Europe’s stark vaccine divide leaves poorer east far behind
The European Union this week hailed reaching a key milestone of 70% fully vaccinated. But in the bloc’s poorest country, the rate has not even reached a quarter of that. The figures in Bulgaria stand out as extreme, but also capture an east-west divide that’s gotten worse in recent months.
Bulgaria has fully vaccinated just 20% of adults, while its neighbour Romania is at 32%. Germany, France, Netherlands, Spain and Ireland, by comparison, are all above 70%.
The wider gap is partly due to aggressive - sometimes controversial - campaigns in western European countries, especially France, that boosted rollouts. But it also reflects perceptions of corruption and a deeply embedded mistrust of authorities in some eastern nations, as well as concern about the safety of vaccines.
Some 23% of Bulgarians do not want to get inoculated, compared with an EU average of 9%, according to a Eurobarometer survey published in June. Trust in the government is among the lowest in the bloc.
If the low take-up in Romania and Bulgaria leads to a fresh spike in cases, that will have economic repercussions, straining hospital resources, hampering businesses, and undermining their ability to attract much needed tourists to Black Sea resorts.
Bulgaria’s 14-day coronavirus case rate is about 190 per 100,000 people, just below the EU average. But the death rate is above 30 per 100,000, according to the ECDC, more than triple the EU number.
The east-west vaccine gap is one of many ways in which the pandemic has split Europe. There were also divisions across wealth and age, all of which, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, will “haunt the continent for many years.”
“As Europe starts to deal with the long-term consequences of the pandemic, these divisions in experience will transform from a silent divide into a major schism,” it said in a report this week. “This could have profound implications for some of Europe’s biggest projects,” including freedom of movement and the bloc’s multi-billion euro recovery plan.
While vaccine uptake is better in Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia - about 50% - all three are still below the EU average. Hungary is a regional out-performer, at 65%.
On Thursday, Bulgaria announced new restrictions for bars and restaurants to try to limit the spread of the virus. But despite rising hospitalisations and deaths, Prime Minister Stefan Yanev has ruled out introducing compulsory vaccines.
“It’s everyone’s right to decide how to manage their personal life and their personal health,” he said this week.
The caretaker government has opened walk-in vaccination points at shopping malls and public parks, but its authority is sorely limited. The country is mired in political uncertainty and heading for a third general election this year after multiple failures by parties to form a cabinet.
The lack of demand for shots has forced the country to sell or donate thousands of vaccines to elsewhere before they expire. Romania is also giving away shots.
“The high number of deaths from coronavirus is worrying,” Bulgarian Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov said Thursday. “That’s the other side of the coin of the vaccination issue. The last place in vaccination places us first in mortality. That’s the logical connection.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.