TThe doctor is desperate. For months, she has been trying to persuade her neighbors in this northwestern Bulgarian city to get vaccinated to prevent the rapid spread of Covid-19. But it’s a losing battle and on a recent Gray Wednesday afternoon, only a handful of patients showed up to receive their vaccination.
There is an abundance of supplies and a choice of either a Pfizer, Moderna or Janssen vaccine, yet only 12 percent of those in Vidin, a town of 63,000 people near the Romanian border, have had a double whammy.
“The cases have increased,” said Biba Tsvetanova, a doctor and public health official who provides vaccinations to residents of this crumbling city on the Danube, where dozens of new cases appear in hospitals every day.
The nation recorded a pandemic record of more than 6,000 Covid-19 infections per day last month, while daily deaths also set new records this month.
“We are trying to convince people that the only thing to reduce the disease is vaccination, and it is our duty to do everything we can to stop it,” Tsvetanova added.
We are trying to get the message across. But the most common thing I hear is that they’re reading something somewhere and they don’t want to expose themselves to a vaccine.”
Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate against Covid-19 and the highest death rate in the European Union. The epidemic has so far claimed the lives of more than 27 thousand people in the country of seven million people.
Although authorities have tried to encourage the vaccine with information campaigns and visits to schools, businesses and health care facilities by vaccine advocates, less than one in four Bulgarians have been fully vaccinated.
This is despite the fact that Bulgaria has a large stockpile of vaccines as there were more than 170,000 unused vaccines donated To Bhutan in July before it expires.
Bulgaria is no exception. Doubt about the vaccine prevails in Eastern Europe. In neighboring Romania, only 37 percent have been vaccinated. Only one in five of the Bosnian population has been vaccinated.
And in Ukraine, where only 21 percent of people have been arrested, hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, forcing medical facilities to set up makeshift tents to care for the sick and dying.
Actual vaccination rates in Eastern Europe and the Balkans may even be lower than official statistics. Health workers issue so many fake Covid-19 digital certificates that authorities are considering installing cameras in vaccination centers. Low-paid doctors may also seek to profit from vaccine skeptics who are willing to pay up to $300 (£223) for a fake certificate that allows them to work and travel.
“In order for them to appear in the database, the doctor must write them down,” said Hristov Ivanov, the leader of the opposition Yes party and a staunch advocate of vaccines. “You go to the doctor, and they go through all the administrative steps, and then they just throw the vaccine in the trash instead of prick you.”
Low vaccination rates have worried EU and WHO officials, who have been urging Bulgaria and the Balkans, including Bosnia and Moldova, to speed up vaccination, for their own sake, but also for the rest of the world.
“The first danger is of course for the Bulgarian population, but also the creation of a new variant, which will be more resistant than other species,” Thierry Breton, the European Union official responsible for launching the vaccine, told reporters in Sofia last week. “If we don’t do anything, we may see the Bulgarian alternative because there are a lot of people not being vaccinated.”
To encourage vaccinations, authorities in Eastern Europe used a mixture of carrots and sticks. The Ukrainian government handed out to each recipient the equivalent of about $40 for a vaccination. Bulgarian authorities have sought to compel employers to make vaccination mandatory, but have also removed a requirement for recipients to sign a liability waiver, fueling conspiracy theories that vaccination is unsafe.
The measures have yielded small successes, especially among educated professionals in cities such as Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, where about a quarter of people have been vaccinated.
At a vaccination center in a metro station in a busy, crowded area of the city, officials said numbers have jumped from about 30 per day to 150 since new rules forced companies to make vaccinations mandatory.
But public health officials warn that the overall numbers are not rising fast enough to cope with a possible winter surge. Unlike in France, where a strongly worded speech by President Emmanuel Macron in July led to a spike in vaccination numbers, skepticism about a jab in Eastern Europe runs deep.
It is rooted in a long-standing mistrust of the authorities that dates back to the era of communist rule.
