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COVID-19 vaccinations reveal EU's stark East-West divide

Eastern EU states have barely managed to vaccinate a third of their populations as western bloc members near full coverage

Omer Tugrul Cam and Ihvan Radoykov   | 15.09.2021
COVID-19 vaccinations reveal EU's stark East-West divide

BRUSSELS 

Eastern EU countries are lagging far behind their western counterparts in the bloc when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Since immunization drives kicked off in the EU early this year, some countries in the western part of Europe have managed to fully vaccinate almost all of their adult population.

The situation in the continent’s east presents a stark contrast, with less than a third of adults vaccinated so far in countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

The EU Commission has agreed to buy billions of doses from manufacturers for member states – approximately 2.4 billion doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, 460 million doses from Moderna, 300 million doses from AstraZeneca, and 400 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.

Initial procurement hiccups have been overcome and, currently, there is no supply problem in the EU.

Vaccinations across the bloc gained momentum in spring and peaked by the start of the summer tourism season, with the EU Commission announcing in July that it had hit its target of vaccinating 70% of adults in the region of some 450 million people.

According to latest data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, 77.6% of adult EU citizens have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 70.8% have received two doses.

Western Europe steams ahead

The vaccination rate is particularly high in western European countries, with the number of people having received one dose now over 90% in some states and nearing 90% for double-jabbed people.

In Malta some 91.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, 89.8% in Ireland, and 87.4% in Denmark, which recently became the first EU state to lift all COVID-19 restrictions.

Portugal has managed to fully vaccinate 86.5% of its population, Belgium 83.9%, Spain 80.8%, France 79.7%, the Netherlands 77.2%, Southern Cyprus 75.2%, Sweden 74.1%, Germany 73.4%, Italy 72.8%, and 72.4% in Luxembourg.

In eastern Europe, however, most countries are still well below the 50% mark.

Bulgaria has the lowest rate of 21.4%, followed by Romania with 32.6%, Latvia 47.3%, Croatia 48.4%, and Slovakia with 50.2%.

Bulgaria battles vaccine skepticism

Bulgaria, a country of some 7 million people, has reported more than 473,000 coronavirus infections and over 19,660 fatalities to date.

Currently, the country has about 2,000 new cases and around 150 deaths each day, making for a much higher mortality rate compared to many countries.

Despite free vaccinations and the public having the option to choose from the four jabs approved by the EU, Bulgarians have displayed a worrying aversion to COVID-19 vaccines.

Compounding the situation is the fact that a majority of people are against virus safety guidelines, refusing to wear masks or follow social distancing rules.

According to the country’s Health Ministry, around 98% of people dying of COVID-19 were not vaccinated, while hospitals are stretched to their limits dealing with virus patients.

The government enforced some measures last week to redress the situation, including limiting attendance for indoor cultural events, banning spectators from indoor sports events, an 11 p.m. closing time for restaurants, and temporarily shutting nightclubs, discos, casinos and other entertainment venues.

Rural headache for Romania

Romania, which has a population of some 20 million, has reported around 1.26 million coronavirus infections and more than 35,000 deaths to date.

The daily average case count is approximately 2,000 and the number of deaths hovers around 40.

A particular area of concern in Romania is the country’s rural areas, where the vaccination rate currently stands at an abysmally low 14%.

The lax vaccination coverage has been attributed to a range of factors, including a general distrust of authorities and fears about the vaccines and their possible side effects.

Doctors’ hesitance to back vaccinations at the start of the nationwide immunization drive is cited as another reason – more so as the rate of vaccination among healthcare workers also remains quite low.

The lack of public support from the head and priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church has also been a contributor, as the clergy is believed to hold particular sway over the rural population.

Despite Romania’s grave coronavirus situation, the government has not enforced any strict measures in the country, except for making masks mandatory in closed areas and on public transport.

There have been numerous reports of safety rules being openly violated in the country.

The latest example came at music festival last week where masks – which were mandatory – were found to be scarce as some 56,000 people attended the four-day event in the city of Cluj.

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