Regret and Defiance in Europe's Vaccine-Shy East as COVID-19 Rages

By Janis Laizans and Tsvetelia Tsolova

October 22, 2021

RIGA/SOFIA (Reuters) - As Latvia goes into lockdown and hospitals in Bulgaria and Romania buckle under a COVID-19 surge while Poland sells surplus vaccine doses, many central and eastern Europeans are torn between defiance and regret over not getting inoculated.

The region has the European Union's lowest vaccination rates, an unwelcome distinction in which both political and economic factors play a role, and deadlier variants of the virus are spreading there fast.

Recovering from bronchial pneumonia caused by a coronavirus infection, Bulgarian Vesela Tafradzhiyska, 47, said she had held back from getting inoculated because media reports about vaccine safety and efficacy had been contradictory and confusing.

After eight days in hospital, reluctantly, she is changing her mind. "I am willing to get vaccinated, although I see that it is not a 100% guarantee, because people with vaccines are also getting infected."

In Bulgaria - the EU's poorest state and, according to Our World in Data, currently suffering the world's third highest COVID-19 death rate - just one adult in four is fully vaccinated. That compares with over 90% in Ireland, Portugal and Malta.

Hundreds have protested in Sofia and other cities against mandatory certificates that came into force on Thursday, limiting access to many indoor public spaces to those who have been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, coronavirus hospitalisations have risen 30% over the last month and hospitals in the capital have suspended non-essential surgeries.

In Latvia, which on Thursday become the first European state to go into lockdown rules since curbs were eased during summer, Biruta Adomane, a pensioner who has got vaccinated, expressed anger at the almost 50% of her adult compatriots who haven't.

"I'd like to go to shops and cafes, I'd like to enjoy my life more, instead of lockdown," she told Reuters. "People are strange ... I don't understand their motivation".

FEAR AND DISTRUST

Vaccine hesitancy is a global phenomenon.

France and the United States are struggling with it and it is on the rise in some Asian countries including Japan.

Experts say central Europeans may be particularly sceptical, however, after decades of Communist rule that eroded public trust in state institutions and left underdeveloped healthcare systems that now struggle with poor funding.

A European Commission poll, the Eurobarometer, has shown that at least one person in three in most countries in the EU's east doesn't trust the healthcare system, compared to an EU average of 18%.

"Vaccines show that the shadow of the Soviet Union ... still dominates people's consciousness. Some still live in fear and distrust," said Tomasz Sobierajski, a Warsaw University sociologist.

Media freedom and civil liberties were curbed and industry was largely controlled by the state during Communist rule, a legacy now compounded by the mounting influence of populist politicians who "teach people to be distrustful," Sobierajski said.

'I WILL NOT'

In Slovakia, vaccine scepticism has been fed by opposition politicians, including former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has said he would not get vaccinated.

In Poland, where daily cases have reached the highest since May, vaccine uptake is particularly low in the conservative heartland that tends to vote for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. That has left the government with a surplus of shots that it has donated or sold abroad.

In Romania, ranked second on the COVID-19 death rate list and where new daily cases have soared towards 19,000 this week, about about one adult in three has been vaccinated, the second-lowest EU rate. The country also has the bloc's highest rate of distrust in public health care at 40%.

"It is unimaginable, here we have roughly 60 patients, 90% of them are intensive care cases who need ventilation," said Amalia Hangiu the head of an emergency unit at a Bucharest hospital.

"Had we respected the rules and got vaccinated when we were supposed to, then we would not be participating in such a catastrophe."

Some, including Bulgarian pensioner Raina Yordanova remain unconvinced.

"I did not get a vaccine and I will not," she said. "Nobody knows what will happen years (after it has been administered) and I have not decided to die now."

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