Coronavirus Global situation

Anti-vaxxers in Europe feed on distrust of govt, conspiracy theories

Officials have hard time fighting fake claims as politicians capitalise on issue

As tens of thousands of people take to the streets in major European cities to protest against vaccine mandates and other measures designed to contain the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections on the continent, the task of identifying the anti-vaccine organisations responsible for organising these violent protests to neutralise their impact is now an urgent challenge for most European governments.

But that is not easy since the anti-vaxxers - as they are popularly known - draw support from a variety of trends, some of which are particular to each individual European country.

What can be said is that the anti-vaccination movement as a whole feeds on a wider distrust of governments and on broader conspiracy theories peddled mostly by far-right organisations.

Most of these movements frame their opposition to vaccines as part of what they claim is their fight for the rights of individuals against the supposedly all-powerful state.

And, for obvious reasons, they are not very keen to engage in discussions about how they propose to manage the current pandemic.

The strongest opposition to vaccines is in one region that very rarely features in media reports: south-eastern Europe, and particularly Romania and Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest states.

Only 43 per cent of Romania's population is fully vaccinated; the figure is less than a third in neighbouring Bulgaria.

The poor state of the countries' health infrastructure is partly to blame.

But so are local priests in rural parts of these countries, who not only failed to encourage their communities to vaccinate but also help peddle conspiracy theories.

A recent survey in Romania, for instance, indicated that 17 per cent of the public believed that anti-coronavirus vaccines alter the body's genetic makeup, and almost 40 per cent thought that some of those vaccinated died as a result.

Not one of these respondents was able to substantiate such claims with evidence from people they know; all this nonsense was picked up in local communities, or from online social platforms.

The result is that Romania currently records 267 deaths per 100,000 citizens and Bulgaria 325, about 15 times more than the comparable figure for Germany.

But Germany, on exactly the opposite spectrum as the EU's biggest and wealthiest nation, has its own anti-vaxxing problem, with only around 80 per cent of the population recorded as fully-vaccinated so far.

One reason for this is the government's confused message: Health Minister Jens Spahn once referred to the Moderna vaccine as the "Rolls Royce" of vaccines and to the product from BioNTech as the "Mercedes", a comparison that did nothing for his own credibility or the acceptance of vaccines.

But there is also a welter of German non-governmental organisations promoting "natural remedies" and "homeopathic" medicines which for decades have pushed a message of deep distrust of pharmaceutical companies, usually dismissed as just scheming commercial monsters, eager to make money by offering "artificial" products.

France has also encountered opposition from popular movements created for different purposes but have now repositioned themselves for the pandemic.

The so-called Yellow Vests supporters who paralysed France two years ago in a wave of protests against fuel price hikes have returned to the streets to demonstrate against the government's "health dictatorship".

"Vaccinated or not, we are starving! Vaccinated or not, we're losing our freedoms!" chanted Mr Jerome Rodrigues, one of the Yellow Vests founders, at a recent Paris rally which tried to combine dissatisfaction with current economic policies with anti-vaccination arguments.

Surprisingly, some French doctors are also part of the anti-vaxxers' movement. Dr Louis Fouche, an intensive care medic in the southern city of Marseille, has founded ReinfoCovid, a group of medical professionals sceptical of vaccination against Covid-19. The group claims to have difficulties registering all those who wish to join its ranks.

Then, there are the politicians eager to capitalise on the issue. Fringe far-right politician Florian Philippot, previously associated with Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Rally movement, has organised anti-vaccination protests. The fact that he is running in next year's French presidential election is, he claims, purely coincidental.

But the most poisonous mixture of politics and health policies is in Austria where the Freedom Party, one of the country's largest opposition forces, has championed the cause of anti-vaxxers.

"It's irresponsible, especially if you consider that a large percentage of the representatives of this party are vaccinated," said Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg.

Some of Europe's politicians - like Germany's Mr Spahn, are clearly exasperated with the entire debate.

On Monday, he predicted that all Germans will "either be vaccinated, recovered or dead" by the end of winter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2021, with the headline 'Anti-vaxxers in Europe feed on distrust of govt, conspiracy theories'. Subscribe