Playing Politics With The Vaccine, Risks At Home And Abroad

From the viewpoint of an economist specializing in social protection issues, France's move toward vaccination mandates comes with major risks.

A protester holding up a "no-vaccine" sign in Paris
Frédéric Bizard


PARIS Can its vaccination policy tell you a country's political regime? Amid the pandemic, vaccines have become a political tool, and the way a country chooses to wield it can make a major difference on multiple fronts.

Take for example the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia. Both countries quickly turned the vaccine into a tool of political propaganda on the international scene, hoping it would demonstrate the effectiveness of their regimes and paint them in a benevolent light. For them, the vaccine is decidedly political.

In contrast, some democracies are neutral; others have also used vaccines politically, though typically more for domestic purposes. Former U.S. President Donald Trump was focused on his impending November 2020 election. He applied a "whatever it takes' mantra toward getting the U.S. vaccine campaign off the ground.

Meanwhile, in France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on July 12 that the country's vaccination policy would become much stricter. Most French people appreciated the move, their highly centralized state reaffirming its sovereignty, solidifying chances that the Machiavelli-inspired presidential initiative would find success months before the reelection campaign kicks off.

Yet, even while using vaccines as a political tool may be politically advantageous and benefit public health in the short term, it may be detrimental in the long term.

First, this approach is not generally applicable to all democracies. Germany, the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand have taken a decidedly apolitical approach to the crisis and their vaccination campaigns.

Using only scientific data and expert recommendations, these countries have made decisions in a rather consensual way, avoiding campaigns intended to target or exploit rival parties. And so far, analysis shows that, at this stage, this approach yields better results.

President Macron's act of authority — the creation of the "health pass' system where the French populace will need to show either a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to participate in various public activities — took the French political class and the general public by surprise. It was clear that the move had not involved widespread consultation but was Macron's initiative.

Public health is based on both an individual and collective commitment.

The move seems to have had the desired effect: it worked both in politics and in terms of accelerating appointments for vaccination, as thousands rushed to sign up for their first doses. However, we will have to wait to verify if it is effective in the long term. Nonetheless, this episode speaks volumes about the state of French public health and the functioning of our democracy.

Public health is based on both the individual and collective commitment to protecting and improving one's personal health and that of the wider population. The French healthcare system is still focused on simply managing and responding to diseases, with only marginal interventions toward expanding healthy practices. Neither the collective nor the preventive approach has been integrated into the current model. We operate in a public health system that is 90% punishment and 10% incentive, which is guaranteed to fail at changing individual behavior.

Macron"s unilateral move undermines any attempt to develop a sense of individual responsibility in regards to health, which is a foundational part of creating health policy in a democracy and is almost non-existent in our current health system and management of the crisis. After 20 years of state control of the healthcare system, we are witnessing, with a certain consistency and yet the same inefficiency, state control of the management of the health crisis. It is the central state that decides everything, with the most rigid, inflexible attitude.

French President Emmanuel Macron visting the SAnofi vaccine factory in June 2020 — Photo: Pool/Abaca/ZUMA Press

The British rely heavily on individual responsibility. It is embedded in their culture. In the UK, the number of daily cases is over 35,000, but the daily deaths remain under 50. At the peak of the pandemic, the number of cases was twice as high, while the death toll was 30 times higher.

This proves that at this stage the vaccine is effective in protecting us from a spike in deaths. Fragile people have had time to be vaccinated, the vaccines are available and it is up to everyone to make it their responsibility now. The British state liberates society whereas the French state constrains it even more, all the while our situation is still less precarious than theirs.

France is in a vicious circle where the sovereign relishes exercising his power, but the people still expect too much from him. This situation is the source of many of our society's ills: the generalized mistrust in the powers-that-be, lack of social cohesion and French society's low confidence regarding the country's future. Measures such as compulsory vaccination or the abrupt application of the "health pass' are likely to exacerbate pre-existing distrust and societal fractures in the long term. Yes: These two instruments are essential to putting an end to the pandemic. The answer is to make them as popular as possible.

There is the tendency to see vaccine policy through a national lens.

Another pitfall of the politicization of vaccines is the tendency to see it through a national lens, rather than an international one, when developing their vaccine strategy. The same selfishness we would denounce at the individual level is multiplied by 10 at the national level. While more than 50% of the population of European countries and the United States are vaccinated, less than 1% of the population of poor countries have gotten the jab. Rich countries" obsession with vaccinating those under 18 years of age and preparing stocks for a third booster dose completely ignores the reality of the unvaccinated global south.

But can we blame the leaders of these democratic countries for doing everything in their power to protect their populations and win votes for upcoming elections? This is where the limits of democracies, as identified by Alexis de Tocqueville, come into play — and they are hardly compatible with the global fight against a pandemic.

Whether it is for the fight against the pandemic or climate change, the solution to this flaw in democracy is the universalization of crisis management. The spirit of the Enlightenment must be kept alive, and France, its homeland, has been silent. Without a vaccine of our own, we have no weight in the international debate. The idea that all people are equal, regardless of borders and cultures, is far from a rhetorical abstraction. According to our French culture, the world is a civitax maxima, a universal community, the Kantian ideal shared by Montesquieu, Voltaire and Condorcet who boasted they were first and foremost citizens of the world.

The goal should be for an international policy, with a collective mandate under the impetus of France and Europe, to establish global governance of vaccine management that would lead to a better distribution of raw materials, production capacities and access to vaccines across the world. In failing to do so, the West exposes itself to the revolt of those left behind in the pandemic — not to mention the spread of new variants that may escape vaccine protection.

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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