LONDON — The divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated when it comes to Covid-19 is likely to become even deeper, with officials in the U.S. and Europe planning, or introducing, an increasing number of restrictions on people who haven’t gotten a Covid shot.
Almost all governments around the world have so far resisted making Covid vaccination mandatory for their citizens, although many have introduced forms of Covid vaccination certificates, passes or passports that allow the immunized bearer more freedoms and work opportunities than unvaccinated people.
Aspects of daily life are increasingly complicated for anyone who is not vaccinated against Covid, and there is a rising sense of anger and injustice among those who reject the vaccine.
Vaccine fault lines
Despite protests among groups against such moves, the freedom to travel, work, socialize and engage in leisure activities is increasingly determined by our Covid vaccination status.
Nationally the U.S. has ruled out making Covid vaccination mandatory, rejecting the concept of vaccination passports back in April due to concerns over privacy and citizens’ rights. But some states are moving toward more restrictions for unvaccinated people.
Covid vaccinations are now mandatory for New York City’s municipal workers, and from mid-September proof of inoculation will be required from employees and customers of indoor eateries, gyms and entertainment centers. Meanwhile, workers in health care facilities in California will be required to provide proof that they’ve been fully vaccinated against Covid from October. On Monday, the Pentagon said it plans to make Covid vaccination mandatory for military service members no later than mid-September.
France, Greece and the U.K. are among European countries mandating vaccinations for health professionals or home care staff. In China, some local governments have reportedly said students will not be allowed back to school in September unless their entire family is fully vaccinated. In Australia, some states in lockdown are allowing only vaccinated people back to work and have said restrictions will be lifted only when a majority of people are immunized.
A large number of European countries now require travelers to show they are fully vaccinated, provide proof of a negative Covid test, or show that they have recovered from a recent infection. Otherwise, they must quarantine.
“I ask all those who have been vaccinated to encourage their friends, acquaintances and family members to also get vaccinated,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday, shortly after new measures were announced in that country. ”This is not only a protection for us, but also for others who cannot be vaccinated — children or people with previous illnesses.”
‘Blackmail’ and ‘dictatorship’
There are many individuals who are unhappy about the trend toward differentiating between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Marco De Matteo, a young Neapolitan man who is a travel enthusiast, is angry about the situation in Italy where a “green pass” has been introduced, likening the situation to a “health and economic dictatorship.”
“Those in power are limiting, by law, individuals’ freedom and dignity,” he said. “The imposition of the green pass in the world of work, both in the public and in the private sector … is breaking society apart,” he told CNBC.
The pass is a digital or paper certificate that shows if someone has received at least one shot of a vaccine, has tested negative or has recently recovered from the coronavirus. The pass is now needed for any Italian citizen to access indoor bars and restaurants, cinemas, museums or gyms and will soon be required for travel and some jobs, such as teachers. Those who refuse will be suspended.
De Matteo, and many others who are also concerned about encroachment on civil liberties, recognizes the need to protect the health of the community. But he says that for him “there are many doubts both about the nature of the virus and about the vaccine.” He also regrets negative stereotypes attributed to people that object to Covid vaccines.
“In Italy, many people are organizing peaceful demonstrations — people from all walks of life and economic backgrounds who care about everyone’s freedom, dignity and health — but they are labeled as conspiracy theorists,” he said.
Vaccine skepticism and outright anti-vaccination sentiment have become rife since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, coinciding with disinformation and misinformation on social media that can ultimately endanger lives. Clinical trials, peer-reviewed by international medical journals, have shown that vaccination reduces the spread of the virus and contributes to reducing deaths and severe illness.
Medical professionals, such as Dr. Scott Gottlieb, have repeatedly spoken of the benefits of vaccination. Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, also told CNBC last month that people who have previously been infected with the coronavirus would still benefit from receiving Covid vaccines.
French yoga teacher Amel Lamloum told CNBC back in January that she didn’t see the advantages of having the Covid vaccine, given her young age (30) and good health.
