Vaccine Skeptics in Eastern Europe Are Having a Change of Heart

As coronavirus infections rise, governments make it more difficult for the unvaccinated to travel abroad, and authorities combat government distrust and vaccination misinformation, some previous vaccine doubters in Eastern Europe have converted to the opposite side.

Fata Keco was worried about probable side effects as she rolled up her sleeve in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to get her first COVID-19 vaccination injection. The worst she had to deal with over the following three days, she added, was “moderately discomforting pain” in her left arm near the injection site.

More importantly, after months of “being extremely sensitive” to what she now characterizes as “the most absurd beliefs,” the 52-year-old self-employed cleaning lady has joined the global community of vaccination believers.

“The coronavirus does not exist,” she told The Associated Press, “that journalists were paid to sow fear, that planes were spraying us with viruses at night, and that vaccinations were being used by the powers that be to implant us with tracking microchips.”

“I feel relieved now that I’ve taken steps to preserve my health after putting it in jeopardy for so long,” Keco remarked. “It also doesn’t bother me if taking a trip overseas would make my life simpler.”

She isn’t alone in her metamorphosis, particularly after a number of European nations began enforcing anti-virus regulations, including requesting proof of vaccination from foreign visitors.

“I want to travel and study abroad, and I need to be vaccinated,” Esma Dzaka, 18, said after receiving her first injection in Sarajevo on Tuesday.

Sarajevo’s health officials ramped up their efforts this week to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations as far as possible, despite widespread skepticism and a barrage of misinformation. Nurses were dispatched to distribute vaccinations in local council offices and retail malls across the city in the goal of encouraging more people to get their injections.

Haris Vranic, Sarajevo’s senior health officer, believes that several vaccination doubters have recently changed their minds, not just because they wish to travel freely abroad, but also because “statistics don’t lie.”

“The figure is obvious — between 92 and 94 percent of our folks who died in the third and fourth waves (of COVID-19) were not vaccinated,” Vranic stated.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is still recovering from a terrible ethnic conflict in 1992-95, has only vaccinated around a quarter of its 3.3 million inhabitants, making it one of Europe’s lowest immunization rates.

While such skepticism about vaccinations, which have been freely accessible since late last spring, is understandable in Bosnia’s impoverished, corrupt, and ethnically divided country, similar problems have befallen several of its Balkan neighbors, including some European Union members.

Until mid-October, when a rapid increase in new COVID-19 infections and deaths led some hospitals to place body bags in their halls as morgues ran out of capacity, the vaccination rate in Romania, a European Union country of around 19 million people, stayed around 28 percent.

According to Our World in Data, fear, combined with stricter anti-virus measures implemented by authorities, such as a nighttime curfew and requiring proof of vaccination, a recent recovery, or a recent negative test to enter most public venues, has pushed Romania’s vaccination rate to over 40% by December 10.

Ofelia Gligor, who received her first COVID-19 vaccine on a chilly December day this week in the main vaccination clinic in Sighisoara, a tiny, medieval Romanian town 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of Bucharest, said, “I was worried since there are so many (bad) myths” about vaccines.

The 18-year-old trainee nurse had to conquer her concerns for a practical reason: she wouldn’t be able to join her training program at the local hospital unless she could provide confirmation of immunization.

“My advise to everybody right now is to be vaccinated,” she continued, “since vaccinations will become necessary for everyone sooner or later.”

Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, had a similar scenario. Croatian authorities imposed a vaccination requirement for all public sector personnel and all individuals utilizing their services on Nov. 15 in response to a significant increase in daily COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Despite periodic demonstrations against the COVID-19 limits, Croatia’s total vaccination rate has gradually increased over 1.2 percent every week since then, reaching approximately 55 percent of its 4.2 million inhabitants on December 11.

The adoption of required COVID-19 vaccination cards is still on hold in ethnically and administratively fractured Bosnia, where pandemic management is divided between 14 distinct levels of government that don’t always work in lockstep. Indoor mask-wearing and social separation laws still exist, but their implementation is sporadic.

Over 12,900 individuals have died as a result of COVID-19 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but for others, like Keco, it needed more than death figures to accept the reality of the epidemic. It took a squabble with Mahira, her daughter.

“‘Mom, immunizations are 100 percent effective,’ she added. Don’t be stupid, millions of people have been vaccinated and are doing OK.’ COVID-19 “had left him feeling broken,” Keco recounted, adding that her son-in-buddy law’s — who “stated he would not be caught dead getting vaccinated” — became sick.

“I eventually understood that if I want to be safe, I need to be vaccinated,” Keco explained, puzzled. “People’s talk drove me insane. For a while, I believed all of their ridiculous stories.”

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