KYIV – After receiving its first shipment of coronavirus vaccine, Ukraine found itself in a new struggle against the pandemic — persuading its widely reluctant people to get the shot.
Although infections are rising sharply, Ukrainians are becoming increasingly opposed to vaccination: an opinion poll released earlier this month by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found 60% of the country's people don't want to get vaccinated, up from 40% a month earlier. The nationwide poll of 1,207 had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
The resistance appears to be rooted in longstanding suspicion of vaccines dating back to the Soviet era, amplified by politicians' allegations about low-quality vaccines, corruption scandals and misinformation spread through social media. Even more surprisingly, the reluctance still appears even among those highest at risk who administer lifesaving drugs to others every day: medical workers.
In the mining town of Selydove, 700 kilometers (420 miles) east of Kyiv, only 5% of the medical staff agreed to be vaccinated. Those declining included Olena Obyedko, a 26-year-old nurse who works in the hospital's intensive care ward for COVID-19 patients, where people die every week.
“I decided not to get vaccinated. I doubt the quality of the vaccine. I’m afraid there will be side effects," she said.
So few people chose to get the shots that the mobile brigade who came to Selydove to administer them ended up giving vaccinations to themselves in order not to let the vaccine go to waste.
“Such a low number of vaccinated people is associated with low confidence in the vaccine that has entered Ukraine,” brigade head Olena Marchenko said of the AstraZeneca vaccine that was manufactured in India. “This is due to prejudice and information that is spread on social networks. People read a lot, they have a negative attitude towards the Indian vaccine.”
Prominent politicians have fed that suspicion.
Former President Petro Poroshenko said in parliament this month that he asked doctors in one region about why there was resistance to vaccination and was told: “Because they brought shit. And they brought it because of corruption and incompetence.”
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko added to the discontent by demanding that parliament pass a law to give government compensation to those who face vaccine side effects.
Vaccine corruption scandals had started even before the first doses arrived in the country. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine reported that it began an investigation into a September deal to purchase 1.9 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine at 504 hryvna ($18) per dose. Its Chinese makers have not released full reports on its efficacy and one study in Brazil said it only has a 50% efficiency.
“What these attacks lead to are consequences that will affect every Ukrainian," said Health Minister Maxim Stepanov. “We are talking about an attempt to disrupt the vaccination campaign in Ukraine.”
Ukraine received its first shipment of vaccine — 500,000 AstraZeneca doses — in late February. Yet, only about 23,500 people have been vaccinated since then.
In that same period, as many as 10,000 new infections a day have been recorded. Overall, the country of 41 million has recorded 1.4 million infections and more than 28,000 deaths.
The health minister says only about 40% of medical workers treating coronavirus patients have agreed to receive the vaccine.
Speaking in parliament, Oleksandr Kornienko, a leading member of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Servant of the People faction, said medical facilities were forced to destroy many doses of the vaccine — which can only be stored for a few hours after a vial is opened — because the medical professionals who had been prescribed vaccinations did not show up.
“Now they are forced to destroy the coveted vaccine, because they fail to give it to people in time,” said Kornienko.
Zelenskiy, who contracted the virus in November, tried to encourage vaccinations by publicly getting a shot himself.
“The vaccine will allow us to live again without restrictions,” Zelensky said. “I believe that this vaccine is of high quality, it is one of the best in the world.”
Yet his action seems to have had little effect.
The country designated 14,000 doses of its first vaccine shipment for the military, especially those fighting Russia-backed separatists in the east. But only 1,030 troops have been vaccinated thus far.
In the front-line town of Krasnohorivka, soldiers widely refused to vaccinate.
“I have little faith in a pandemic, I don’t think it’s some kind of serious disease,” said Serhiy Kochuk, a 25-year-old soldier. “I am healthy, but the vaccine can provoke illness. Because of this vaccine you can get sick.”
The head of the Kyiv sociology institute, Volodymyr Paniotto, told The Associated Press that a recent decline in the popularity of Zelenskiy’s government has contributed to the vaccine resistance.
“The super-critical attitude of Ukrainians to the authorities was superimposed on the struggle of politicians and the information war, which led to massive distrust in society,” he said.
Ukrainians have been skeptical about any vaccinations since Soviet times. In 2019, the country had Europe’s largest measles outbreak due to widespread refusals to get a measles vaccine shot.
“Over the past 20 years, Ukraine has been among the European countries most opposed to vaccination as such,” said Vadym Denysenko, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.
The United Nations Development Program says the country is suffering an “info-demic” of misinformation about the vaccine and has called on the government to step up its fight.
“Conspiracy theories, rumors and malicious disinformation can quickly go viral on social media, especially when there is a low level of public trust in state institutions," it said.
Mstyslav Chernov in Selydove, Ukraine, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.