Compulsory vaccinations and skipping contact restrictions – differing narratives of freedom in the German middle class

In Germany, shortly after the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic and the decision by politicians to protect the population through far-reaching restrictions, criticism and resistance arose among citizens. Particularly on the topic of vaccination – and the possibility of compulsory vaccination – a sense of controversy continued to gain momentum throughout Germany. But how do Germans feel about the issue of COVID vaccinations and compulsory vaccinations? And what impact did COVID have on Germans’ friendships? In this blog post, SINUS-Institut summarizes findings based on nationally representative surveys in Germany conducted in the spring of 2022 and explains why different sub-groups within the German middle class behaved differently.

The controversial issue of compulsory vaccination

In Germany, the introduction of a population-wide compulsory vaccination was heavily discussed, but the introduction failed in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Germans value self-determination and freedom of choice when it comes to making COVID vaccinations compulsory: almost two thirds (63%) of Germans surveyed share the view that vaccinations are a matter of personal autonomy that cannot be impinged upon by the state, even in times of a pandemic. Furthermore, a clear majority of 85% agrees that no one should be personally targeted or attacked because of their vaccination status. This does not mean that Germans are vaccination sceptics, because willingness to vaccinate remains high: 69% would in principle be prepared to take any COVID vaccination in the future, provided it is recommended by public health authorities.

Notably, while freedom of choice is strongly valued throughout German society, different social segments interpret “freedom” somewhat differently. This is shown by an analysis according to the Sinus-Milieu model, which categorizes the German population into ten social milieus, or “groups of like-minded people,” based on their social position on the one hand, and their basic values and views of life on the other (Barth et al. 2018; cf. Schulze 1992; Hradil 2007; Vester 2009; Reckwitz 2021). These social milieus’ lived experiences of freedom correlate with these values and views.

For instance, the members of the “work hard, play hard” Performers Milieu and the entertainment-oriented Consumer-Hedonistic Milieu generally lean toward a lifestyle determined by hedonism, self-determination, and crossing boundaries. These milieus might thus react negatively towards external restrictions. The concept of freedom in both the forward-looking Adaptive-Pragmatic Middle Class Milieu and the more conservative Nostalgic Middle Class Milieu, on the other hand, is rooted in a classical understanding of the private sphere and the social contract. These milieus expect the state’s crisis policy to account for the health and well-being of the population – but they also expect that the state will respect the sanctity of the private sphere. Any indication that COVID policies might not meet both expectations could result in lost trust, and, in the worst case, might even lead to resistance to public health regulations or recommendations in the future.

Differing opinions on COVID policies have negatively impacted friendships in Germany

The polarizing effect of COVID policies is also reflected in the closest interpersonal relationships of Germans. For example, 20% of Germans have lost friends due to different opinions on COVID policies and vaccinations, according to the results of a survey conducted by SINUS-Institut and YouGov in June 2022. As a benchmark, climate change is equally contentious: 18% say that differing opinions on this topic put a strain on their friendly relationships. However, by comparison, friendships are even more clearly affected by differences of opinion on the Ukraine war (27%).

In general, the COVID pandemic was a friendless time: 62% of Germans missed their friends a lot, while 38% say that some friendships only survived the pandemic because it was possible to keep in touch online. An additional 27% missed their friends so much so that they defied contact restrictions to see their loved ones. Notably, this behaviour was reported with above-average frequency by the middle-class milieus mentioned above.

Next steps in COVINFORM

Public receptions of COVID policy and the impact of the pandemic on interpersonal relationships are both critical topics within the COVINFORM project. The COVINFORM consortium addresses these topics through qualitative research with a range of stakeholders (in government, public health, civil society, and communications), as well as with low-socioeconomic-status (SES) women in ten target countries and members of other vulnerable population groups on a country-by-country basis. In Germany, interviews have just been completed with low-SES women with and without a migration background and low-SES men with a migration background, with several more male respondents to be interviewed. The interviews focus on social and support networks, information-seeking and sense-making, and the impact of living environment on experiences of the pandemic. In addition to a cross-national analysis of the findings on low-SES women, SINUS-Institut will cooperate with the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Journalism, Media and Communication on an in-depth analysis of information-seeking among those from a migration background in Germany and Sweden. It is hoped that the findings will provide policymakers with empirically-grounded insights on how to bridge trust deficits and improve voluntary compliance with health regulations and recommendations, while preserving personal autonomy and respecting the diversity of opinions.

Authors: James Edwards and Tim Gensheimer, SINUS-Institut



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