Government incompetence and mixed messaging are harming the trust that citizens have in the COVID-19 vaccines. Leaders in Central Europe might publicly state that vaccination is the only way to end the coronavirus pandemic. Yet it seems that vaccines are not only a solution but also a source of confusion and fertile ground for disinformation, resulting in intended vaccination levels in the region ranging from just 15 per cent to 43 per cent, according to surveys. In Hungary, vaccination began ten days ago, with doctors and nurses the first in line to be inoculated. But experts say the national program is proving slow and erratic, with some hospitals setting up their own vaccination points, while in others employees are having to find out for themselves how to sign up and where to go. Currently, Hungary has enough vaccines for just 35,000 people, but according to the government it has secured 17 million doses overall, 4.4 million of that from the first-approved vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was boasting on his Sunday radio interview that this is in fact a “Hungarian vaccine”, since it is based on research done by the Hungarian-born Katalin Kariko, who left for the US in 1985. Orban added that he was not happy with the (slow) pace of vaccination, but said it would be unfair to blame Brussels for it, as supply largely depends on the pharmaceutical companies. He also reiterated that Hungary is negotiating to obtain vaccines from the East, primarily from China. “Ideally, Hungarians will be able to choose to be vaccinated with Western or Chinese vaccines,” he said. Hungary is not particularly an ‘anti-vax’ country, but there is a palpable level of resistance in society towards non-Western vaccines. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto tried to argue that “we were all inoculated with Russian vaccines in our childhood”, but this has done little to raise confidence in Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. In a poll conducted in early December by the Central Statistical Office, only 15 per cent of the population said they were planning to get vaccinated, another 21 per cent were contemplating the idea, while 36 per cent said they would not do so. Most people indicated they were concerned about the safety and potential side-effects of vaccines developed so quickly. The stakes are pretty high. If you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, [Orban] could suffer the political consequences. – Peter Kreko, executive director of Political Capital Institute Experts say the public’s current lack of confidence in the COVID vaccination program is the result of the overall low level of trust in the government and state institutions. “Dissatisfaction has intensified due to the dubious success of government reactions during the two waves,” IDEA Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, wrote in December. “The stakes are pretty high. If you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, [Orban] could suffer the political consequences,” Peter Kreko, executive director of the government-critical think tank Political Capital Institute said in an interview with Politico, alluding to the dangers of over-promoting the notoriously unpopular Russian and Chinese vaccines over the past few months. His comments were seized on and deliberately distorted by the pro-government media, which claimed that Kreko was encouraging opposition politicians to undermine confidence in vaccines and sacrifice citizens’ lives for political gain. In his radio interview over the weekend, Orban himself declared that “one seldom hears a more evil sentence”. Consequently, Kreko received threats directed at both himself and his family, a statement of Political Capital claimed. The government-led campaign against Kreko is a textbook case of misinformation and scapegoating. Orban’s favourite journalist, Zsolt Bayer, launched a petition for those who wished to protest against “the death campaign of leftist forces”, which apparently want to clamber over the corpses of Hungarians to regain power. The petition, openly supported by Fidesz parliamentary group leader Mate Kocsis, has so far garnered 16,000 signatures. Krekos’ Political Capital Institute is filing lawsuits against government-controlled disinformation outlets. Experts fear this is just the first coordinated media pile-on of this kind and more will be seen against critical thinkers in what will be a crucial year for Orban and his government ahead of the 2022 general election. In Poland, by Thursday over 160,000 people had been vaccinated, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health, giving a vaccination rate of 0.37 per 100 people, higher than the global average of 0.20 (numbers from Our World in Data as of January 6). Not bad. And yet concerns about the authorities’ ability to roll out the vaccination program properly abound. In part, this is because of the government’s patchy record on managing the pandemic in 2020. Additionally, in the first days of 2021 a scandal erupted after 18 actors and their contacts were found to have received the vaccine at the Warsaw Medical University even though, officially, Poland is at the “zero” stage of vaccinations, when only medical staff should get the shot. Given the serious shortage of the flu vaccine last year, this incident raised concerns that only the well-connected are being inoculated. And plenty of glitches in the vaccine distribution system have already been exposed in the media, putting a question mark over the government’s claim that there is capacity for eventually giving the jab to as many as 3.5 million people a month. One problem is that there is no central registry coordinating the vaccination program to match supply and demand. As such medical institutions order as much as they think they might need in any given period, which could be too few or too many doses. Those ordering too much cannot quickly access waiting lists of patients, heightening the risk of wasting precious doses – so they usually order less. Another issue, highlighted by epidemiologist Pawel Grzesiowski, is that hospitals and other vaccination centres can only order doses from the central reserve once a week, which means they cannot quickly adapt to demand. While the government says the “first” stage of vaccinations – including the most numerous