Facing a surge in coronavirus infections and stalled vaccination drives, two nations in the European Union are giving their citizens an ultimatum: take the COVID-19 vaccine or face the financial consequences.
Greece announced Tuesday that everyone 60 and older must be vaccinated by mid-January or face monthly fines of 100 euros (roughly $114).
Earlier this month, Austria said it would require its entire adult population to be vaccinated by Feb. 1. Those who refuse are set to pay up to 3,600 euros, or just over $4,000, in fines.
"It's not a punishment," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told his cabinet in a televised meeting. "I would say it is the price for health. It is also an act of justice for the vaccinated. It's not right that they are deprived of health care services because others stubbornly refuse to do the obvious."
Greece is the first EU country to target an age group with a vaccination mandate. Citing government data, Mitsotakis said about 83% of older Greeks are vaccinated. Those who are not — more than 500,000 people — are more likely to get seriously ill and die. Greece recorded more than 7,500 infections, hundreds of hospitalizations and 88 deaths on Tuesday alone, according to Greece's National Organization for Public Health.
The monthly fine for refusing the vaccine is substantial for retirees. The average pension is 730 euros a month.
Both Greece and Austria turned to compulsory vaccinations after a series of measures — including banning the unvaccinated from indoor venues — failed. Both countries have anti-vaccination movements, fueled by conspiracy theories, religion and anti-authoritarianism. In Austria, an unvaccinated far-right politician has promoted the use of the horse deworming drug ivermectin to treat COVID-19. His party joined thousands who took to the streets to protest lockdown measures and the vaccine mandate.
"Society should be sticking together, taking care of each other, in times like these but instead we are splitting into two worlds, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated," said Christine Bertl, a biochemist from Vienna who supports the mandatory vaccination effort. "And the unvaccinated think only about themselves."
Bertl added that they are refusing vaccines procured by the EU that could have gone to nations who cannot afford them.
More than 61% of Greeks and 67% of Austrians are vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, though those numbers could soon increase. Some reports show that mandates are pushing the unvaccinated to get their shots.
The vaccine mandates come as the world scrambles to respond to the new omicron variant. Scientists say omicron appears to be highly transmissible, though researchers still have limited information about the variant. Infections have already appeared in several EU nations, including Austria. Mitsotakis say he expects the variant will likely reach Greece as well.