Across Europe, people are experiencing a crisis of faith in medical science and Covid-19 vaccines. Demand for vaccines is outstripping supply across much of the continent but, in some countries, reluctance is proving to be the most stubborn obstacle to achieving herd immunity. So, how should we understand – and begin to combat – the pernicious spread of vaccine hesitancy?
Disinformation in Ukraine
Ukraine currently stands among the European countries with the highest Covid-19 infection rates, reaching approximately 15,486 new cases a day. Ukrainians are facing a third national lockdown. Despite the desperation of the situation, the government has been failing to convince its people to get vaccinated. Along with rising rates of infection, Ukraine is also suffering from Europe’s highest rate of vaccine hesitancy. Plagued by misinformation about Covid-19, only 320,265 people from a population of 42 million have received a single dose.
Ukraine has been gripped between Russia and the West in the geopolitical struggle for vaccine distribution dominance, while struggling to secure an adequate share of doses. The country’s leaders must now convince a suspicious and sceptical population to accept the vaccines they do have. The United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF recently released a report analysing this alarming trend in the withering of public trust in scientific credibility and found that the Ukraine is suffering from an “infodemic” in which social media is “flooded with false narratives” about Covid-19 and vaccination.
The Role of Politics
Along with unchecked disinformation, another issue facing Ukraine has been the politics surrounding the rollout. Politicians have been recklessly exploiting complications in the vaccine effort to score points against opponents with little regard for the risks of politicising public health.
Opponents of President Volodymyr Zelensky have extended criticism of his party and policies to the two vaccines his administration has been able to procure and approve to date: Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sinovac. Even though both vaccines are safe and effective. Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and opposition party leader, introduced a bill in parliament that implicitly criticised Zelensky for only being able to procure adenoviral vaccines. The same bill also attempts to force the government to compensate people for any side effects in order to “protect every Ukrainian from the negative consequences” of the two vaccines. Meanwhile, former President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukrainian health-care workers have a right to refuse inoculation because the vaccines were subpar. In fact, in a highly publicised parliamentary speech, he compared the vaccines to faecal matter.
This shameless weaponisation of the vaccine to advance internal political agendas forced Ukrainian Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov to give an interview refuting the false claims made by other politicians. He spoke of the damage the political infighting was causing to public confidence: “politicians contribute to peoples’ distrust of vaccines ... widely held negative attitudes are a result of a lot of fake news spread by members of the anti-vaccination movement.”
The UN report details the urgency of the situation. Vaccines have been expiring and going to waste in hospitals because not enough doctors and nurses are willing to receive the doses. About one-third of frontline health-care workers in the country have already been infected with Covid-19, with the remainder evenly divided between those who want to be inoculated and those who say they have no intention of taking either of the vaccines.
A Crisis of Public Trust in Government
Russia is also battling a shadow pandemic of vaccine hesitancy.
The first nation to cross the vaccine development finish line last summer, Russia has received orders from more than 50 countries for its homemade Sputnik V. At home, though, Russia’s vaccination campaign has sputtered. Despite being made available for free, persistent scepticism has meant that only 3.5 million Russians have received both doses.
Behind this reluctance are doubts about the jab’s hurried, opaque development and an ingrained wariness of state authority. While definitive evidence is absent – including approval from the European Medicines Agency – data from phase III trials by respected British medical journal The Lancet indicates that Sputnik V is safe and more than 91 per cent effective. Despite these encouraging findings, nearly two-thirds of Russians remain unwilling to take their home-grown vaccine. A recent poll by sociologists at the Levada Centre found that only 30 per cent of Russians are willing to receive Sputnik V, which is down 8 per cent since the rollout began. About the same number think that coronavirus was manufactured as a biological weapon with only 23 per cent of people believing that it emerged naturally.
To restore trust, state TV channels have covered vaccine development extensively, citing international praise for Sputnik V and running segments about the difficulties that foreign countries are having with Western vaccines. But the question remains: will the Kremlin be able to convince its own population to accept Sputnik V?
Lack of trust in government is also partly to blame for the prolonged lockdown in France. Despite the relentless grind of France’s pandemic, where more than 300 people have died of Covid-19 on average per day in 2021, demand for vaccines remains dangerously low. Of 140 countries surveyed by Gallup in 2018, France was the most vaccine-sceptical. Recent polls suggest around half of the adult population may refuse a vaccination. Confidence in the programme hasn’t been helped by the slow rollout or the safety concerns over the AstraZeneca jab and the government’s initial refusal to give it to the elderly.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Herd immunity is the most decisive route to freedom from Covid-19. Thanks to the unprecedented efforts of the scientific community, we finally have a solution: safe and effective vaccines. Experts are estimating that up to 90 per cent of the population need to have antibodies to achieve herd immunity. To reach that level of protection, we must see society trusting medical professionals and governments sufficiently to accept vaccination. To make that possible, we need greater transparency on data and consistent messaging on safety. The cause of mass vaccination is set back each time governments abruptly change regulations – as with the AstraZeneca vaccine – or issue confusing or contradictory advice, as in the initial case of face masks. The message should be simple: we have unimpeachable data showing there are no side effects from vaccines that come close to the risks we face from Covid-19. The very small number of reactions post inoculation are a price worth paying for collective protection against a devastating and too-often deadly disease.
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