Lunchtime is approaching and a Covid-19 vaccination center in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is nearly empty, a stark example of how the country’s vaccination effort is crippled by fake news and widespread mistrust.
As a fourth wave of coronavirus looms, official data shows only 15% of the population of 6.9 million people have been fully vaccinated, well below the EU average of 53.3%.
“Since the start of vaccinations, we have been lagging behind,” Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov said in a recent interview.
On the streets of Sofia, it’s easy to spot the attitudes that led to low adoption.
” Absolutely not! Replied Georgy Dragoev, a 45-year-old construction worker, questioned by AFP if he would be vaccinated.
“I think they’re just causing panic,” he said, taking his lunch break on a bench outside the vaccination center.
“If this coronavirus exists and I catch it, I will somehow manage to beat it,” he adds.
– “It’s not an easy decision” –
A recent Gallup poll showed that a total of 41.8% of Bulgarians said they did not intend to get bitten.
Even some of those who came to be vaccinated had their reserves.
Accountant Katerina Nikolova, 39, told AFP it was “not an easy decision” for her, saying she was worried about the expedited clinical trial procedure for Covid-19 vaccines.
Plain fake news about the virus has also played a role.
As of mid-March, AFP has operated a Bulgarian-language fact-checking service, and during that period half of the articles published were related to disinformation about the coronavirus.
Theories range from the claim that the vaccine leaves magnetic chips implanted in people’s arms – shared thousands of times on Facebook – to falsely portrayed photos of French football fans’ victory celebrations after the 2018 World Cup. as being demonstrations against France. health card ”.
Health Minister Katsarov partly blamed Bulgarians’ “susceptibility to conspiracy theories” for the low vaccination rate, but Nikolova said she was also confused by the conflicting views of the experts invited to television.
These guests are often invited to comment on areas outside of their expertise or are allowed to present scientifically questionable opinions.
One of the voices invited to contribute to the televised debates, Atanas Mangarov, is an associate professor of infectious diseases and head of the Covid-19 care unit at a hospital in Sofia, but has spread discredited theories about the virus, insisting on the fact that wearing masks and vaccines aren’t necessary and promoting herbal teas as a treatment.
Media expert Nelly Ognyanova says the media contributed to the poor quality of the information.
“Media, social networks, public appearances of experts and other sources share responsibility for anti-vaxxer sentiment and mistrust of the role and safety of vaccines,” she said. declared.
“It’s no secret that this is also part of a Kremlin-waged Hybrid War,” she added, referring to the role of Russian troll factories in spreading disinformation – in one a country that has long maintained close cultural ties with Russia.
– Renewed fear –
According to Parvan Simeonov of Gallup International, vaccine skepticism also reflects “Bulgarians’ resentment towards elites” and a wider distrust of authorities and official information.
Bulgaria has recorded just under 430,000 cases of coronavirus infection, according to official data, but experts and health officials agree that it is certainly undercoverage because access to free tests is limited and many sick people simply have not paid for a test.
Simeonov says the uptake of the vaccine has been further slowed by the large number of people who have already been infected – or believe they have been – and have therefore delayed their injection according to medical advice.
However, as a fourth wave of infections looms, Simeonov said the “fear factor” could lead to a change in attitude in the coming months, leading to the vaccinations.
If the population remains hesitant, experts fear that the coronavirus death rate in Bulgaria – already one of the highest in the EU at 263 per 100,000 inhabitants – will rise further.
© 2021 AFP