For the vast majority of Europe, the first groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine have been the most vulnerable: the elderly or healthcare workers.
But, in the Czech Republic, they have done things differently.
In an apparent nod to the country’s general confidence in vaccines, the first person to take the hit was Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
It was part of the government’s new publicity campaign to address widespread skepticism about vaccines, which seems so ingrained that high-level politicians worry that two-thirds of the population cannot be vaccinated.
Experts say that between 60 and 70% of the population needs to have received the COVID-19 vaccine for the disease to be eradicated.
What are the levels of skepticism about vaccines in the Czech Republic?
A survey by STEM, a local pollster, in early December found that only 40% of Czechs would be voluntarily vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
A regional survey conducted by the Sinophone Borderlands project of Olomouc’s Palacky University showed a more worrying picture: only 30% of Czechs would be willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the second lowest score of the 13 European countries surveyed and just behind Slovakia. It compares with 31% of the French, 52% of the Germans and 62% of the British.
Why are Czechs skeptical of vaccines?
Richard Q. Turcsanyi of Palacky University and lead researcher on the survey, says there is more skepticism in Eastern Europe than in Western states about the vaccine.
He attributes the Czech situation to a mixture of lack of trust in the government, widespread misinformation, Russian propaganda and misunderstandings of science.
After Babis was inoculated, conspiracy theories quickly spread on social media. Some claimed that the video footage did not show the needle entering the prime minister’s arm, as the doctor’s hand masks it, and it was a scam. Others claim they injected him with a placebo.
The main reason to be skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines is that they have been “hastily developed [and] have not been properly tested for their safety and efficacy, “while the public is not adequately informed about the possible side effects of this vaccine,” according to David Formanek, creator of the Open Your Mind (Otevři svou mysl) website, whose Facebook is followed by 20,000 people.
For months, he has denounced the government’s pandemic measures as a new form of authoritarian control, in a country where 12,436 have died from COVID-19, as of January 6, and has spread other conspiracy theories.
He recently created a new professional-looking site, Risks of Vaccines, which includes translated videos of talks by doctors and medical experts, including one with controversial British author Vernon Coleman.
Now, Formanek says that the Czech government will establish a conditionality for the vaccine, and that those vaccinated can travel normally, but those who refuse still face strong restrictions.
“It is basically a ‘mandatory vaccination’ in another package,” he added. “I strongly hope that people will strongly demand that this vaccine is not conditional … but is truly voluntary.”
‘The Czechs have a media literacy problem’
Jan Cemper, editor-in-chief of the anti-disinformation website Manipulátoři.cz, which has often refuted suggestions made on Formanek’s sites, says that many websites and online groups have sprung up in recent months to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
But in response, new anti-disinformation news sites have also been created, including the recent addition of infomore.cz, created by the faculties of science at Charles University and Masaryk University in Brno, as well as by a media organization. .
“In the Czech Republic, there is generally a problem with media literacy. People don’t really check what’s written on the internet, ”Cemper said, adding that there has been a lot of false information about vaccines over the years, not just with COVID-19.
In 2018, then-Deputy Health Minister Roman Prymula said that misinformation about vaccines was the reason for a measles outbreak in Prague.
“We have entire communities of people who are exposed to constantly repeated falsehoods about vaccination and are beginning to believe them,” he commented in 2019 amid another debate in local media about rising anti-vaccine sentiment.
A report published in late 2018, The State of Vaccine Confidence in the EU, funded by the European Commission, found that 36% of GPs surveyed in the Czech Republic thought that the MMR vaccine was unsafe, one of the highest rates in Europe and the only country where medical professionals were more skeptical than the general public.
A frequently made claim is that Czechs are inherently more suspicious of official narratives and expert opinion due to the country’s communist past, when skepticism of the Communist Party’s version of the truth was often justified. But this would not explain why the 2018 study and this year’s polls find anti-vaccine sentiment to be more common among people between the ages of 25 and 34, most of whom were born after the fall of communism in 1989, than between those over 65.
Another point of view holds that Czechs are by nature skeptical and distrustful. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that they are the third least religious in Europe, with just 8% of respondents claiming to be “deeply religious”, compared to 29% in neighboring Slovakia.
But the Sinophone survey also found that only a third of Czechs believed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was artificially made in a Chinese laboratory, compared to half of Polish respondents and 41% of Spanish respondents. .
Does mistrust of the government play a role in vaccine skepticism?
Without a doubt, historical and cultural reasons are part of the explanation why Czechs are deeply suspicious of COVID-19 vaccines. The same goes for the more universal concerns about the speed at which the vaccine was produced and approved. But mistrust in this particular government is another factor.
Babis, a billionaire populist, was elected prime minister in 2017 while the EU investigated him for subsidy fraud, a case that is ongoing. In fact, he campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket.
The largest protests since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which toppled communism, took place last year against the Babis government and President Milos Zeman, who critics say wants to rule autocratically.
This mistrust has not been helped by the government’s handling of the pandemic, which was often chaotic at first, although the country did relatively well in the first few months.
Given that the country is expected to receive at least 355,000 doses by the end of January, as part of its total order of 15.9 million vaccines, the question for the government now is how to enforce the vaccination of 70% of the population, he claimed. objective, when the majority of the public opposes it.
“The real problem is that a large part of the population can resist being vaccinated,” Dr. Miloslav Janulík, vice president of the health committee of the Chamber of Deputies, told local media in November.
Lessons from the lockdown would suggest that authorities will fight to instigate a widespread vaccination program by force, and if the government tried to enforce heavy-handed measures, this could only increase opposition to the vaccine.
After responding well during the first months of the pandemic, in July the government had lifted almost all restrictions, one of the main reasons why the Czech Republic had the highest infection rate per population in Europe in October, in the middle of the second wave of the virus. Since then, the authorities have struggled to maintain public compliance with much stricter rules, and Prime Minister Babis has lashed out at the public on several occasions.
The government has also been slow to counter the spread of anti-vaccine messages. Dr. Vlastimil Valek, vice chairman of the opposition TOP 09 party, criticized him in November for not having already instigated an advertising campaign and blamed the new Health Ministry, Jan Blatny, for allegedly shelving a campaign when he took office the previous month.
The government appears to have started to remedy this, and Babis received the country’s first injection, produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, very publicly before the other 9,750 doses from the country were distributed.
According to Cemper, many Czechs are playing the waiting game and will make the decision to get vaccinated or not depending on how well the first vaccination application goes.
“The fact that the vaccine has not been tested is one of the common narratives. Another is the side effects, “he said.
“The problem is also that it is not yet known what benefits the vaccinated people will have.”
Surveys may also be misleading. It may be relatively easy for respondents to tell a pollster that they would not receive a hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine, but once they are freely available and potentially life-saving, it is quite a different matter.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism