Why aren’t Eastern Europeans getting vaccinated? by Kristen Ghodsee & Mitchell A. Orenstein


The high degree of vaccine skepticism and soaring death rates in the region do not reflect the lingering effects of decades of communist rule, but rather the social consequences of its decades-long collapse. Many countries in the region have yet to reverse the deep erosion of public trust that began after 1989.

SOFIA / PHILADELPHIA – In recent weeks, as Europe has once again become the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upsurge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths has highlighted the continued reluctance of a group of Europeans in particular: those of the former communist East. While 75.6% of the citizens of the European Union are fully vaccinated, the share in Bulgaria is 26.2% and 39.6% in Romania. In non-EU countries, the figures are even darker. Only 20.2% of the Ukrainian population and 36.3% of the Russian population are fully vaccinated.

What’s wrong with Eastern Europe? In short: disinformation. The region is inundated with them, a legacy of the collapse of public confidence in government institutions after communism. Feverish conspiracy theories have gripped these countries like the shadow of the coronavirus.

A Ukrainian doctor recently summed up the situation in his country: “False stories have spread widely, suggesting microchips and genetic mutations… Some Orthodox priests have openly and aggressively urged people not to be vaccinated, and the networks social have filled up. with the most absurd rumors. Ukrainians have learned to beware of any initiative by the authorities, and vaccination is not a [exception]. ”

Now, as death rates exceed previous peaks and fear grows, vaccination rates are on the rise. But in many countries fake vaccine certificates and PCR test results are prevalent – in Bulgaria, for example, vaccine certificates and test results can be purchased for € 150-300 ($ 173-347) – and no one knows how many of these documents are circulated. Even those who have seen several friends die still insist that vaccines are dangerous because they contain nanobots or will rewrite your DNA, or because the global pharmaceutical companies that produce them cannot be trusted by public safety.

Of course, rumors and misinformation are rife in the West as well. Fox News, the most-watched cable news channel in the United States, has been broadcasting vaccine misinformation for years. But 70% of American adults are now fully vaccinated. Why are so many Eastern Europeans more sensitive?

The low level of public trust that distinguishes Eastern Europe is a legacy of the collapse of communism, deep transitional recessions in many countries, and the failure of post-communist governments to mitigate their effects. While a widely shared Reuters article reports the opinion of “anonymous” experts who blame “decades of communist rule that eroded public confidence in state institutions,” public confidence was in fact much more upper under communism.

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During the writing of our recent book, Taking stock of the shock: the social consequences of the revolutions of 1989, we explored the public lack of trust of East Europeans using data from the Global Values ​​Survey and the Life in Transition Survey produced by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (BERD).

With a few exceptions, the World Values ​​Survey shows a steady decline in former communist countries in the percentage of people who agree with the claim that “Most people can be trusted.” This decline was most pronounced in countries that suffered a deeper post-Communist recession, and it did not reverse when economic growth finally returned. Instead, public confidence continued to decline. In Bulgaria, between 1995 and 1998, some of the worst years of the transitional recession, 23.7% of respondents trusted their fellow citizens, compared to just 17.1% in 2017-20. In Romania, social trust rose from 17.9% to 12.1% during the same period.

Even in the relatively successful cases of Poland and the Czech Republic, for which the World Values ​​Survey has more comprehensive data, confidence plummeted during the post-Communist transition. In 1989-92, 31.3% of Poles and 30.2% of Czechs believed that most people could be trusted. In 2017-2020, this share was considerably lower – only 24.1% and 21.1%, respectively. Tellingly, while social trust declined across Eastern Europe between 1991 and 2007, it increase in Western Europe.

The EBRD launched its massive Life in Transition Survey in 2006 using 1,000 face-to-face interviews in each of the 28 post-communist countries. He found that while two-thirds of respondents believed that before 1989 most people could be trusted, only about one-third agreed that most people could be trusted 17 years later. This result was consistent across regions and countries, with the majority of respondents across all age groups and income groups agreeing that people were generally “more trustworthy” under communism.

Unsurprisingly, disappointment with the results of the transition also lowered average trust in public institutions (including government, parliament, courts, military and police) in the post-communist region of the 1990s. to the years 2010. From 1990 to 2013, confidence in political institutions in Central and Eastern Europe fell by half.

Reflecting on this data, Erik Berglöf, EBRD chief economist at the time, concluded: “It is important to keep in mind that the damage caused during difficult times, not only to material well-being, but also at general levels of confidence and subjective well-being, should not be underestimated.

In fact, the survey data highlights a little-known fact: Post-Communist recessions were the worst in modern history, far worse than the Great Depression. But not all countries have suffered in the same way. While some, especially Central European countries, have recovered relatively quickly and made progress towards EU standards, many others have suffered unimaginable losses. The average post-communist country did not return to pre-1989 economic production levels until after 17 years, nurturing a deep legacy of mistrust and a sense of abandonment in countries that under communism fostered a culture. mutual assistance against the state.

Eastern Europe’s experience with the pandemic shows that many countries have yet to reverse the deep erosion of public trust that began after 1989. Long before the crisis hit, these countries had become fertile ground for disinformation campaigns – often of Russian origin – which seek to transform public opinion against the EU, against the West and against recognized experts in their own country. The high degree of vaccine skepticism and soaring death rates in the region are a visible result – a result which does not reflect decades of communist rule, but rather the social consequences of its decades-long collapse. .

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