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Vaccine skepticism harms antiviral efforts in Eastern Europe

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Vaccines from the West, Russia or China? Or not at all? This dilemma is facing nations in Southeast Europe, where coronavirus vaccination campaigns are launching slowly – overshadowed by heated political debates and conspiracy theories.

In countries such as the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria, vaccine skeptics include former presidents and even some doctors. Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic was among those who said they did not want to be forced to get vaccinated.

False beliefs that the coronavirus is a scam or that vaccines would inject microchips into humans are spreading in countries that were previously under harsh communist rule. Those who were once routinely subjected to mass inoculations are deeply divided on whether to take the vaccines at all.

“There is a direct link between support for conspiracy theories and skepticism about vaccination,”

; a recent Balkan study warned. “The majority in the whole region does not plan to receive the vaccine, which is significantly lower than elsewhere in Europe, where the majority supports the vaccine.”

Only about 200,000 people applied for the vaccine in Serbia, a country of 7 million, in the days since the authorities opened the procedure. In contrast, 1m Serbs signed for 100 euros ($ 120) on the first day the government offered pandemic aid.

Hoping to encourage vaccinations, Serbian authorities have been photographed on television. Yet they themselves are divided over whether to receive the Western-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or Russia’s Sputnik V, more units in a country that is officially seeking EU membership but where many prefer closer ties with Moscow.

Serbian President Alexander Vucic has welcomed a shipment of 1 million doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, saying he would receive a shot to show it was safe.

“Serbs prefer Russian vaccine,” reads the recent headline of the pro-government tabloid Informer, as officials said 38 percent of applicants preferred the Russian vaccine to take pictures, while 31 percent wanted a Pfizer-BioNTech version – a rough division between pro-Russians and pro-Westerners 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 appear to have chosen the Russian vaccine, while the Bosniak-Croat side is likely to turn to the West. .

Sasa Milovanovic, a 57-year-old real estate agent from Belgrade, sees all vaccines as part of the pandemic’s “global manipulation”.

“People are locked up, they no longer have lives and they live in a state of hysteria and fear,” he said.

Djokovic said he was against being forced to get a coronavirus vaccine to travel and compete, but kept his mind open. The top-ranked tennis player and his wife scored positively in June after a series of zero-distance exhibition matches he organized in the Balkans. They and their foundation have donated 1m euros ($ 1.1m) to purchase ventilators and other medical equipment for hospitals in Serbia.

Serbian Health Ministry official Mirsad Jerlek described the vaccine’s response as “satisfactory”, but warned state-run RTS television that “people in rural areas usually believe in conspiracy theories and should therefore talk to them and explain that the vaccine is the only way out of this situation. “

A study by the Balkans in Europe Political Advisory Group, published before the launch of the regional vaccination campaign in December, concluded that around 80% of Western Balkan citizens seeking to join the EU believe in theories. for virus conspiracy. About half of them will refuse to be vaccinated, the statement said.

Unfounded theories claim that the virus is not real or that it is a bioweapon created by the United States or its opponents. Another popular lie claims that Microsoft founder Bill Gates uses COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in 7 billion people on the planet.

The low level of information about the virus and vaccines, distrust of governments and repeated claims by the authorities that their countries are besieged by foreigners, help explain the widespread prevalence of such beliefs, according to a think tank in the Balkans.

Similar trends are observed even in some countries of the Eastern European Union.

In Bulgaria, widespread conspiracy theories have hampered past efforts to tackle the measles outbreak. Studies there show that distrust of vaccines remains high, although cases of coronavirus continue to rise. A recent Gallup International survey found that 30% of respondents want to be vaccinated, 46% will refuse and 24% have not decided.

Bulgarian doctors tried to change their attitude. Dr. Stefan Konstantinov, a former health minister, joked that people should be told that neighboring Greece would close resorts to non-vaccinated tourists because “this would ensure that about 70% of the population would be vaccinated.” rush to get hit. “

In the Czech Republic, where surveys show that about 40% reject vaccination, protesters at a large rally against government restrictions on viruses in Prague have demanded that vaccinations be optional. Former President Vaclav Klaus, a fierce critic of the government’s pandemic response, told the crowd that vaccines were not the answer.

“They say everything will be solved with a miracle vaccine,” said Klaus, 79, who insisted that people be exposed to the virus to gain immunity, which experts reject. “It simply came to our notice then. … I will not be vaccinated. ”

Populist authorities in Hungary have taken a firm stand against misinformation of the virus, but vaccine rejection is still projected at around 30%. Parliament adopted extraordinary powers in March, allowing authorities to prosecute anyone believed to be “obstructing successful protection” against the virus, including “creating 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 relied on family doctors to “inform, plan and monitor people after the vaccine” and that his ministry would offer bonuses to health workers based on the number of people they would receive on board. Asked if such incentives would fuel anti-vaccination propaganda, Voiculescu said: “I am more interested in the opinion of doctors on the issue than I am in anti-vaccines.”

Dr. Ivica Jeremic, who has been working with viral patients in Serbia since March and tested positive in November, hopes vaccination programs will accelerate once people overcome their fear of the unknown.

“People will realize that the vaccine is the only way to get back to normal,” he said.


Associated Press writers Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; and Vadim Girda in Bucharest, Romania, contributed.


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