vulnerable group, seniors (around 8.5 million people in Poland are over 60) – could start at the end of January, hospitals and clinics across the country report they’re still struggling with vaccinating medical staff. Family doctor offices, who will be involved in the vaccination process at this next stage, report not having the necessary cold-storage facilities needed to store the Pfizer vaccine. The government has so far tried to explain the slow pace of vaccination by saying it all depends on vaccine deliveries, but that hardly seems to be an issue. As of January, Poland is set to get 360,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine weekly, and another 840,000 doses of the recently approved Moderna vaccine are planned to arrive by the end of March. The difficulty of estimating how fast Poland can vaccinate everyone comes also from the uncertainty as to how many people will actually want the shot (out of the roughly 31 million people over 18 who can theoretically get it). According to an opinion poll conducted in December by UCE RESEARCH and SYNO Poland for Gazeta Wyborcza, just 43 per cent of Poles want to get the shot and an equal percentage don’t want it (the rest are undecided). Like elsewhere, Poles have been exposed to disinformation about the risks associated with the vaccine and are sceptical about the fast approval process. While the sceptical message has been spread by anti-vax campaigners as well as politicians from the far-right alliance Confederation (which sits in parliament), members of the governing camp have in the past played fast and loose with the topic too. President Andrzej Duda has in the past expressed doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines, and PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was pictured in parliament leafing through a book prepared by anti-vaxxers called The Fake Pandemic. The PiS government has now gotten behind vaccine efforts, and is even weighing benefits for those who get the shot, but the unclear messaging has not helped. At the same time, as epidemiologist Grzesiowski noted, people are increasingly persuaded to get the shot as they see others around them go through the process without problems. The number of medics registering to get the shot is gradually increasing as vaccination progresses, and the hope among experts is that the same will happen with the general population. The December poll for Gazeta Wyborcza also indicates that 45 per cent of respondents would be persuaded to get the shot if they were offered a financial incentive. Although Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was the first European leader to receive the COVID vaccine, the rest of Czechia looks set for a long wait for their dose as supplies trickle in. Just 29,250 doses arrived in December, and with supply problems cropping up across Europe, a widespread vaccination effort looks unlikely in the coming weeks. Czechia has ordered 7 million doses for its population of 10 million. While President Milos Zeman will get his shot in mid-January, a self-registration system for the general public won’t launch until February 1, after which vaccination will be rolled out to the most vulnerable as supplies allow. Babis has been quick to try to shift the blame onto the Brussels bogeyman, insisting that the EU’s delay in approving vaccines other than the Pfizer candidate is responsible for the sloth of the Czech program. Babis’s swift inoculation was clearly intended to encourage more people to elect to take the vaccine, with some surveys suggesting less than 30 per cent of Czechs are ready to get themselves immunised. However, analysts lay at least some of the blame for these low numbers squarely at the door of the government, blasting its erratic performance in dealing with the pandemic and poor communication with a public bombarded by disinformation. In a bid to push people into getting the shot, the government is mulling a system that would ease entry to pubs – once they reopen – for those with a valid vaccination certificate. They clearly know their audience. The closure of pubs gets a lot more attention than do shuttered schools. But at the same time, the move will only further inflame adherents of conspiracy theories that claim the vaccine is part of a plot by the “COVID elite” to control the population. As Slovakia slowly gets to grips with its mass COVID-19 vaccination effort, a startling number of Slovaks remain opposed to getting a jab. With vaccination in the country free and voluntary, less than a third of Slovaks are willing to receive a dose, latest polls show. This number stood at 41 per cent in April last year. And as the pandemic continues to claim dozens of Slovak lives every day, with Slovakia among the worst countries globally for deaths per population, close to 40 per cent still believe COVID-19 to be fake. Experts maintain that the scepticism is a symptom of Slovaks’ lack of trust in their government. Prime Minister Igor Matovic’s approval ratings have sunk in the past few months. His dip in support was accelerated by several cabinet members flouting lockdown measures and health regulations. Despite plans for a mass campaign to nudge people into getting a jab, only 0.13 per cent of the population received a dose in the first ten days of the vaccination effort, well below Health Ministry targets. Slovakia is awaiting delivery of 12,000 newly-approved Moderna vaccines in the coming days. But Health Minister Marek Krajci warned that there won’t be enough jabs to satisfy the country’s alleged capacity to vaccinate 3.5 million people in three months. “As early as January, our vaccination centres will be ready to vaccinate more people than we have jabs available,” Krajci maintained. The urgent need to convince 70 per cent of Czechs to take the vaccine is clear. The Czech Republic celebrated Christmas by reclaiming its ‘COVID crown’ as top of the world for pandemic infections per capita between December 28 and January 3 with an average of 932 per million people. Lithuania was a fairly distant second with 841 cases per million, followed by the UK with 774. The spike in infections has resulted in more deaths, and the authorities in Ostrava have appealed for help as they report that the city’s crematorium cannot keep pace. The cost of the pandemic must also be tallied financially. Surprising no one, the