The Gift of the Pandemic

Some countries are eliminating their Covid restrictions, others are maintaining the status, and still others are stepping up their measures. Mandatory vaccination seems to be the decisive turning point in terms of exiting the pandemic, with two scenarios for the future. Which ‹Post-Covid-World› do we want to enter? Louis Defèche spoke with Gerald Häfner from the Section for Social Sciences at the Goetheanum about the current situation in Germany.

What is your view on mandatory vaccination?

We had a federal election in Germany half a year ago. All the major parties declared during their campaign that they wouldn’t impose mandatory vaccination. That’s what they promised. I find it remarkable how you can break your word so quickly. This does not strengthen the confidence of the population in democracy, parliaments, and politics. Of course, it is even more absurd to plan mandatory vaccination at a time when the situation has already changed completely. The virus is constantly mutating, which was clear from the beginning. At the moment, vaccinated people are just as infectious as non-vaccinated, only the course of the disease is slightly different. The virus penetrates the immune system more and more easily, you get infected faster and faster but the course of the disease is getting less and less severe. Every week, fewer hospital beds are occupied and fewer people need to be treated. Every week there are fewer deaths, many don’t even have any symptoms at all. There are very few people who are still at great risk due to certain pre-existing conditions or extreme old age. Those need to be protected. And it is important to strengthen people’s immunity. You can also do that differently. Imposing a mandatory vaccination for the entire population is neither necessary nor sensible.

How do you explain that the state acts quasi-authoritarian?

There is an atmosphere of fear. To some extent, it has been fueled. It is based on an extremely narrow and undifferentiated understanding of the disease, which only stares at the virus and sees vaccination as the only (initially also: final) solution. They went into a kind of ‹war› against the virus (Emanuel Macron) because they thought they could win. Other, more complex, differentiated views could not penetrate for a long time. Therefore, children and adults have been sent into lockdown and in many cases banned from precisely that, which helps people to build up strength against the virus. What was right in certain areas is wrong in general and in the long term. Because the virus will not disappear. We have to start learning to live with it.

At the moment, the old thinking continues because it was put on rails even though the reality is changing. Even though incidences are high, diseases are declining and the course of the disease becomes easier. This means we start to live with the virus. But institutions and politicians in some countries take a long time to react. One is trapped in the web of yesterday’s thoughts. In Germany, the debate on mandatory vaccination is now underway in parliament. It seems completely out of touch with the time. But it could also be an opportunity for an individual and collective redefinition. At least the vote was released. In other words, this is not seen as a partisan debate, but as a question of conscience. Each and every Member of parliament must therefore think for him- or herself and decide how he or she sees it. Is mandatory vaccination helpful or not? Many – including the media – see this as a weakness. The chancellor has no authority. They demand a command from the government. This shows atavistic forms of thought and debate.

Another thing is the drifting apart, even the extreme polarization of our society. This worries me a lot. We have to learn to listen to each other and work together. However, if a mandatory vaccination is now established by law, I think it is unworldly to believe that all those who have so far decided against it will enthusiastically change their minds and go to the doctor. Mandatory vaccination will not close the rifts in the population, on the contrary. The rift will continue to escalate. Many people will be even more outraged.

Even as a doctor, I don’t want to be forced to give a patient a vaccination that he actually fears and doesn’t want. It scares me what is being thought here. Especially since it is not clear where it will end. How many vaccinations are necessary? How often? Who makes the decision? In this respect, I would be happy if we looked a little more at the development and learned from it – at the numbers, at the course of the disease, or even at other countries that have long since eliminated restrictions – and step back from this populism of ‹mandatory vaccination›.

Even if the pandemic were to continue, it is a special form of ‹ethics› to force people to undergo therapy. Do we want that politically?

A lot is possible. But is it right? I do not consider mandatory vaccination to be necessary, sensible, or legitimate. My understanding of the competencies of the state ends way before that. The state must respect the dignity and freedom of every human being as well as the inviolability of the body. Let’s look back: there was the forced sterilization of disabled people. It has been attempted to prevent them from having offspring. This goes back to the Nazi era. It was called the «prevention of hereditarily ill offspring» and is related to the idea of «life unworthy of life». In the case of people who were not trusted to decide for themselves, the state decided that they would be rendered infertile. We have repealed this and said that the state must not decide such a thing. What’s more, no medical intervention may be carried out without the consent of the person concerned.

