Serbian city sees low Covid-19 vaccination rates amid scepticism

Empty chairs are seen at a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre in Novi Pazar, Serbia, on March 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NOVI PAZAR, SERBIA (REUTERS) - In Serbia's southern city of Novi Pazar, just 6 per cent of its population of around 100,000 has received a Covid-19 vaccine - far below the national average, with conflicting online messages driving high levels of scepticism, local health officials said.

The low takeup comes as the country is struggling to contain a spike in Covid-19 infections that forced the government on Tuesday to order a five-day shutdown of restaurants, cafes and clubs. "We have more vaccines on offer than those who applied for them," Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said.

Nationally, more than 1.65 million people have received at least one Covid-19 shot out of a population of around 7 million. But in Novi Pazar, online forums and rumours questioning the safety and efficacy of vaccinations have undermined the campaign, said Sefadil Spahic, head of the regional public health centre. "Unfortunately we have... health workers who say negative things about the vaccine," Spahic told Reuters.

Authorities in Serbia, where 4,747 people have died from Covid-19 and 520,911 fallen ill so far, want to speed up vaccinations and slow daily infections, which stand at around 4,000. Novi Pazar, a city where Muslims account for some 82 per cent of the population, was hit hard by the pandemic last year, and cases there have accelerated again in recent months.

Muhamed Demirovic, an imam, said that some Islamic scholars were reluctant to promote vaccinations. "On the basis of scientific information... and... principles of Sharia (Islamic law)... we are not in a position to rule or to tell people whether vaccination is mandatory or forbidden," Demirovic said.

In neighbouring Bosnia, where the pandemic has claimed a record number of lives in recent weeks, the government is under pressure from the public to launch a mass inoculation programme. So far, the campaign has been limited by a lack of vaccines.

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