimate and that only everyone can decide for themselves.
Many now shake their heads at the unvaccinated, find them stupid and dangerous, or laugh at them. But who knows, maybe they're right, and in a few years we vaccinated people will actually have serious health problems, and then maybe they'll be standing next to us at the bedside and laughing at us in reverse, saying, "Why were you so stupid as to get vaccinated with a preparation where you couldn't yet know what it would do?"
And then they might think why they should pay for our hospitalization. Because that's what I want to give to the fanatics among the vaccination advocates: You can only understand what justice is if you imagine a certain scenario with reversed roles. (Ortwin Rosner, 7.10.2021)
¹ oe24, September 9, 2021
² Today, September 15, 2021 p. 10
³ Today, September 15, 2021 p. 5
⁴ oe24, September 13, 2021 p. 8