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Why Won't Eastern Europeans Get Vaccinated?

The region’s high degree of vaccine skepticism and surging death rates do not reflect the lingering effects of decades of communist rule, but rather the decades-long social consequences of its collapse. Many countries in the region have not yet reversed the profound erosion of public trust that began after 1989.

SOFIA/PHILADELPHIA – In recent weeks, as Europe has again become the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths has highlighted the continued vaccine hesitancy of one group of Europeans in particular: those in the formerly communist East. While 75.6% of European Union citizens are fully vaccinated, the share in Bulgaria is 26.2% and 39.6% in Romania. In countries outside the EU, the numbers are even bleaker. Only 20.2% of Ukraine’s population, and 36.3% of Russia’s, is fully vaccinated.

What is wrong with Eastern Europe? In a word: disinformation. The region is awash in it, a legacy of the breakdown of public trust in governmental institutions after communism. Feverish conspiracy theories have gripped these countries like the coronavirus’s shadow.

A Ukrainian doctor recently summed up the situation in her country: “Fake stories have spread widely, making people believe in microchips and genetic mutations ... Some Orthodox priests have openly and aggressively urged people not to get vaccinated, and social networks have been filled with the most absurd rumors. Ukrainians have learned to distrust any authorities’ initiatives, and vaccination isn’t an [exception].”