BRUSSELS – The Belgian town of Aarschot has a vaccination rate of 94% of all adults, but Mayor Gwendolyn Rutten worries her town is too close for comfort to the capital of Brussels, where the rate stands at 63%. But there's not much she can do about it.
Her hope is that the government mandates vaccination. “Otherwise, you drag all others back into danger,” Rutten said in a recent interview.
But few European Union countries have issued outright mandates, instead requiring people to show proof of immunization, a negative test or recent recovery from COVID-19 to participate in ever more activities – even sometimes to go to work.
More sweeping requirements are the order of the day in the U.S., which has faced significant vaccine resistance. President Joe Biden announced mandates last week that cover large portions of the population, sometimes without any option to test instead.
Despite apparently divergent strategies, officials in both the U.S. and the EU are struggling with the same question: how to boost vaccination rates to the max and end a pandemic that has repeatedly thwarted efforts to control it.
And the apparent split may in fact be narrowing. While not calling their restrictions mandates, some European countries are making life so difficult for those without the vaccine that it may amount to the same thing.
In a perhaps surprising move in a country known for touting individual freedoms, Biden has imposed sweeping vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans, including many private-sector employees and health care workers.
The seemingly more aggressive U.S. policy may reflect greater pressures there. The EU, which initially lagged way behind the United States in terms of vaccinations, surpassed it at the end of July. As of Thursday, the 27-nation bloc had 60% of its population vaccinated compared with 53% for the United States, according to Our World In Data. In the both places, immunization rates vary widely from country to country or state to state.
American authorities from Biden on down have labeled the current phase a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” with data showing that nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the United States. are now are in people who weren't vaccinated. EU officials have used the same description for continuing outbreaks in their countries.
But it's harder for the EU writ large to impose vaccine mandates since health policies are the responsibility of the 27 national governments.
“This is not within our remit. This is not part of our legal framework,” EU Vice President Margaritis Schinas said, before adding: “But if there is a message that we would like to repeat to member states and through member states to the European citizens, it is 'vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.'”
But while officials in Brussels can't impose a mandate on the EU's 450 million citizens, many national governments are ramping up restrictions for those who are not vaccinated.