This content is not available in your region

How Ukraine's Soviet legacy is helping derail its COVID fightback

Access to the comments Comments
By Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
A medic wearing a special suit against coronavirus adjusts a coronavirus patient's oxygen mask at the intensive care unit at a hospital in the mining town of Selydove, Ukraine
A medic wearing a special suit against coronavirus adjusts a coronavirus patient's oxygen mask at the intensive care unit at a hospital in the mining town of Selydove, Ukraine   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Vaccine scepticism and mistrust in government are combining to deadly effect in Ukraine.

The country has seen COVID cases and deaths surge in recent weeks and, with vaccination rates a fraction of those seen elsewhere in Europe, there are fears of a difficult autumn ahead, including fresh lockdowns.

The number of new infections hit 94,000 a week in late October - nearly as high as the peaks seen in the spring.

Weekly deaths, meanwhile, have passed 2,000.

While Ukraine started its vaccination campaign later than other European Union countries, it has still only inoculated 14% of its population. That compares to around 63% in the EU and 52% in Europe.

Concerned about the situation, Ukraine's health ministry put out a statement highlighting that 98% of those hospitalised with severe COVID in the last three months were unvaccinated.

"If you want to protect yourself from a severe course [of COVID], hospitalisation and death - get vaccinated today," urged Igor Kuzin, Ukraine's chief state sanitary doctor.

What's behind Ukraine's low vaccination rate?

There are several reasons for the low vaccination rates in Ukraine, Pavlo Fedorchenko-Kutuev, the chairman of the sociology department at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, told Euronews.

He criticised the government for, among other things, being quick to endorse vaccinations, but at the same time, failing to ensure people had enough of them.

As a result, he added, it made people wonder “whether the virus really is so bad as the government tells them”.

“People should have been more rational and done more to be vaccinated when vaccines became available later on, but the government also had to be better at communicating and making sure that people had access to vaccines,” said Fedorchenko-Kutuev.

“The government set unrealistic goals about vaccinations at the beginning of the pandemic. The government bombarded people with the message that they needed to get vaccinated while failing to provide access to vaccines,” he said, adding that opposition politicians had also tried to exploit the crisis and sow division.

Euronews has contacted the Health Ministry in Ukraine for questions but they haven't received a response at the time of publication.

In March, the National Democratic Institute found that 46 per cent of Ukrainians would say no if they were offered the vaccine. However, a third of them would consider getting the jab if provided with more information about the vaccines and their safety.

In April, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 52.2 per cent of Ukrainian don’t want to be vaccinated. When asked why not, 40 per cent said that the vaccines aren’t sufficiently tested, 33 per cent said they distrust the vaccines available in Ukraine, while 20 per cent said they think the vaccine’s side effects can be worse than the virus itself.

Why are Ukrainians refusing to be vaccinated?

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that millions of people had safety had the COVID-19 vaccine and that the jabs had been carefully tested.

"Like all vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines go through a rigorous, multi-stage testing process, including large clinical trials that involve tens of thousands of people. These trials are specifically designed to identify any safety concerns," said WHO.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find anti-vaccine sentiment on the streets of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Roman Chehuta, 32, is waiting for a train with his friend when he shares his views with Euronews.

“People are dying because of the vaccines that the government is trying to force us to take, it is Hitler methods," said the repairman. "I will not take the vaccine."

“I am against vaccines," said Kyiv local Svitlana Yankova. "There is so much negative information about vaccines. I have heard how it is damaging your reproductive system, and I believe that I will be worse of after the vaccine.”

Dr Liudmila Mosina, a specialist on vaccine-preventable diseases at WHO's Europe office, told Euronews there was no evidence that COVID jabs affect fertility.

Why might Ukrainians be vaccine sceptic?

Fedorchenko-Kutuev pointed to a general mistrust of government and authority.

When it comes to security, for instance, Ukrainians rely on themselves or their families, rather than Kyiv, he added. It's the same with health, too, he said. "You would often rather ask a friend or Google than go to the doctor or listen to the government,” said Fedorchenko-Kutuev.

“That different politicians have tried to abuse the pandemic for their gain hasn’t helped on the situation.”

Fedorchenko-Kutuev said another reason for the scepticism and low trust levels in the government is historical.

“Events such as Chernobyl during the Soviet Union made people more distrustful of the government,” said Fedorchenko-Kutuev, “Critical people in Ukraine during the end of the Soviet Union would simply discard anything they read in the Soviet reporting.”

He said that distrust continued after the Soviet Union collapsed.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people saw the enrichment of the few. How privatisation has only enriched a few people, and people feel alienated,” he says, “People have a hard time trusting politicians in a country with such a history.”

Raisa Ivanina, who is selling cigarettes from a wooden table in Kyiv, tells Euronews she is vaccinated but understands the ones who won’t. Ivanina has a sister who lives in Germany and decided to get vaccinated so she could visit her.

“I am not so worried about the virus or the vaccine,” she says, “I took the vaccine, but I understand why so people do not trust the government. We have so much corruption. The government steals from us. The young people, our future, run away, and only the alcoholics and drunks stay behind. I understand why people do not trust the government here.”

Konstantin Pereligin, 60, decided to take the jab, despite hearing a lot of vaccine scepticism from other Ukrainians.

“It is, of course, a personal choice for people, but I do not understand why some do not get vaccinated,” Pereligin says, “When I was small, we all got different vaccines to prevent different diseases. Nobody asked why and the vaccines helped. We can see that we need to do something about this virus, and suddenly, people are worried about taking a vaccine.”

“I don’t understand it. I cannot see why I shouldn’t be vaccinated.”

Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It's available on Apple and Android devices.