Speaking to CNBC again Thursday, Lamloum said she still had not received the vaccine and was even more reluctant to do so now, given what she saw as “blackmail” by the French government to do so.
“I really think society has changed and that there is no justice anymore,” she said, adding that she no longer trusted the government and had prepared herself to adjust how she lived.
“Many, many people will not get the vaccine, for sure, and we will have to live in a side society and we are ready for it, we are ready for everything.”
Why the reluctance?
For millions of people who have been happy and willing to receive a Covid vaccine, the rollout of vaccination programs has offered protection against a highly transmissible virus. It’s also allowed a return to much-missed freedoms, from seeing loved-ones and socializing to shopping and traveling.
But others across the U.S. and Europe see vaccination programs with ambivalence or worse.
Some have been critical of the speed of Covid vaccine development, distrusting clinical data on the efficacy and long-term safety credentials of Covid vaccines. Others have questioned why they need a shot when Covid can be a mild or asymptomatic illness for many people, especially the young.
Public bodies like the World Health Organization have repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of vaccinating as many people as possible against Covid to curb the spread of the disease and allow a return to a normal societal functioning. Covid vaccines have been proven in extensive clinical trials involving hundreds of thousands of people to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death.
What’s less certain for experts is how long immunity lasts and whether future Covid variants could undermine vaccine efficacy. Many governments are weighing up the merits of booster vaccines too but for now, the main priority is to encourage vaccine uptake among the completely unvaccinated.
Who is most vaccine resistant?
Public confidence in vaccines, or the flipside of vaccine hesitancy, differs wildly from country to country and is often informed by the public’s trust in government and health care systems. France, for example, is renowned for a high rate of vaccine hesitancy, while vaccine uptake in the U.K. has traditionally been high.
One survey showed vaccine opposition highest in Russia, followed by the U.S., according to a global poll of 15 countries carried out by data intelligence company Morning Consult in July and August. With 43,054 interviews conducted in the U.S. alone, the percentage of people unwilling or uncertain about getting a Covid vaccine stood at 30%.
Young adults have a lower vaccine rate in every country that was tracked except in China, the poll also found, although that data could also reflect the speed and breadth of vaccination programs; some young adults are yet to be fully vaccinated in a number of countries polled.
Adults in the U.S. appear to be the most consistent when it comes to vaccine skepticism; the share of vaccine skeptics in the U.S. has remained at 30% for the past four weeks, Morning Consult said, and that share has only fallen by 4 percentage points since it began tracking in mid-April.
“Over that same time period, in the other 14 countries tracked, the share of skeptics has dropped by an average of 13 points, more than triple the decline in skepticism seen in the U.S.. No other country has seen a smaller decline,” Morning Consult noted.
The top reasons given for uncertainty over vaccines were concerns over side effects and worries that clinical trials had been conducted too fast.
Back in Europe, parts of the leisure sector are being affected directly by the new rules. In Belgium, for instance, some soccer clubs are opening separate spectator stands for those who are unvaccinated. In the U.K., only the fully vaccinated will soon be able to enter a nightclub.
A number of countries have gone further, introducing types of Covid vaccination “passes” or “passports” at the national level, prompting criticism from some quarters.
France has introduced a “health pass,” meaning that individuals have to prove they are fully vaccinated, recently tested negative, or have recently recovered from the virus if they want to access cafes, restaurants, cinemas, museums and theaters. The pass has proved controversial, stoking protests attracting thousands of people who say the pass restricts civil liberties.
Germany looks to be heading in a similar direction, aiming to encourage vaccine uptake by ending free, government-paid Covid tests while requiring anyone who’s not fully vaccinated (excluding children) to present a negative Covid test in order to access indoor spaces and events.
“Tests are therefore becoming a prerequisite, for example, for access to hospitals, old people’s and nursing homes, indoor catering, events and celebrations, but also for visits to the hairdresser or the cosmetic studio. The same applies to indoor sports or accommodation, for example in hotels and guest houses,” the government said on Tuesday.
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion Inc. and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ and Royal Caribbean’s “Healthy Sail Panel.”