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Romania was quick to get the COVID-19 vaccination campaign up and running. Now a number of problems are slowing down the process, including rampant conspiracy theories.
On May 15, hundreds of anti-vaccination demonstrators took to the streets of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, to protest against an alleged "medical dictatorship." The protesters, many waving Romanian flags and holding up crosses and pictures of Orthodox saints, claimed that they themselves had enabled the Romanian government to announce relaxations of the coronavirus restrictions last week, such as largely lifting the obligation to wear masks outdoors.
At the protest, they claimed the move as their "victory," even as others shouted into megaphones that the relaxed rules were a trap and that the "muzzle" represented by the mask might be disappearing but that fundamental rights would still be restricted by "compulsory vaccination" and vaccination certificates.
The proposed document under discussion in Romania and other EU countries, which would certify that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from the illness, looks like "the green German ancestral passport," said a middle-aged man at the protest, wearing a blue shirt with a yellow Star of David that read "Not Vaxed." "Next year, we'll even have camps!" he warned.
"I read in an English-language article that a law has been approved in New York State that will allow people who pose a public health hazard to be interned indefinitely in camps," said another protester, adding he didn't know if that was true because he hasn't been to the US. He seemed convinced, however, that the US has "a network of 300 camps; they also have guillotines."
Where do such absurd conspiracy theories come from, and who is particularly susceptible to them?
Catalin Stoica and Radu Umbress, both sociologists at the University of Bucharest, are currently researching these pandemic phenomena. "It's not the least educated people but rather people with a medium or even high level of education who are particularly susceptible to such conspiracy theories — perhaps because they consider themselves to be better informed," Stoica said. He said this might seem surprising but only at first glance, arguing that it was a kind of "competence illusion." Social contacts were another factor, he said: "People with few friends and little contact with family members are particularly at risk."
What is more, Stoica said, elderly Romanians were more susceptible to conspiracy theories than younger people. He said this was most likely a legacy of the country's communist dictatorship. Back then, more than 30 years ago, all media were censored, he said, so "rumors and conspiracy theories were important sources of information."
People shouted out a confused plethora of theories at the anti-vaccination protest in Bucharest, from plans by billionaire Bill Gates to an approaching apocalypse or alleged dubious machinations by the Hungarian government in Transylvania.
A protester in a white hazmat suit with a yellow Star of David emblazoned with the words "Stop vaccine genocide!" was particularly radical. He told DW he was not against inoculation in principle but argued: "This is about genocide. These are not the classical vaccines but genetically modified substances, for total control." The goal, he said, was nothing less than the decimation of the world's population.
For the most part, conspiracy theories in Romania are spread via social media channels influenced by anti-vaccination groups, said Stoica. He also criticized "the unfortunate role" of Romanian TV broadcasts that boost their ratings "by giving a platform to celebrities who oppose vaccination or deny the reality of the coronavirus and the pandemic."
Romania has had one of the quickest vaccination rollouts of any country in the European Union. The country has now dropped prioritization, and people don't even need an appointment to get their shot. About 4 million people in Romania have been vaccinated, which is almost one out of four citizens, the coordination committee of the Romanian vaccination campaign said on Sunday. The pandemic hit the eastern EU state's ailing health system hard, and many intensive care units were overcrowded. The situation has improved, however: The incidence rates have been falling for weeks, as has the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.
However, the vaccination campaign is not moving ahead quite as rapidly as Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu predicted a month ago, when he foresaw 10 million vaccinations by the end of June. He has since conceded that this number cannot be achieved in such a short time. President Klaus Iohannis, in his turn, announced plans to have 5 million people vaccinated by June 1 and 7 million by August 1.
The inoculation rate is in fact slowing down, said Razvan Chereches. The Bucharest professor of health policy told Digi FM radio station that politicians must act responsibly and offer "additional relaxations to those who have been vaccinated because they are, after all, less of a risk to themselves and their fellow human beings."
Infrastructure is another problem, according to Stoica, who pointed out that 44% of the population lives in villages that simply have no place for people to go for their shots. Traveling to a larger city to get vaccinated is expensive and time-consuming for less affluent villagers, he said.
However, the proportion of people in Romania opposed to or skeptical of vaccination is not significantly higher than the European average, Stoica said. Germany, too, has seen protesters take to the streets denying the existence of the coronavirus, and others who believe in outlandish conspiracy theories.
This article has been adapted from German.