Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.
Berlin, Germany – Liz Meier*, now 56, was a young mother when her two-year-old son Matthias* was given the triple vaccine against mumps, measles and rubella.
But the jab, made mandatory last year for school-age children in Germany, did not react well. Matthias was left with serious disabilities that continue to shape his and his family’s lives, decades on.
“I trusted the vaccine but then my son got very sick and nearly died. Since then he has been living with physical disabilities and my destiny has been determined by this,” Meier told Al Jazeera, from her home in Frankfurt, central Germany.
Meier has not been immunised against COVID, a position she says she is committed to.
If Germany does implement a vaccine mandate next year, a move being discussed, she would consider leaving the country.
“I did a lot of research about vaccines after what happened, and given this knowledge and my history, how can I trust these COVID vaccines? I know many people who have already left Germany. I hope it doesn’t get to that, and that the mandate doesn’t come into effect, but if it does then I would explore my options.”
In the meantime, the semi-retired writer and translator says she has limited her social life.
“Before, only a free test was needed to go swimming, so each time I went I did that. Then the rules changed to a PCR test, which would have cost me around 300 euros [$340] a week. It is clear that through these measures, they want to exclude us.
“We can sit outside certain places, but it always feels like you don’t have the permission to exist in the same way that those who are vaccinated do.”
In November, Austria announced that all those living in the country would be required to be vaccinated from February this year.
Those who do not comply will face hefty fines of up to 3,600 euros ($4,100) every three months.
With nearly 70 percent of the population vaccinated, Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe. Those who refuse jabs have been placed under a lockdown and are currently barred from entering all non-essential public spaces, such as cafes, gyms and libraries.
Similar rules apply in Germany, where new Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said he backs the vaccine mandate proposal.
Official figures show that roughly 70 percent of the population are fully vaccinated and nearly 30 percent have received a booster shot.
Those who remain unvaccinated say their voices, concerns and experiences are not being heard. The latest measures and proposed mandates, they add, are having a significant effect on their emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.
Keysha*, a 39-year-old Londoner living in Berlin, said her family stopped immunising when she was younger. As a person of mixed heritage living with disabilities, she feels uneasy about the current climate.
“It has been difficult seeing people laughing and enjoying themselves in cafes when I’m not allowed in,” Keysha said. “People are revelling in that. There’s something non-humane about the whole situation.
“Being excluded in this way during the last few months has triggered my existing anxieties. And it has created massive upheavals in my family, impacting our life and my relationship. I’ve had tearful, panic-filled moments, and at the same time, I’ve felt like this is just another thing on top of the usual exclusions that we have to deal with.”
A resident of Berlin for more than 10 years, Keysha, who works in the creative industry and on issues around diversity, said the pandemic has increased a sense of homesickness.
She has not ruled out returning to the United Kingdom.
“I feel less comfortable, more anxious and more excluded being here. There is only one dominant discourse at the moment,” she said.
Nat A, a 35-year-old rail steward in Vienna, said he does not know what he will do if the mandate comes into effect.
“The only thing I don’t want to do is get vaccinated just to get my freedom back,” he said.
“I’m just sorry in general that there is such a war between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, without there being any respect for the other opinion. I would take the vaccine if it felt safe, but at the moment I don’t want to get vaccinated because my gut feeling is that the vaccines have not been tested enough. Maybe my opinion will change in the future, but who knows.”
While scientists almost unanimously back COVID vaccines as the best way to protect people from the virus, which has led to the deaths of more than five million people worldwide – including 113,000 victims in Germany and more than 13,000 in Austria – civil liberties organisations have shared growing concerns about how democratic freedoms have been curbed by some governments in the pandemic.
Peter Klimek, associate professor at the Medical University of Vienna, told Al Jazeera: “Vaccines are by far the most essential tool that we have to control the pandemic and the developing situation with Omicron does by no means change but rather re-emphasise this.
“However, while vaccines are the most essential tool that we have to control the pandemic, it is becoming unlikely that vaccines alone will be enough on the long run and we might need to manage SARS-CoV-2 with multiple protection layers, for example, tests, masks, antiviral medications in the long run.
“If we now impose vaccine mandates, this needs to be communicated clearly so as to not foster unrealistic expectations in the population concerning the way out of the pandemic.”
Back in Berlin, Keysha remains hesitant of the vaccine, and draws comparisons with dark episodes in history.
“With Germany’s history, and colonial history in general, we know what happens when you go in the direction of controlling bodies.
“My hope is that the history books will show that we went through a weird time and there were plans to bring in a law to vaccinate people, but then we saw sense and it got overturned.”
For Meier, in Frankfurt, her trust in officials continues to decline.
“It has been really difficult to trust the government during the pandemic, but hope dies last. So I keep hoping that they won’t go through with this and we can create another vision about our future, in a more collective way.”