The U.S. is fighting over vaccine mandates, but most workers support strong COVID-19 measures

December 10, 2021, 1:47 PM UTC

As U.S. politicians continue to battle over whether businesses can impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates on their workforce, employees across the world seem to have already settled the issue: On average, most support mandates—in some places, in overwhelming numbers.

In a study out on Thursday by the polling agency Ipsos and the World Economic Forum, about 78% of the 14,400 employees surveyed across 33 countries said they believed everyone should be fully vaccinated as a condition for returning to the office, or be compelled to take frequent COVID-19 tests if they are not. About 81% believe masks should be mandatory in common areas, or when working closely with other people.

Those figures seem to challenge the political arguments against vaccine mandates, which have raged over the past few months in many countries as governments and businesses grapple with how to reopen. France, Italy, and numerous other governments have imposed measures forcing workers to be fully vaccinated in order to perform public-facing jobs, or enter large public buildings.

U.S. mandate fears

Several business groups in the U.S. say they fear that many people will quit their jobs rather than be forced to follow strict vaccine and testing requirements. Vaccine mandates “will create a workforce crisis for our industry,” the American Trucking Associations president Chris Spear warned in October, telling the U.S. Office of Management and Budget that there was already a nationwide shortage of about 80,000 truckers.

However, the workers Ipsos polled across five continents—including in the U.S.—do not seem to confirm those fears. On average, only about 5% of people said they would resign rather than subject themselves to vaccinations or regular testing. The figure was closer to 10% in the U.S. The poll was conducted between Oct. 22 and Nov. 5—weeks before South Africa first reported the Omicron variant on Nov. 24, and before infection rates began climbing in Europe.

President Joe Biden is fighting to keep his vaccine mandate plan, which would force employees in businesses of more than 100 people to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly tests, if they want to work in an office. Lawsuits have been filed in several states, and on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate rejected the proposal in a 52–48 vote. Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana called the plan “the heavy hand of government.”

However, the Ipsos survey this week found that of the 1,000 Americans they polled, 64% supported vaccine mandates. While that is nearly two-thirds, the support is weaker than in all but four of the 33 countries polled, in some cases by a wide margin. Support for mandates is almost universal in countries like China, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, which already enforce strict rules like requiring people to present a QR code showing they are fully vaccinated in order to enter public buildings.

Framing the question

The discrepancy between what workers say they want, and what politicians believe they do, could lie in the way the questions are asked.

U.S. Republican strategist Christopher Wilson told NBC News this week that when pollsters tell people they might lose their jobs if they refuse to be vaccinated or tested frequently, support for COVID-19 rules drop. “Filling in that side of the equation makes the mandate unpopular, particularly with minority voters,” he said in an email.

And those who have already experienced months of strict vaccine mandates could bear that out. One month after France forced health workers to be fully vaccinated on the job, an emergency-services doctor in the hard-hit east of the country told Fortune the mandate had worsened conditions in her hospital, where 10 health workers had been laid off after refusing COVID-19 vaccines—among 3,000 health workers in the country who lost their jobs after the vaccine mandate was imposed on Sept. 15.

“There were already too few staff in the hospitals in France,” the ER doctor Emmanuelle Seris said. If workers did not want to be vaccinated, she added, “it is their choice.”

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