Coronavirus: vaccine reluctance in Eastern Europe drives high cost of COVID-19

KYIV, UKRAINE – Truck driver Andriy Melnik has never taken the coronavirus seriously. Together with a friend, he bought a fake vaccination certificate so that his travel documents would appear in order when he transported goods to other parts of Europe.

His perspective changed after the friend caught COVID-19 and ended up in an intensive care unit on a ventilator.

“This is not a fable. I see that this disease kills and strong immunity would not be enough – only a vaccine can provide protection,” said Melnik, 42, as he waited in Kiev. to get vaccinated. “I am really scared and beg the doctors to help me correct my mistake.”

Ukraine is suffering from an upsurge in coronavirus infections, along with other parts of Eastern Europe and Russia. Although vaccines are plentiful, there is widespread reluctance to obtain them in many countries – although notable exceptions include the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary.

The slowness of vaccinations in Eastern Europe is rooted in several factors, including public mistrust and past experience with other vaccines, said Catherine Smallwood, responsible for Europe COVID-19 incidents at the World Organization. health.

“We are seeing low vaccine uptake in a whole host of countries in this part of the region,” she told The Associated Press. “Historical issues around vaccines come into play. In some countries the whole issue of vaccines is politicized.”

Russia on Thursday recorded 1,159 deaths in 24 hours – its largest daily toll since the start of the pandemic – with only about a third of the country’s nearly 146 million people fully vaccinated. The Kremlin has ordered a nationwide period of non-work from this week until November 7.

A Hungarian official said Thursday that private companies can require employees to get vaccinated for work, a move that could increase the country’s stagnant vaccination rate. Government employees, including teachers, will also be required to get vaccinated, the official said.

Poland reported the highest number of new daily infections since May on Thursday, with more than 8,000.

In Ukraine, only 16% of the adult population is fully vaccinated – the second lowest share in Europe after Armenia’s rate of just over 7%.

Ukrainian authorities are demanding that teachers, government employees and other workers be fully immunized by November 8 or face pay suspension. In addition, proof of vaccination or a negative test is now required to board planes, trains and long-distance buses.

This has created a booming black market for counterfeit documents. Fake vaccination certificates sell for the equivalent of US $ 100 to US $ 300. There is even a fake version of the government’s digital app, with fake certificates already installed, said Mykhailo Fedorov, Minister of Digital Transformation.

Last week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chaired a meeting on how to fight counterfeits. Police suspect workers at 15 hospitals to be involved. They have opened 800 criminal cases on these fakes and deployed 100 mobile units to track down users, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said. They even grabbed a former lawmaker with one last week.

Kiev mayor Vitaly Klitschko on Thursday announced new restrictions in the capital to stem the spread of the virus. From November 1, restaurants, shopping malls and gyms will be closed and public transport limited to those who can show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test.

Ukraine’s low vaccination rate has led to a rapid spread of COVID-19, putting further stress on the country’s already overburdened health system.

The surgical department at the Biliaivka City Hospital, near the Black Sea port of Odessa, now only treats coronavirus patients, with 50 of its 52 beds filled. Medicines and oxygen are lacking.

“We are on the brink of disaster, driven by aggressive opponents of vaccination and the lack of funds,” said Dr Serhiy Shvets, the head of the service. “Unfortunately, five employees in my department have quit in the past week.”

The situation is similar in a 120-bed hospital in the western city of Chernivtsi, where Dr Olha Kobevko says he has 126 patients in serious condition.

“I cry in despair when I see that 99% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 are not vaccinated, and these people could have protected themselves,” the infectious disease specialist told AP. “We must fight to save them without sufficient drugs and resources. “

The current wave looks particularly deadly, Kobevko said, with 10 to 23 patients dying every day in his hospital, up from less than six a day last spring. The number of COVID-19 patients in their 30s and 40s has increased dramatically, she added.

She blames widespread vaccine skepticism, influenced by social media and religious beliefs.

“The false stories have spread widely, leading people to believe in microchips and genetic mutations,” Kobevko said. “Some Orthodox priests have openly and aggressively urged people not to get vaccinated, and social media has been filled with the most absurd rumors. Ukrainians have learned to beware of government initiatives, and vaccination is not an exclusion.

Lidia Buiko, 72, chose to be vaccinated by Chinese Sinovac, citing a lie that Western vaccines contained microchips to control the population.

“The priests urged us to think twice before getting vaccinated – it would be impossible to get rid of the flea,” she said while waiting in Kiev.

Vaccination hesitation exists even among medical workers. Health Minister Viktor Lyashko admitted that around half of Ukrainian medical workers are still reluctant to get them.

Murat Sahin, UNICEF representative in Ukraine, said false and misleading information about COVID-19 is a growing threat.

“The risks of misinformation for immunization have never been higher – nor the stakes,” he said.

Similar skepticism has been observed elsewhere in Eastern Europe, fueled by online disinformation, religious beliefs, mistrust of government officials and the use of non-traditional treatment.

In Romania, where around 35% of adults are fully immunized, stricter restrictions went into effect this week, requiring vaccination certificates for many daily activities, such as going to the gym, movies or shopping malls. There is a 10 p.m. curfew, shops close at 9 p.m., bars and nightclubs are closed for 30 days, and masks are required in public.

So many people are “afraid of vaccines because of the immense (amount) of false information that has flooded social media and television,” said Dr Dragos Zaharia of the Marius Nasta Institute of Pulmonology in Bucharest.

“Every day we see people coming in short of breath and most of them regret not having been vaccinated,” he told AP.

Bulgaria, where only a quarter of its adult population is fully vaccinated, also reported record infections and deaths this week. Bulgaria has had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the European Union of 27 countries in the past two weeks, according to official data, and 94% of those deaths were in unvaccinated people.

Only 33% of the Georgian population has been fully vaccinated and the authorities have started a lottery with cash prizes for those who get vaccinated. However, Dr Bidzina Kulumbegov lamented the slowness of vaccinations.

The government’s information campaign “was not designed according to the peculiarities of our country. The focus should have been, for example, on the Georgian Orthodox Church, because we have many cases where priests say that vaccination is a sin, ”Kulumbegov said. .

For Melnik, the Ukrainian truck driver, the fear of contracting COVID-19 outweighed all other concerns.

“You cannot cheat this disease,” he said. “You can buy a forged certificate, but you cannot buy antibodies. Ukrainians are slowly starting to realize that there is no alternative to vaccination.”


Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Odessa, Ukraine, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi, Georgia, Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.