ATHENS, GREECE - Greece Is introducing steep fines for unvaccinated people aged 60 and over as infections surge, straining the Greek state healthcare system. The decision is generating debate about civil liberties and freedom in the land that gave birth to western-style democracy.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared visibly concerned as he announced the mandate after an urgent cabinet meeting.
Mitsotakis said he could not hide that he was - in his words - personally troubled in taking the decision. But, he explained, he was ultimately compelled to do so in order to protect the most vulnerable - even if that means upsetting them.
Under the new rules, Greeks over the age of 60 will have to be vaccinated or face a fine of 113 dollars which the country's tax authorities have been authorized to impose and collect beginning next month.
As of early Wednesday, Greece had yet to record a case of the Omicron variant, but COVID-19 infections have surged to record highs despite recent measures that include banning unvaccinated people from entering indoor restaurants, gyms and theaters.
As upsetting as the new mandate may be for some Greeks, Mitsotakis said it does not amount to punishment. The Greek leader said the decision aims to mobilize senior citizens to get the jab.
He said he has no doubt that this will help save many lives.
About 63 percent of Greece's population of eleven million are fully vaccinated, well below the EU average of about 66 percent.
State hospital workers marched through central Athens as part of a 24-hour strike to protest staff shortages and compulsory vaccinations against COVID-19, Dec. 1, 2021
With the Omicron variant sweeping across the continent, government officials tell VOA, Mitsotakis' decision was part of a last-ditch effort to avoid another nationwide lockdown -- a move that could damage the country's already weak economy.
Political analyst Vassilis Chiotis explains.
Chiotis says it is a message to key sectors of the Greek economy and society, from tourism to the Orthodox church and its millions of followers, to conform to the government's call for vaccination to avert the potential of a lockdown.
Austria last week became the first Western democracy to make vaccinations mandatory for all those who are eligible. Those who do not get the shot by a February deadline face fines as high as four thousand dollars and possible prison time.
Opposition parties have criticized Greece's decision to fine violators. They say the government should have exhausted other options before threatening to fine senior citizens on meager pensions.
Vaccine opponents say the move is a breach of their civil liberties. Others, including this unidentified middle-aged Athens resident speaking on Greek television, say the new mandate was long overdue
She says this is a health crisis and upholding democratic values does not mean that people should behave recklessly, at the expense of others. She says that would be a wrong interpretation of democracy.
It is unclear whether the vaccine mandate will be effective, but officials see reason for optimism. Within hours of the Greek leader's announcement of the fines, health officials said vaccination requests tripled to six thousand.