“Because we have lived under totalitarian regimes, we believe that truth does not dwell with those in power,” says Ilian Vasiliev, an analyst and former diplomat in Sofia.
But the hesitation is also the result of a new wave of effective disinformation campaigns by passionate anti-vaccination activists spread across social media, which has been happening in most parts of the world.
“The problem with these first-generation vaccines is that they are not mature enough,” said Tihomir Bezlov, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a think-tank, referring to the relative newness of the Covid vaccines compared to other vaccinations. which were tested for years before being used en masse.
This gives anti-vaccinators a chance and a chance. “
Analysts also cited the continuing influence of religion as a factor.
During a recent visit to rural Romania, an Orthodox Christian pastor said he was against any public discussion about the vaccine or the status of vaccination, calling it a private decision. In Romania, there are also two priests Investigation After allegedly removing vaccinated members of their subjects.
The Russian Orthodox Church publicly urged believers to appeal last summer, but critics accused the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of shrewdly promoting an anti-vaccination message by refusing to endorse mass vaccinations and speaking instead about the sacredness of Christ’s body.
In all of these countries, health care systems have been drained by immigration and devastated by a lack of investment, adding to the mistrust of the authorities. In recent weeks, deadly fires have broken out in Covid wards in both Romania and Bulgaria, killing 12 people.
Like much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, large swathes of rural areas in Bulgaria and Romania have been affected by declining populations.
Rural northwestern Bulgaria looks like a barren land. Hundreds of homes appear to be deserted, with broken windows and wood-panelled doors, crammed with weeds. Huge warehouses and hollow factory complexes covered in rust and graffiti. Few companies operate.
These populations grinding down towns and villages have little faith in their country’s future, let alone a vaccine.
“I doubt that the vaccine they give the rich is the same as the one that the poor get,” said one teenager on the main square of Vidin.
Polarized and fractured politics also damage public confidence. Romania has been without a government for months. Ukraine remains stuck in a state of perpetual crisis, with pro-Russian forces occupying the east of the country. Bosnia is said to be on the verge of internal collapse, as Serb nationalists challenge the country’s 25-year peace deal.
Bulgaria has held three inconclusive elections this year and has yet to form a governing coalition.
Critics blame the machinations of the country’s political elite, including longtime former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his opponents. He first acted quickly in relation to the pandemic, imposing reasonable lockdown measures. However, he then sought to protect himself from any political fallout by creating two bodies that would oversee health care, each giving contradictory messages.
“He would get up in the morning and say, ‘Today, I will meet with this group and support their message … Another day, the other group,’” said opposition leader Ivanov.
When Borisov’s popularity appeared to be rising last year as the nation rallied around his Covid-19 measures, opposition swooped in, questioning lockdowns, concealing mandates and, eventually, vaccinations as a way to bring about his own demise.
A far-right political party has entered parliament with little more than a strong anti-vaccination message for the first time in this month’s vote. Surveys show that up to 70 percent of Bulgarians are against the vaccine. In interviews, their reasons vary. Some question the effectiveness of the vaccine. Others have cited unfounded fears of side effects, and there are those who worry about conspiratorial agendas.
“I’m a healthy person and I don’t need a vaccination,” said Kramvil Kamenov, a 52-year-old truck driver.
“In general, I trust the doctors but I don’t trust the vaccine.”
The prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment makes those who choose to be stabbed a quiet minority.
Valentin Tsenov, a 47-year-old Bulgarian farmer in the UK, was receiving his first dose during the flight back home to visit his family in Vidin. He said watching life slowly return to normal near Canterbury, where he lives, has convinced him the vaccine is safe and effective.
However, he refuses to work as a vaccine advocate for his friends and family in Bulgaria.
He said: I prefer not to quarrel with them, because I am afraid that they will try to persuade me not to vaccinate.
Milena Khristova contributed to this report.