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COVID-19 Coverage

Greece and Austria are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations and fining people who refuse

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two European countries, Greece and Austria, have told their citizens to get the COVID vaccination by early next year or pay a lot of money in fines. Greece is targeting those 60 years of age or older. Austria is requiring all adults to get vaccinated. Joanna Kakissis joins us now from Athens.

Joanna, thanks so much for being with us.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And what brought on this vaccine mandate in Greece?

KAKISSIS: So basically, it was frustration over the surging numbers of infections and the fact that there wasn't enough vaccine coverage. About 63% of Greeks are vaccinated. The rest make up most of the numbers who were getting infected and intubated in hospitals and even dying. The government did try to manage the surge by banning the unvaccinated from indoor spaces like restaurants, cafes, you know, cinemas. But that did not bring up the vaccination rate. So the Greek prime minister took what even he thinks is a drastic step, which is mandating the vaccination of seniors, who are more vulnerable to the virus. Those 60 and older are more likely to get seriously ill from COVID, to be intubated in hospitals, to die. To get a sense of the number of seniors who are not vaccinated, that's about a half a million Greeks. And now they have to get their shots by mid-January or pay monthly fees of 100 euros, which works out to be about $114. And that doesn't sound like a lot of money in the U.S., but in Greece, it's a lot of money because the average pension here is about $800 a month.

SIMON: And what's the reaction been like?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, those who are vaccinated support it, and they say, you know, the Greek economy cannot afford another lockdown. But, you know, the unvaccinated say it's totally undemocratic and point out, hey, you know, Greece is the land where democracy was created. The prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, told the cabinet that, you know, this decision personally tortured him. And here he is, explaining why he went forward with the vaccine requirement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He's saying it's not punishment. It's the price of health, and it's also an act of justice for the many Greeks who are vaccinated. He said it's not right that these Greeks are deprived of health care services because the unvaccinated are stubbornly refusing to do the obvious. Mitsotakis says any fines collected from the unvaccinated will go to Greek hospitals, which are stretched very thin right now.

SIMON: Joanna, why are there so many people in Greece who are unvaccinated?

KAKISSIS: You know, many Greeks do not trust the government or the media, and they don't trust information coming from these sources. Some of them think that the media is peddling information that is tainted about vaccines or that the government is promoting shady interests that are associated with vaccines. Some of this disinformation is actually coming from Western Europe - you know, countries like Germany and Austria, where there are influential anti-vaxxer movements. And speaking of Austria, earlier this month, the government there said all adults must be vaccinated by February, or they could face thousands of dollars in fines.

SIMON: Joanna, what's the sense you get now as to whether the - what I'll call the ultimatums on vaccines seems to be working?

KAKISSIS: Initial reports show that they probably are working, that they seem to be working. In Greece, the number of vaccination appointments has tripled. In Austria, despite major protests, vaccination coverage has surged in the last month. And even Germany is talking about a vaccine mandate now. I think what's happening is that European governments really want to get ahead of the omicron variant of COVID. And you know, they're saying, look, scientists say vaccination is still the best shield against serious illness.

SIMON: Joanna Kakissis in Athens, thanks so much for being with us.

KAKISSIS: Thanks so much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVEN WUNDER'S "LILY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.