High COVID costs are caused by Eastern Europe's vaccine reluctance

Andriy Melnik, a truck driver, never considered the coronavirus serious. He bought a fake vaccine certificate with a friend so that his travel documents would be in order when he transported cargo to other parts Europe.

High COVID costs are caused by Eastern Europe's vaccine reluctance

After his friend was diagnosed with COVID-19, his view of the world changed. He ended up in intensive care on a ventilator.

It's not a tall story. Melnik, 42, said that he has seen the effects of this disease and that strong immunity would not be sufficient to protect him. He waited in Kyiv for his shot. "I am really afraid and I'm asking doctors to correct my mistakes."

Coronavirus infections are on the rise in Ukraine, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe or Russia. Although vaccines are readily available, many people resist getting them in their own countries. Notable exceptions are the Baltic states, Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, and Slovenia.

Catherine Smallwood, Europe COVID-19 incident manager at the World Health Organization, stated that Eastern Europe's slow vaccination rate is due to several factors including public distrust, past experience with vaccines and general inequalities.

According to The Associated Press, "We are seeing low vaccine use in a number of countries in that region." "Historical concerns around vaccines play a major role. The whole issue of vaccines is politicized in some countries.

Russia recorded 1,159 deaths in 24 hour -- the highest daily death toll since the pandemic started -- while only about a third were fully vaccinated. The Kremlin declared a nationwide non-working period that will last until Nov. 7, beginning this week.

A Hungarian official announced Thursday that private employers can now require employees to be vaccinated before they start work. This could help boost the country's stagnant vaccination rates. The official stated that teachers and government employees will be required to get vaccinated.

On Thursday, Poland reported that it had more than 8,000 new infections per day since May.

Only 16% of Ukraine's adult population are fully vaccinated, which is the second-lowest rate in Europe after Armenia's slightly more than 7%.

Ukraine's authorities require teachers and government workers to be fully vaccinated before Nov. 8. Otherwise, they will suspend their pay. To board long-distance busses, trains, and planes, you must show proof of vaccination.

This has led to a boom in the black market for counterfeit documents. Fake vaccination certificates can be purchased for as little as $100 to $300. Mykhailo Fedorov (minister for digital transformation) said that there is even a fake version of the government’s digital app with fake certificates already installed.

Last week, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, presided over a meeting about how to fight counterfeits. Police suspect 15 hospital workers of being involved. According to Denys Monastyrsky, the Interior Minister said that 800 criminal cases were opened into these fakes and 100 mobile units were deployed to track down those involved. One was even used to catch a former lawmaker.

Low vaccination rates in Ukraine have led to rapid spread of COVID-19. This has added stress to an already stressed health care system.

The only patients being treated at the hospital surgical ward in Biliaivka near Odessa on the Black Sea are coronavirus victims. 50 of the 52 beds have been filled. The hospital is short of oxygen and drugs.

"We are at the brink of disaster, pushed aggressively by opponents of vaccinations and the lack of resources," Dr. Serhiy Shivets, head of the ward, said. "Regrettably five workers from my ward quit in the last week."

Similar conditions can be seen at the 120-bed hospital in Chernivtsi's western city. Dr. Olha Kobevko claims that she has 126 patients who are in grave condition.

The infectious disease specialist said that he was in deep despair seeing that 99% of COVID-19 patients are not vaccinated. Those people could have been protected. We are left trying to save them, but we don't have enough drugs or resources."

Kobevko stated that the current surge is particularly dangerous, with 10 to 23 patients dying every day at her hospital. This compares with six deaths per day last spring. She also said that the number of COVID-19-related patients in their 40s and 30s has increased significantly.

She attributes widespread vaccine skepticism to social media influence and religious beliefs.

Kobevko stated that "fake stories" have been spreading widely and made people believe in genetic mutations and microchips. "Some Orthodox priests have aggressively and openly advised people not to get vaccinated. Social networks are flooded with absurd rumors." The Ukrainians have come to distrust all authorities and vaccination is not an exception.

Lidia Buiko (72), chose to have the Chinese Sinovac shot. She claimed that Western vaccines contain microchips that control the population.

As she waited in Kyiv, she said that "priests have urged me to think twice about getting immunized -- It would be impossible to get rid the chip."

Even medical professionals are affected by vaccine hesitancy. Viktor Lyashko, Health Minister of Ukraine, admitted that half of Ukrainian medical professionals are still reluctant to receive them.

Murat Sahin (UNICEF representative in Ukraine) stated that false and misleading information regarding COVID-19 is a growing threat.

He stated that "the risks of misinformation regarding vaccination have never been greater -- nor have they the stakes."

Similar skeptical behavior has been observed in Eastern Europe. It is fueled by misinformation online, religious beliefs and distrust of government officials.

Romania, which has 35% of its adults fully immunized is now subject to tighter restrictions. This week, vaccination certificates are required for most daily activities such as the gym, shopping malls, and going to the movies. The curfew is 10 p.m. and shops close at 9:15 p.m. Bars and nightclubs will be closed for 30 days. Masks are required in public.

Many are afraid of vaccines due to the fake information floods social media," Dr. Dragos Zharia of Bucharest’s Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology stated.

He told AP that he sees people with shortness of breathing every day and that most are sorry they didn't get vaccinated.

Bulgaria, with only 25% of its adult population fully immunized, reported record numbers of infections and deaths this week. Official data shows that Bulgaria had the highest COVID-19 death rate among the 27 member countries of the European Union in the last two weeks. 94% of those deaths were unvaccinated.

Georgia has only 33% of its population who have been fully vaccinated. Authorities launched a lottery offering cash prizes to those who get shots. Yet, Dr. Bidzina Kulumbegov was disappointed at the slow pace of vaccinations.

The government's information campaign was not tailored to the country's peculiarities. Kulumbegov stated that the emphasis should have been placed on the Georgian Orthodox Church because there are many instances where priests have said that vaccination is a sin.

Melnik, a Ukrainian truck driver, felt that the fear of COVID-19 was more important than any other worries.

He said, "You cannot cheat this illness." You can purchase a fake certificate but not antibodies. Slowly, the Ukrainians are realizing that vaccination is the only option.

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