When the well-known Polish journalist Hanna Lis recently tweeted about how she had suffered anaphylactic shock — i.e., a life-threatening allergic reaction — social media blew up. Though Lis described the experience as the "worst trauma" of her life, she did not specify what exactly caused the shock. Nevertheless, her tweet sparked a heated debate about the potential side effects of the newly developed coronavirus vaccines. Critics were quick to reference reports from Britain and the US about how coronavirus jabs had caused anaphylactic shocks.
It is telling that the tweet struck a chord with so many Poles. According to polls, most people feel uneasy about the country's COVID-19 immunization program. Historically, the population has been broadly skeptical of vaccinations.
Led by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, Poland's government has done little to counter this skepticism. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has reported on the arrival of vaccines doses in near daily press conferences and urged the population to get inoculated. He has enthusiastically promised that Poland will soon "return to normal."
Yet this optimism is not well received. Lis took to Twitter to say that "this propaganda, claiming vaccinations are a success, is counterproductive."
Superstition and magic spells
Tomasz Sobierajski, a sociologist and public health expert at Warsaw University, says the government is spreading "exaggerated success propaganda." While he does not identify as an anti-vaxxer, he refuses to treat inoculation skeptics as "crazy." Sobierajski says the government carries responsibly for widespread mistrust against vaccinations as it has failed to properly educate the public. Speaking to Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Sobierajski said "unlike in western countries, our opinions on vaccinations are based on superstition and magic spells."
He criticizes that barely anyone is explaining to ordinary Poles that the coronavirus vaccine does not manipulate human genes, as many falsely believe. The sociologist is not surprised that surveys show only 4 to 5% of Poles want to get inoculated. He says that whereas many western Europeans opt to get flu jabs, on average only 4% of Poles do so. That is why Sobierajski warns Poland will "effectively endure the despair of this pandemic for a long time to come."
Mistrust and conspiracy theories
Not only celebrities but also government figures are joining the ranks of coronavirus vaccination skeptics. "I will not get inoculated," Poland’s deputy minister of state assets, Janusz Kowalski, recently told online platform Wirtualna Polska. "This is matter of liberty and personal choice."
STOP NOP, one of Poland’s anti-vaccination groups, similarly argues that vaccinations are a question of personal choice. Problematically, however, the group also questions whether the coronavirus even exists.
Poland's left-right divide
Only a small fraction of Poles believes in conspiracy theories like these. But overall skepticism towards vaccines remains common, as polls show. A recent survey commissioned by daily Rzeczpospolita and conducted by Warsaw’s Institute for Social Research and Market (IBRIS) found that 47% of respondents want to get vaccinated, while 44% refuse to get a jab, with 9% undecided. Respondents above the age 70 were most in favor of vaccinations (67%), while those between 18 and 29, and those between 30 and 39 were most skeptical (29% and 28%, respectively). Overall, men were found to be more in favor of vaccinations than women (59% and 35%, respectively).
The survey also showed that 82% of those backing Poland’s Left party and 65% backing the liberal Civic Platform support inoculations. Among those who support the governing PiS party, 56% share this view. Only 5% of those who support Poland’s far-right Confederation Liberty and Independence party, meanwhile, approve of coronavirus vaccinations.
IBRIS head Marcin Duma says it is difficult changing anti-vaxxers’ minds. They are right, after all, in pointing out that the vaccines were developed and approved in record speed. "There is no explanation how this was possible in such a short time," says Duma. He says many skeptics prefer to "wait until others have been vaccinated." This, too, Duma says, is a legitimate point to make.
Similar to many European countries, Poland launched its immunization program on December 27. In an initial stage, doctors and other medical staff will get the jab. As there are skeptics among this cohort as well, the government is running ads to encourage medical staff to sign up. So far, 400,000 health care workers have registered.
Since the outbreak, about 1.3 million Polish people have contracted the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Over 27,000 have died from health issues related to COVID-19. More than 7,900 new infections were registered on December 29 — a marked drop compared to November, when the 30,000 case threshold was exceed numerous times. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, however, expects the numbers to rise again as families get together and socialize during the holidays.
Authorities imposed a strict lockdown in Poland on December 28 which will last until January 17. All shops, save for supermarkets and drug stores, must remain shut. Most sports facilities, including ski lifts, are also shut. The government is encouraging Poles to remain indoors from 7 pm on New Year's Eve until the next morning at 6 am.