Vaccine skepticism hurts anti-virus efforts in Eastern Europe – Winnipeg Free Press
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BELGRADE, Serbia – Vaccines from the West, Russia or China? Or not at all ? This dilemma is facing countries in southeastern Europe, where coronavirus vaccination campaigns are getting off to a slow start – overshadowed by heated political debates and conspiracy theories.
In countries like the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, vaccine skeptics have included former presidents and even some doctors. Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic was among those who said he didn’t want to be forced to get vaccinated.
False beliefs that the coronavirus is a hoax or that vaccines will microchip people have spread in countries that were once under harsh communist rule. Those who once had regular mass inoculations are deeply divided on whether to get vaccinated.
“There is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and skepticism towards vaccination,” a recent Balkan study warned. “A majority in the region do not plan to get vaccinated, a considerably lower ratio than elsewhere in Europe, where a majority favor vaccination.”
Only around 200,000 people applied for the vaccine in Serbia, a country of 7 million, in the days after authorities opened the procedure. By contrast, 1 million Serbs signed up for 100 euros ($120) on the first day the government offered the pandemic aid.
Hoping to encourage vaccinations, Serbian officials got vaccinated on television. Yet they themselves are divided on whether to get the Western-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the Russian Sputnik V, more divisions in a country that is officially seeking European Union membership but where many are in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic welcomed a shipment of one million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine on Saturday, saying he would receive an injection to show he was safe.
‘Serbs prefer Russian vaccine,’ reads a recent headline in the Informer, a pro-government tabloid, as officials announced that 38% of those who applied for the vaccine favored the Russian vaccine. , while 31% want the Pfizer-BioNTech version – a rough split between pro-Russians and pro-Westerns in Serbia.
In neighboring Bosnia, a war-torn country that remains ethnically divided between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, politics is also a factor, as the Serb-led half seemed ready to opt for the Russian vaccine, while the Bosnian-Croatian side will likely turn to Westerners.
Sasa Milovanovic, a 57-year-old real estate agent from Belgrade, sees all vaccines as part of the “global manipulation” of the pandemic.
“People are locked up, they have no more life and live in a state of hysteria and fear,” he said.
Djokovic said he was against being required to take a coronavirus vaccine to travel and compete, but was keeping an open mind. The top-ranked tennis player and his wife tested positive in June after a series of no-social-distancing exhibition matches he hosted in the Balkans. They and their foundation donated 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to buy ventilators and other medical equipment for hospitals in Serbia.
Serbian Health Ministry official Mirsad Djerlek called the vaccine response “satisfactory”, but warned on public broadcaster RTS that “people in rural areas usually believe in conspiracy theories, and that’s why we we should talk to them and explain to them that the vaccine is the only way out in this situation.
A study by the Balkan Policy Advisory Group in Europe, published ahead of the start of the regional vaccination campaign in December, concluded that virus conspiracy theories are believed by almost 80% of citizens of Western Balkan countries who s strive to join the EU. About half of them will refuse to be vaccinated, he added.
Baseless theories claim that the virus is not real or that it is a biological weapon created by the United States or its adversaries. Another popular lie claims that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips into the world’s 7 billion people.
A low level of information about the virus and vaccines, distrust of governments and repeated assertions by authorities that their countries are under siege by foreigners help explain the high prevalence of such beliefs, according to the group. Balkan reflection.
Similar trends have been seen even in some Eastern European countries.
In Bulgaria, widespread conspiracy theories have hampered past efforts to deal with a measles outbreak. Surveys there suggest distrust of vaccines remains high even as coronavirus cases continue to rise. A recent Gallup International poll found that 30% of people want to get vaccinated, 46% will refuse and 24% are undecided.
Bulgarian doctors have tried to change mentalities. Dr Stefan Konstantinov, a former health minister, joked that people should be told that neighboring Greece would close resorts to tourists who don’t get vaccinated, because “this would ensure that around 70% of the population would rush to get vaccinated”.
In the Czech Republic, where surveys show around 40% reject vaccination, protesters at a large rally against government virus restrictions in Prague demanded that vaccinations should not be compulsory. Former President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of the government’s response to the pandemic, told the crowd that vaccines are not a solution.
“They say everything will be solved by a miracle vaccine,” said Klaus, 79, who insists people should expose themselves to the virus to get immunity, which experts reject. “We have to say loud and clear that it doesn’t exist. … I’m not going to get vaccinated.
Populist authorities in Hungary have taken a hard line against virus misinformation, but vaccine rejection is still projected at around 30%. Parliament passed emergency powers in March that allow authorities to prosecute anyone deemed to be “inhibiting successful defence” against the virus, including “fear” or spreading false news. At least two people who criticized the government’s response to the pandemic on social media have been arrested, but none have been formally charged.
Romanian Health Minister Vlad Voiculescu said he relies on family doctors to “inform, schedule and monitor people after the vaccine” and that his ministry will offer bonuses to medical workers based on the number of people that they will embark. When asked if such incitements would fuel anti-vaccination propaganda, Voiculescu said, “I’m more interested in the doctors’ view on the matter than the anti-vaxxers.”
Dr Ivica Jeremic, who has been working with virus patients in Serbia since March and himself tested positive in November, hopes vaccination programs will accelerate once people overcome their fear of the virus. unknown.
“People will realize that the vaccine is the only way to get back to normal life,” he said.
Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; and Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.
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