While the percentage of fully vaccinated in Western Europe is typically around 70 percent, as in Norway, it is catastrophically low in parts of Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, less than 25 percent have received two doses, figures show Our World in Data.
The country has both the lowest rate of vaccination and the highest rate of covid-19 deaths in the EU – 27,000 have died from the disease in a population of 7 million during the pandemic.
The new corona variant omicron now creates uncertainty and fear. Countries with a very low vaccination rate are particularly vulnerable.
The EU also fears that a new virus variant will be able to develop in a population where the majority have not been vaccinated.
The EU, the UK and the US are among the countries that have introduced travel restrictions for travelers from southern Africa in the hope of limiting the spread.
At the same time, more and more countries are reporting cases of the dreaded variant. The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Israel are among the countries that have registered cases. Denmark suspects that two people, who recently returned from traveling in South Africa, are infected with the new variant.
Must give away doses
The figures from Bulgaria do not reflect a shortage of vaccines; there are large stocks of all the major vaccines, but this summer Bulgaria donated 172,500 AstraZeneca doses to the Asian country of Bhutan because they would otherwise be out of date, according to Reuters.
Instead, the low vaccination rate is an indication that the average Bulgarian simply does not want to be vaccinated. The suspicion of both the vaccine and the authorities is great, writes The Independent in a report.
According to the newspaper, opinion polls show that up to 70 percent of Bulgarians are against the vaccines.
The figures are so alarming that the EU fears a new virus variant could develop in the Bulgarian population.
– If we do nothing, a Bulgarian variant can occur because too many people have not been vaccinated, says EU vaccine program manager Thierry Breton.
Believe in conspiracy theories
The authorities have tried to raise the numbers through advertising campaigns and lectures in schools and companies, as well as lotteries where e.g. can win a smartwatch if you get vaccinated. But little works.
The cause of the mistrust is complex. Some people are afraid of the side effects, others doubt that they work. Many people believe in conspiracy theories.
– What I hear most is that they have read something and do not want to expose themselves to the vaccine, doctor Pepa Tsvetanova tells Independent.
In a large survey conducted by Trend from November, 52 percent answer that covid-19 is an artificially produced virus; 40 percent believe the virus is part of a conspiracy between drug companies; 33 percent are convinced that the disease is no worse than the flu; and 16 percent believe the vaccines contain microchips that can control people, writes Al Jazeera.
– I am a healthy and healthy person and do not need a vaccine. In general, I trust doctors, but not the vaccine, says truck driver Karamfil Kamenov (52) to Independent.
Fake corona pass
There is also a difference between city and country, poor and rich. The proportion of vaccinated is significantly higher in large cities such as the capital Sofia, than in rural areas.
“I doubt that the vaccine they give to the rich is the same as the poor get,” a teenager in the northwestern small town of Vidin told the Independent.
At the same time, it is a widespread problem that doctors allow themselves to be bribed to issue false corona passports to vaccine deniers, so that they can travel abroad. The problem is so widespread that the authorities are considering installing surveillance cameras at the vaccine centers.
– You go to the doctor, they register everything they need in the system, and then throw the vaccine in the trash instead of giving it to you, opposition politician and vaccine supporter Hristof Ivanov tells Al Jazeera.
He states that of his 3,000 patients, only 700 have been vaccinated.
The problem also extends into the health sector. According to the Bulgarian Medical Association, around a third of doctors are unvaccinated, while up to half of the staff at some hospitals in Sofia have rejected the injection.
The problem of low vaccine rates is also large in other Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine. According to the British newspaper, much of the skepticism is rooted in great distrust of the authorities from the communist era.
Opposed by the church
Bulgaria is also in political chaos; this year, the country has had three elections without a clear outcome, and still lacks a governing coalition. Prime Minister Bojko Borisov gets his share of the blame from critics, who point out that he set up two health agencies to deal with the pandemic, which in part gives conflicting messages.
The opposition has also tried to make political money by undermining Borisov’s authority by questioning his corona measures, including the vaccine program; a right-wing populist party that mainly promotes opposition to vaccination, entered the Bulgarian parliament earlier in November.
In addition, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has refused to support mass vaccination and instead promoted the message of the holiness and purity of Jesus’ body.