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Could Germany’s obsession with homeopathy explain the low vaccination rate?

In Germany, homeopathy and other "alternative medicines" are supported by the state. Is this worsening the Covid pandemic?

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Customers wait in line at a homeopathic pharmacy in Germany. Photo: IMAGO / Chris Emil Janßen

Why is Germany’s vaccination rate so low? With just 71% of people fully vaccinated, the country is 10 points behind Spain and almost 20 points behind Portugal. Lots of people are wondering what is going on with German-speaking central Europe.

One possible culprit for “vaccine skepticism,” as argued by the public broadcaster ZDF, is so-called “alternative medicine.” Non-scientific treatments —especially homeopathy — are particularly popular among Germans, Austrians, and Swiss.

Homeopathy means taking a substance and distilling it in water until not a single molecule of the original substance remains. In other words, “globuli” are nothing more than sugar pills.

People say that these sugar pills work. And they do, sort of, but only because of the placebo effect. Thanks to the complexities of the human mind, any supposed treatment has some effect.

Imagine a fraudster who claimed to produce homeopathic solutions but in fact using tap water. No one, neither a scientist nor a homeopath, could tell a real product from a fake one. And the fakes would work just as well. Decades of double-blind studies have established that.

Yet people who believe in homeopathy are taught to not believe scientific evidence. It’s no surprise that 62% of them, according to one study, were opposed to vaccines. Why not try Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine instead? Studies be damned!

You would think that insurance companies in Germany would trust the science. Yet most of them will pay out for homeopathy treatments, one way or another. The problem is not just the 20 million euros per year that are supposed to finance health care and are instead being spent on snake oil. The problem is that insured people are being encouraged to believe in magic.

All of Germany’s politicians capitulate to the hocus-pocus lobby. Jens Spahn, the former health minister, wanted insurance to keep paying for homeopathy. Robert Habeck, the new economics minister, moderated a “compromise” within the Green Party to keep the money flowing. Even the new health minister Karl Lauterbach, who not so long ago criticized the Greens for this “humbug”, has suddenly gone silent.

Medical humbug has a long tradition in Germany, where Heilpraktiker or “healing practitioners” are allowed to offer medical services despite having no medical training. The law dates from 1939, which is no coincidence: leading Nazis pushed homeopathy as an alternative to “Jewish” [i.e. scientific] medicine. As one researcher described it, alternative medicine is a “relic from the Nazis that endangers public health.” On a side note, even today some right-wingers refer to vaccine campaigns as “fascist.” But the actual Nazis were anti-vaxxers.

Things don’t have to be this way. In Austria, for example, only doctors and psychotherapists are allowed to offer medical services. Why should it be any other way? Without a license, I cannot sell my services as a plumber. And you really wouldn’t want me performing pseudo-shamanic rituals to unclog your toilet.

For more than a century, German society has tolerated this esoteric minority, just like one ignores a racist uncle over Weihnachten. If people are taking sugar pills instead of medicine, we were told, at least they weren’t hurting anyone. But in the middle of a pandemic, we are learning that if millions of people are taught to distrust medical science, that hurts all of us.

There is so much to criticize about pharmaceutical companies — especially how their patents prevent life-saving medications from reaching people who need them. But “alternative medicine” is no alternative to Big Pharma. Snake oil salesmen criticise greedy pharma — but their snake oil never seems to come cheap. It’s all a racket to squeeze money from desperate people.

People rightly mistrust a for-profit healthcare system. The solution is to put all of health care — the laboratories, the factories, and the hospitals — under democratic control. Health care should not be an industry. It should be a basic right. We need to get capitalism out of the clinics. And if we did, fewer people would reject medicine and put their faith in magic beans.

Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.