Ukraine found itself in a new fight against the pandemic after obtaining the first shipment of coronavirus vaccine: persuading its skeptics to get the shot.
Despite the fact that diseases are on the rise, Ukrainians are becoming more anti-vaccination. According to a poll released earlier this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 60% of the country’s population does not want to be vaccinated, up from 40% a month ago. The margin of error for the nationwide poll of 1,207 people was 2.9 percentage points.
The opposition appears to be rooted in a long-standing distrust of vaccines that dates back to the Soviet period, and has been exacerbated by politicians’ claims of low-quality vaccines, corruption scandals, and misinformation spread through social media. Surprisingly, the hesitation persists also among those most at risk, those who prescribe lifesaving medications to others on a daily basis: medical professionals.
Just 5% of the medical workers in Selydove, a mining town 700 kilometers (420 miles) east of Kyiv, agreed to be vaccinated. Olena Obyedko, a 26-year-old nurse who works in the hospital’s COVID-19 intensive care ward, where people die every week, was among those who declined.
“I made the decision not to get vaccinated. I have my doubts about the vaccine’s quality. “I’m afraid there will be side effects,” she expressed her concern.
Since so few people wanted to get the vaccines, the mobile brigade that came to Selydove to administer them ended up offering themselves vaccinations to avoid wasting the vaccine.
“Such a low number of vaccinated citizens is associated with low trust in the vaccine that has entered Ukraine,” said Olena Marchenko, the head of the brigade. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which was produced in India, was imported into Ukraine. “This is due to racism and misinformation spread across social media. People who read a lot have a negative opinion of the Indian vaccine.”
This skepticism has been fueled by powerful politicians.
In parliament this month, former President Petro Poroshenko said he asked doctors in one area why there was resistance to vaccination and was told, “Because they brought shit.” And they carried it because of ignorance and corruption.”
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko fueled the dissent by requesting that parliament pass a law allowing the government to compensate those who suffer from vaccine-related side effects.
Even before the first doses of vaccines arrived in the world, there were allegations of vaccine fraud. According to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, an investigation into a September deal to buy 1.9 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine for 504 hryvna ($18) each has begun. Its Chinese creators haven’t published full reports on its effectiveness, and one study in Brazil found that it only works 50% of the time.
“The effects of these attacks will affect every Ukrainian,” said Health Minister Maxim Stepanov. “We’re talking about an effort to sabotage Ukraine’s vaccination campaign.”
Late in February, Ukraine got its first shipment of vaccine, 500,000 AstraZeneca doses. Since then, only about 23,500 people have been vaccinated.
During the same time span, up to 10,000 new infections per day were reported. In total, the 41 million-strong nation has seen 1.4 million infections and over 28,000 deaths.
Only about 40% of medical staff who handle coronavirus patients have agreed to receive the vaccine, according to the health minister.
Oleksandr Kornienko, a leading member of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, said in parliament that medical facilities were forced to kill several doses of the vaccine, which can only be kept for a few hours after a vial is opened, because medical professionals who had been prescribed vaccines failed to show up.
“Now they’re being forced to kill the prized vaccine because they can’t get it to people in time,” Kornienko said.
After contracting the virus in November, Zelenskiy tried to promote vaccines by having a shot in public.
“The vaccine will allow us to live without limitations once more,” Zelensky said. “I believe this vaccine is of high quality; it is among the best in the world,” says the researcher.
His intervention, however, seems to have had little effect.
The military, especially those fighting Russia-backed separatists in the east, will receive 14,000 doses of the country’s first vaccine shipment. However, only 1,030 soldiers have been immunized so far.
Soldiers in the front-line town of Krasnohorivka refused to be vaccinated in large numbers.
Serhiy Kochuk, a 25-year-old soldier, said, “I have little confidence in a pandemic; I don’t think it’s any sort of serious disease.” “I am well, but the vaccine has the potential to cause disease. You can become ill as a result of this vaccine.”
Volodymyr Paniotto, the head of the Kyiv sociology institute, told The Associated Press that a recent drop in Zelenskiy’s government’s popularity has led to vaccine resistance.
“The super-critical mindset of Ukrainians toward the authorities was superimposed on the political struggle and the information war, resulting in widespread societal distrust,” he said.
Since the Soviet era, Ukrainians have been wary of vaccinations. Owing to widespread refusals to receive a measles vaccine injection, the nation experienced Europe’s biggest measles outbreak in 2019.
“Over the last 20 years, Ukraine has been one of the European countries most opposed to vaccination,” said Vadym Denysenko, a researcher at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.
According to the UN Development Program, the world is experiencing a “info-demic” of vaccine misinformation, and the government has been urged to step up its efforts.
“Especially when there is a low level of public confidence in state institutions, conspiracy theories, rumors, and malicious misinformation can easily go viral on social media,” it said.