French health workers resent, resist vaccines

PARIS (AP) — While most French healthcare workers are vaccinated against the virus, a small but vocal minority is holding out. With infections exploding, a new law requiring them to get the shots is exposing the divide.

The French government, which has declared that the nation has officially entered its “fourth wave” of the pandemic, pushed the law mandating COVID-19 vaccines for healthcare workers, to protect hospitals and avoid a new lockdown. Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the move isn’t meant to stigmatise reluctant healthcare workers but to limit risks to the vulnerable people they care for.

The law, adopted by Parliament early yesterday, also sets up a “health pass” for everyone to access restaurants and other public venues. Both measures have prompted intense debate and two straight weekends of protests around France. Healthcare workers in white coats have been among the demonstrators.

Many cite incorrect information about the vaccines circulating on the Internet, worry about their long-term effects or want more time to decide. Several health workers said they took issue with the mandate, not the vaccines themselves.

At one Paris protest, some carried signs reading “My body, my choice”, and a health worker dressed as the Statue of Liberty called it an “act of violence” to force people to get vaccinated.

Protesters attend a demonstration in Paris, France. PHOTO: AP

A secretary at a doctor’s office Céline Augen knows she may lose her job if she refuses to get a shot but protested on Saturday anyway.

“I’m here today in favour of the freedom to chose to get vaccinated or not,” she said.

Solene Manable, a recent nursing school graduate who is working in a Lille hospital, said, “There are many health workers who don’t want to get vaccinated because we don’t know much about the vaccines.”

Scientists said that is simply not true anymore. The vaccines used in France — Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — were tested in tens of thousands of people around the world, and results of the studies have been shared with the public. More than two billion people worldwide have now received coronavirus vaccines, including most French adults, providing a broad overview of vaccines’ impact on people’s health.

Vaccine hesitancy among some health workers has been an issue in the United States (US) and elsewhere, too. But the French mandate is stirring up anger on the political fringes in a country long considered more vaccine-sceptic than its European neighbours.

France has faced medical scandals in recent decades involving vaccines, diet pills and breast implants that have seeded doubts about the medical establishment. Suspicion of big pharmaceutical companies is relatively common, and politicians on both the extreme right and the left are now fuelling that skepticism for their own ends.

Retired doctor Bruno de Ligny, who volunteers in vaccination centres in Normandy, stressed that the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines widely used in France, while new, has been under research for more than 20 years. He also noted that French health workers must already be vaccinated against Hepatitis B – a vaccine not compulsory for the rest of the population — but “no one claimed that was dictatorial when it was implemented”.

“These health workers say they want the ‘freedom’ not to be vaccinated,” he said. “They do not realise that what they are really asking for is the freedom to kill.”