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An exercise in futility

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WORLD Radio - An exercise in futility

The attempt to stamp out COVID with strict lockdown restrictions hasn’t worked


Stanislav Shkoborev/iStock image

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 10th of February, 2022.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: strategies used by governments to deal with COVID.

Mask mandates, lockdowns, border closures, vaccine passports. Governments used them all in an attempt to stop the virus. But it’s been two years and it’s still with us.

How have these strategies helped or harmed?

WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown reports.

PENATZER: When I got here in the summer, you needed a test to go just about anywhere or…vaccination card.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: Kyrie Penatzer moved to Vienna last summer. She’s not vaccinated, but she’s already had COVID.

PENATZER: In the beginning, they were also accepting antibody tests. And so I was able to get around pretty freely because I had an antibody test and you just had to update it every three months.

Then Omicron came around and cases started rising. In November, Austria instituted a blanket vaccine mandate for all residents. If you’d had COVID within the last six months, you could get an exception. But antibody tests no longer counted as proof of immunity. Penatzer was already testing daily. But without proof of vaccination…

PENATZER: You could basically go to work. And the grocery store and the pharmacy, and we could still go to church. But other than that, we couldn’t do anything.

About 75 percent of Austrians are fully vaccinated and cases have started to fall. But in January, the government doubled down on its vaccine mandate. Starting next month, police will be conducting “routine checks” of residents’ vaccination status. If you can’t prove you’re vaccinated or recently recovered, you’ll be fined anywhere from $600 to $4,000—every three months. Penatzer says the number keeps changing.

PENATZER: They’ve been so vague about how they’re going to enforce it. Like they said, at one point, you'd be fined 2000 euros. And then just today, I read 3000 euros. And you know that they are saying these huge numbers in order to scare people into getting vaccinated.

Austrian officials say the mandate and fines are necessary to avoid future lockdowns. Austria’s minister for the EU and Constitution says mandatory vaccination is an “interference with human rights." But in this case, she believes it’s justified as the only way to keep COVID at bay.

Austria has some of the strictest COVID policies in Europe. On the other end of the spectrum, the United Kingdom has some of the loosest. After cases peaked in early January and then plummeted dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made this announcement.

JOHNSON: The government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere. In the country at large we will continue to suggest the wearing of face masks, but we will trust the judgment of the British people.

The UK has no vaccine requirements, and no restrictions on travel or gatherings.

How did two countries come to such opposite conclusions?

ADALJA: I think it really stems from trying to be clear on what the goals are.

Amesh Adalja is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

ADALJA: There are many countries that I think have failed to come to terms with the idea of COVID-19 becoming an endemic respiratory virus, one that is with us year in and year out, and is going to be akin to other respiratory viruses. If you have a COVID zero idea as your goal, then there's a totally different means that are going to be employed. Even though they're going to be futile and non sustainable, you still see some countries clinging to it.

Adalja says “COVID Zero” isn’t possible or even necessary, as the severity of Covid continues to wane. And trying to achieve COVID Zero just creates more bitterness and division.

Kate Scheutze is a Pacific researcher for Amnesty International. She’s been keeping tabs on Fiji’s Covid policies. Instead of blanket vaccine mandates like Fiji has, she says educating people and providing information is a better strategy.

SCHEUTZE: I think the challenge with Fiji is the response is to shut down critics immediately, rather than to engage in open discussion around those who might have opposing views.

In August, Fiji instituted a “no jab, no job” policy: If you weren’t vaccinated, you couldn’t work. But people in Fiji didn’t have good access to the vaccines. And they didn’t have access to good information about the vaccines either.

SCHEUTZE: And the challenge with that, when you're talking about something with vaccines is, is people have legitimate concerns that might need to be addressed by medical professionals around, you know, what are the consequences if you're a pregnant woman? When should you get a vaccine if you've just recovered from COVID?

Amesh Adalja thinks vaccine mandates might actually do more harm than good.

ADALJA: And I think it's just going to continue to fester and build on it and we're going to have, you know, an anti-vaccine movement on steroids. It's being sort of aided and abetted by poor government policy.

Adalja says most governments had no idea what to do with a virus like COVID. So they resorted to blunt instruments like lockdowns. But new research shows that most lockdown policies weren’t effective.

Johns Hopkins just released a study about the effect of lockdowns on COVID-19 mortality rates. In other words, did lockdowns save lives? The study defined a lockdown as any non-pharmaceutical intervention, such as restricting travel, limiting gatherings, and closing schools. The conclusion? Lockdowns in Europe and the United States reduced COVID mortality by 0.2 percent. Even strict shelter in place orders only bumped that number to 2.9 percent. The study’s authors wrote that lockdowns are not effective at protecting public health. And they have “imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted.”

Many governments said mass vaccination would be the ticket to a normal life. But that depends on what you mean by “normal.” Amesh Adalja says that, even with vaccines, COVID is here to stay.

ADALJA: Because we know that Omicron’s immune evasive properties allow it to get around the protection afforded by vaccines, or get around the protection afforded by prior infection. So I don't think that vaccine passports or government issued vaccine requirements are the way to go about this at this point.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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