Anti-vaccination movement makes a stand in the Western Balkans

As Balkan governments scramble to secure coronavirus vaccines, another foe lurks: a growing anti-vaccination movement that is trying to grab the spotlight, AFP reported. With vaccine sceptics ranging from renegade doctors to politicians and Serb tennis champion Novak Djokovic, misinformation about the pandemic has been spreading across social media as fast as the virus itself.

Among Europe's poorest nations, the Balkans will already struggle to purchase enough doses to cover their populations. But countering widespread suspicions will be an additional challenge, as the Western Balkans have become a fertile breeding ground for the international anti-vax movement.

As North Macedonia's President Stevo Pendarovski summed up: "We must not allow... semi-literate charlatans and quack doctors to dominate the biggest names and institutions in science, who have saved millions of lives since the first vaccines appeared." His concern is well-founded. In October, a regional survey found that more than half of those questioned in most countries did not plan to get vaccinated, according to the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). For comparison, an Ipsos poll from the same month found that more than 60% of people intended to in countries such as Spain, Germany and the US.

Though some may simply be wary of the record-fast development of the Covid-19 shots, the Balkans are also home to a "strikingly" high belief in coronavirus conspiracy theories, BiEPAG found. For instance, half of the respondents believed the virus was engineered by the Chinese government in a lab, and that the pharmaceutical industry helped its spread. Around a third believed there is some truth to theories of a link to 5G networks, US military development of bio-weapons, and Bill Gates' intention to chip the world population. Spanning social and geographical divides, conspiracy beliefs are "deeply embedded in all layers of society" in the Western Balkans, BiEPAG said in its report on a region that includes Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

The Balkans has long been a hotbed of misinformation, fuelled by low levels of trust in government and other institutions tainted by corruption and a lack of transparency. Anti-vaccination views "develop easily where people's trust towards authority is low," explained Zoran Radovanovic, a retired professor of epidemiology at the University of Belgrade. "In the Balkans, after 30 years of deterioration, people don't trust authorities, including medical ones," he noted.

Across the region, suspicions are fanned by a handful of rogue doctors, some of whom have garnered tens of thousands of followers on social media. In Serbia, the Twitter page of right-wing politician and psychiatrist Jovana Stojkovic was shut down owing to misleading information about vaccines alongside polemics against migrants and the LGBTQ community. "Doctors either don't know much, don't educate themselves enough or deliberately keep silent about the negative sides of vaccination," she told AFP, rejecting the "anti-vaxxer" label and saying she was for "freedom of choice". And a pulmunologist on Serbia's government-appointed crisis team speculated about the shot's "effect on fertility", though there is no data to support such fears. "You give it to people, without testing it on mice first... that causes unease," Branimir Nestorovic said.

For many in the Balkans, online echo chambers have created a wide divide.


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