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As Omicron Spreads, Is It Time for Vaccine Mandates?

Desperate leaders are weighing once unthinkable mandates—and facing backlash.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press statement in Brussels on Dec. 21, 2020. JOHANNA GERON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Leaders urge vaccine mandates to counter the omicron variant, the European Union launches its alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, and Washington warns of Russian plans to attack Ukraine. 

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Omicron Prompts EU Vaccine Mandate Push

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Leaders urge vaccine mandates to counter the omicron variant, the European Union launches its alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, and Washington warns of Russian plans to attack Ukraine. 

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Omicron Prompts EU Vaccine Mandate Push

As new cases of the omicron coronavirus variant emerge around the world, more European leaders are pushing for a new—and controversial—pandemic strategy: vaccine mandates.

“We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen before urging the European Union to consider mandatory vaccinations. “This needs a common approach.”

Despite having an abundant supply of vaccines, slowing uptake has spiked coronavirus infections across Europe and put the continent back at the pandemic’s epicenter, according to the World Health Organization. With one-third of the European population still unvaccinated, desperate leaders are increasingly imposing once inconceivable mandates—and facing backlash. 

Shifting stance. After facing record case numbers, Austria became the first European country to announce it would require vaccinations in November. Public anger was swift and intense: An estimated 40,000 people took to the streets to protest the decision. Days later, Greece unveiled a more targeted mandate, requiring all citizens over the age of 60 to be inoculated by mid-January—or face a monthly fine of roughly $144. “It’s not a punishment,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “I would say it is the price for health.”

Other countries are now looking to set similar ultimatums. As Germany confronts a surge in coronavirus infections and deaths, incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he wants vaccinations to become mandatory by February 2022. The country is currently registering an average of nearly 60,000 new cases per day, a 42 percent increase from just two weeks ago, while its average death count—300 deaths per day—has shot up by 54 percent. 

Uncharted territory? In requiring vaccinations, these countries are entering largely uncharted territory. Globally, just a small number of nations have imposed national mandates. One of the few is Indonesia, which began requiring inoculations in February and has since urged richer nations to share their vaccines in the interest of equity

Experts generally remain divided over whether such mandates will accomplish their goals—or fuel greater resistance to vaccination. “There is a growing number of people opposing the government and policies against COVID-19,” Thomas Czypionka of the Institute for Advanced Studies told Time. “This vaccine mandate may well serve as a strong push to more radicalization—especially with our history.”

But for some, it is the only option left. “It is a drastic measure,” said Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, but “we have a necessity to take this drastic step.”


What We’re Following Today

Countering China? The European Union has finally unveiled its long-awaited “Global Gateway” investment plan, a $340 billion project that is billed as the European alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI, which invests hundreds of billions of dollars in global infrastructure projects, has been widely criticized for saddling developing countries with debt. 

Whether Global Gateway can be a successful competitor, however, still remains to be seen. “The fundamental question is whether the United States, Europe, or the G-7 countries can really play the same geoeconomic game authoritarian China has done for years,” FP’s Keith Johnson writes. Beijing can shape rules and regulations to execute its projects; Washington and Brussels are often comparatively limited. 

Escalating threat. The United States said Russia has plans to attack Ukraine, just a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Moscow would pay a “high price” for using force against Kyiv. There is “evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, including “efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within as well as large-scale military operations.”

Blinken’s statement comes as Moscow announced it would expel certain U.S. diplomats from the country by Jan. 31, 2022, likely in retaliation for Washington’s earlier removal of more than 50 Russian diplomats.


Keep an Eye On

China’s missing tennis star. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced it would suspend tournaments in China, weeks into Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s almost complete disappearance from public life following her #MeToo accusations against a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official. “I very much regret it has come to this point,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said in a statement. “China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice.”

Peng’s disappearance—and the WTA’s refusal to kowtow to Beijing—marks a pivotal turning point for China, as FP’s Chloe Hadavas writes. As the country prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, its Olympic dreams are now under increased scrutiny.

EU takes harder line on migration. As the migration crisis on the Poland-Belarus border deepens, the European Union has proposed new measures that allow Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania to suspend migrants’ asylum rights. Under this proposal, asylum-seekers may have to wait for as many as four months for their requests to be processed. But aid groups fear this policy could be dangerous for thousands of stranded migrants, especially as temperatures continue to drop. 

Collapsing currency. When Turkey’s currency, the lira, spiraled to record-low values, the Turkish Central Bank intervened and sold foreign reserves on Wednesday. The lira has lost 47 percent of its value just this year, a drop that has led prices of essential goods to skyrocket and sparked mass protests

The currency’s sharp fluctuations have also weakened public support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who consistently interfered in the country’s monetary policy and lowered interest rates. Now, Erdogan is in deep trouble, as FP’s Steven Cook writes. As the country’s economy crumbles, he “is facing the longest odds of his life.”


Odds and Ends

Walmart has removed the listing for a popular childrens Christmas toy after reports that the dancing, rapping cactus was singing inappropriate tunes in Polish. A woman in Canada was shocked to discover that the smiling green device was performing a tune by Polish rapper Cypis, including lyrics such as: “The only thing in my head is five grams of cocaine/Fly away alone to the edge of oblivion.” According to the Guardian, “later lines include swearing, graphic imagery, and references to depression.” Not all buyers were put off. One Amazon reviewer wrote: “Sings a polish song about cocaine use. 10/10 would buy for my 1 year old again.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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