The question of the transparency of the contracts between the European Union and vaccine manufacturers is also currently part of the debate. Are you paying attention to it?

This is another dark chapter of this pandemic. At this point, I would like to say that there are also bright points. The great willingness to show solidarity, the unconditional commitment to every human life, the rapid development of vaccines to protect vulnerable people, all this is absolutely impressive! However, I find the way these vaccines are marketed and procured today simply amoral. This also applies to the profits that are achieved because of it. Certain people, companies, investors, and funds became immeasurably wealthy in a very short time due to the worldwide distress. At the same time, an additional 180 million people fell into poverty. And there are countries where people have no chance at all of getting the vaccine. If it were really about protecting all people, you could offer it at a much lower price. That means the same for everybody. But that doesn’t happen. The rich countries have secured the vaccine in exclusive contracts with exorbitant sums – and in obscene quantities. Germany alone bought 660 million doses of the vaccine. This would allow every German to be vaccinated eight times. If one shares the view that vaccination should be available to everyone, such hoarding of vaccines makes little sense.

At the same time, vaccine manufacturers were released from liability. The risk in the event of harm is borne by the customer – in this case, the state. This is what it says in various documents. But nothing is certain, because the contracts themselves will continue to be kept secret. The European Commission negotiates huge contracts, we as citizens pay and bear the consequences – but neither the public nor the European Parliament knows what they say. I find this worrying, especially since the Treaties were made at a time when there was not yet sufficient experience of the medium- and long-term consequences. And in terms of democratic politics, it is not at all acceptable.

If we look at this pandemic, the political measures, and everything that has happened as a symptom of civilizational development, what does that tell us? Are we moving towards a technocratic-hygienic civilization? Or are we learning what leads to a new understanding of living together?

At the moment we are witnessing increasing paternalism, authoritarianism, control mania, and a loss of courage for freedom and self-determination, which, combined with the new technological and psycho-technical possibilities, frightens me greatly.

But: Both is possible. Because: The future is open, despite all rumors, strategies, and doomsday scenarios. And it is in our hands.

We were actually already further along. We have seen how more and more people have already developed a kind of post-materialist thinking. Ecological awareness grew, also in connection with the climate issue. One could feel that if we want to continue living together on this planet, we must become more mindful, develop consideration, ultimately must not claim more for ourselves than we give back. We were faced with a great ecological, social, and consciousness question. Then, like a break or stop, came the pandemic – and with it the fear. But fear makes you narrow-minded, rigid, immobile. Since then, everyone stared spellbound at this virus. Many believe that this can only be solved with orders, with restrictions, with regulations, with ‹technical means› from above. Every thought has consequences. For example, if we impose mandatory vaccination in Germany, we must at the same time introduce a corresponding registration of all citizens, which does not exist for good reasons. Because information about our health status in general registers contradicts data protection, the right to informational self-determination. However, mandatory vaccination requires such a register. And it requires a government that acts accordingly. It gives birth to guardianship and surveillance – in the sense that the state determines and controls who needs to be vaccinated, when they need to be vaccinated, what they need to be vaccinated with.

These are all consequences. The Austrian Mandatory Vaccination Act, for example, requires at least three vaccinations – but the Minister of Health can order more. Then there is one, the government stands above all people and has power over how we have to be treated medically. Though this is always a highly individual issue. This is one possibility. The other is joint learning, especially from this time of the pandemic. As an anthroposophist, I believe that nothing that happens to me or to us is meaningless. And it is important to recognize the meaning. A pandemic is like a disease of humanity. It addresses a big question to us human beings. What can we learn from this? What can we take away? Corona is transmitted through the breath. The breath is something we share with all beings on this Earth – and that connects us to everyone. We are all together in this breathing space – just as we are otherwise together on this Earth, dependent on and completely responsible for each other. Like this, we can start to learn what we have to learn for each other, for the climate, for the ecology, for the Earth. Namely: How do I behave in such a way that it is also good for others? This can be practiced now. We can see that laws, coercion, and duties do not do justice to every situation and every human being. But I think it would be wonderful if we could gradually find our way from state paternalism to individual, self-determined, joint learning and practicing. Developing mindfulness in the breathing space, in our interactions with each other and with the Earth, that would be a beautiful fruit, a beautiful gift of this pandemic! I hope I can say that without being misunderstood immediately.

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