government this week reported that the country’s state budget deficit hit a record high in 2020. At 367 billion crowns (14 billion euros) the shortfall dwarfed the 192-billion-crown deficit recorded in the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009. However, as intended by the government, the deficit was significantly below the 500-billion-crown target. That was largely thanks to higher-than-expected revenue from income tax and EU funds. Overall, measures aimed at coping with the pandemic have cost the budget 217 billion crowns. Although such expenditure should be lower this year, many analysts expect a still higher deficit in 2021, due to a new tax package that’s set to cost 100 billion crowns. Further populist measures are also likely as the ruling ANO party potentially faces stiff competition at elections due in October. Polish leaders, including President Andrzej Duda and Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, spent most of Wednesday evening commenting on the successes of Polish skiers, even as mobs stormed the Capitol in Washington DC. Given the open support Donald Trump gave to Duda during this summer’s presidential campaign and that PiS-led Poland has focused much of its foreign policy efforts on Trump-led America, formulating a message would have been tricky. When they did react, the Polish officials’ responses were underwhelming to say the least. Here’s President Duda: “The events in Washington are an internal matter of the United States, which is a democratic country under rule of law. Power depends on the will of the voters, and the security of the state and its citizens is ensured by specialised services. Poland believes in the strength of American democracy.” And Foreign Minister Rau: “Strong Europe needs strong America. US democracy was always empowered by values and upheld by institutions, enabling it to overcome even the most daunting challenges. This truth still holds – for the good of the American people and the free world.” With new information surrounding the circumstances of Slovakia’s former police president Milan Lucansky’s death on 30 December last year seeping out from official documents, calls for the resignation of Justice Minister Maria Kolikova, who oversaw a number of high-profile arrests last year, have grown louder. Lucansky, who was nominated for police president by a previous SMER-SD government, attempted suicide in his cell where he was being held on suspicion of shielding top-level investigations in return for lucrative bribes. His detention came on the back of a resolute crackdown on corruption in the highest echelons of the Slovak police and judiciary backed by Justice Minister Kolikova. Lucansky’s death was confirmed in hospital shortly after his suicide attempt. In the hours that followed, mounting evidence revealed that Lucansky hung himself on his tracksuit jacket tied to the rim of his bed. He took his life in a span of nine minutes between the time he was last checked on by the guards and the moment his dinner arrived in his cell. He did not have a cellmate, a standard procedure in high-security detentions to prevent inmates from influencing witnesses, according to the General Directorate of the Corps of Prison and Court Guard. But questions are being asked of Kolikova, as it was later disclosed that Lucansky was taken to hospital two weeks before his death nursing an eye injury. Lucansky reportedly explained to his guards that he had slipped on a flipflop during the night and landed on the edge of his bed. With suspicions growing that Lucansky’s eye injury could have been sustained in a failed suicide attempt or by guard brutality, Minister Kolikova highlighted medical examinations that unequivocally excluded both alternatives. Lucansky reportedly referred to his guards as “nice guys”, documents show. Further evidence revealed that the former police chief underwent eye surgery and was then transferred to a psychiatric ward, where he was observed without displaying any suicidal tendencies. He returned to his cell on December 22 and continued to receive regular psychological consultations. His last came only four hours before his death. Milan Ivan, head of the Corps of Prison and Court Guard, resigned after the revelations, despite protests from members of the Corps who stood behind their chief. The Corps maintains that preventing all suicides in prisons is a tall order, with 41 attempts and three deaths in the past year alone. Justice Minister Kolikova remains in her post despite the criticism. An online tribute movement tagged #AllForMilan, in reference to Lucansky’s first name and an explicit spin-off from the #AllForJan campaign triggered by the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, gained traction in the aftermath of the new revelations. Before his time as police chief, Lucansky famously probed large criminal clans in Slovakia and worked on the case of notorious mafia boss Mikulas Cernak. Kolikova rejected any parallel between Kuciak’s murder and Lucansky’s suicide, and set up a 17-member commission that includes President Zuzana Caputova, Ombudswoman Maria Patakyova and foreign experts to investigate Lucansky’s death. On January 5, the Justice Ministry managed to raise further questions by releasing a new batch of evidence suggesting the camera recording in front of Lucansky’s cell on the night he sustained his eye injury had gone down a number of times. Lucansky repeatedly tried to avoid arrest and spent some time in Croatia for an unknown reason before he came back to Slovakia and struck a deal with investigators to face interrogation. All charges against him are now expected to be dropped. Peter Kysel, the prosecutor in charge of Lucansky’s case, is running for the position of head of the Special Prosecution Office, having been nominated by the Prosecution Council. Pundits see his nomination a slight surprise, with many previously betting on veteran prosecutor Jan Santa to be the Council’s choice. Kysel is likely to face off against former interior and justice minister Daniel Lipsic in a late-January vote in parliament. The post of head of the Special Prosecution Office became vacant after its previous occupant, Dusan Kovacik, was detained on suspicion of being part of an organised crime group after 17 years in the job.
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