'We have rights': the French health workers furious about COVID vaccine order

FONTENAY-AUX-ROSES, France (Reuters) – Nursing home worker Sandra Barona is so vehemently against receiving a COVID-19 shot that she said she may quit her job after French President Emmanuel Macron ordered all health workers to get vaccinated.

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker administers a dose of the “Comirnaty” Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Parc des Expositions in Angers as part of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign in France, April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Barona, who looks after elderly residents in a care home southwest of Paris, expressed scant faith in vaccines she felt had been developed too hastily, even though regulators around the world have repeatedly said speed will not compromise safety. But she said she took particular umbrage at having her individual freedoms trampled over.

“We have rights in France. We live in a country which believes in freedom, equality,” she said, referring to two of the French Republic’s founding principles.

Barona said Macron was discriminating between the vaccinated and unvaccinated – an issue some of Macron’s opponents say could pose legal problems for the president’s plans.

Holding up the vaccine as the only path to leading a normal life, Macron said inoculation was a matter of individual responsibility but also a matter of collective freedom as the Delta variant spurs the rapid spread of new infections.

Faced with a highly contagious new variant and a sharp drop in the vaccination rate, he said it was necessary to compel health workers to get the COVID-19 shot and incentivise the general public to follow.

Health workers will be checked for vaccination from mid-September and those not inoculated against COVID-19 would not be allowed to work and would have their pay suspended.

“I’m prepared to resign and choose another path rather than get vaccinated,” Barona, 45, said, though she acknowledged she may choose to receive a COVID-19 shot if it became the only way to see her family abroad.

U-TURN

The vaccination order marked a U-turn for a president who in December tweeted: “I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat myself: vaccination will not be compulsory. We are the country of enlightenment and (Louis) Pasteur.”

But in a country where anti-vaccine sentiment has for years run high, official data shows a lower-than-hoped take-up among health workers whose job brings them into close contact with the elderly and vulnerable.

Only 45% of workers in nursing homes and long-stay care facilities have received two doses, according to Public Health France.

In March, the experts guiding the vaccine rollout said around half of health workers in France’s care homes did not want to be vaccinated. Trade unions said one reason was that those recommending the vaccine – the French state – were the people care workers blamed for their low pay and tough working conditions.

Nurse Martine Martin said she had hitherto refused the COVID-19 vaccine because underlying health problems meant she often reacted badly, even to flu shots. But, faced with losing her job, she would get vaccinated, she said.

“They’re forcing me to do so but I could suffer serious health consequences,” she said. “The state doesn’t give a damn.”

Health Ministry officials were not available to comment immediately when asked if there would be exemptions for people with underlying health problems.

Many relatives fear for their elderly family members if care home staff remain unvaccinated. Johanna Cohen-Ganouna said she is preparing to sue the French government for not making vaccination mandatory for health workers months ago after she said her father contracted COVID-19 in hospital and died aged 76.

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