Commentary: Beyond Conspiracy Theories: How Mismanagement Shaped Vaccination in Albania – Exit
While June had seemed like the time when Albania had turned the corner, with infection rates dropping to single digits, at the end of July (after a record number of visitors entered Albania, exceeding figures before pandemic), the tide had turned. In August, the number of daily cases reached just under 1,000.
In mid-August 2021, I finally gave in to the supremacy of the Albanian summer sun and greeted my first taxi since the start of the pandemic. When I got into the car, I found myself in the middle of a conversation between the driver and his sister-in-law, luckily conducted over loudspeaker. After an in-depth look at various health issues and their family’s vacation plans, the discussion between the two turned to the pandemic with the kind of tiring but inevitable momentum that characterizes all things COVID at this point; the consequence of a global catastrophe having turned into another fact of life.
“Yes, I’m waiting for my family doctor to come back from the beach so she can approve me for Pfizer,” I remember saying the driver. Her sister-in-law approved her plan – she hoped to do the same.
The Albanian government is currently using three vaccines to immunize the population: Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Chinese-produced Sinovac-Coronavac. But while vaccination has been open to anyone over the age of 18 since August, Pfizer vaccines (and to a slightly more limited extent, AstraZeneca) have been reserved for “priority groups”, that is, agents. health care providers and people with pre-existing illnesses.
I did not ask my driver why he was waiting for a Pfizer vaccine when Sinovac-Coronavac was widely available at all vaccination centers. As anecdotal as they may be, I have heard from many family members and acquaintances who have postponed their shots in hopes of pulling off a Pfizer jab when the next batch arrives.
Some wait for Pfizer because they see it as the vaccine preferred by “the West” and therefore inherently more reliable. But it is also true that a certain subset, especially young people, are rolling the dice on Pfizer because Sinovac-Coronavac is not recognized by most EU countries. Often this means that those who wish to travel abroad may be subject to more stringent quarantine requirements, or may be denied entry if they are traveling for “non-essential purposes”.
A conventional story of mismanagement and misinformation
When it comes to explaining the resurgence of infections in Albania, the story almost speaks for itself. On the one hand, when the tourist season started in June, the Albanian government took the decision to relax all measures in the event of a pandemic, becoming the only country in the region to allow the entry of foreign visitors without any requirements. ; not even a negative COVID test.
At the same time, while all public events had a maximum capacity of 30%, in reality, summer festivals were crowded and photos of participants gathered like sardines, defeated, abounded on social networks. These images sometimes featured politicians and even foreign officials.
And while June had seemed like the time when Albania had turned the corner, with infection rates dropping to single digits, at the end of July (after a record number of visitors entered Albania, surpassing the numbers of before the pandemic), the tide had turned. In August, the number of daily cases reached just under 1,000.
The government reversed this particular policy in September, after the tourist season ended. He also extended the curfew by an hour and reiterated his mandate as a mask in interior spaces. But the damage was already done.
Infections have also been aided by Albania’s uneven immunization record. According to the latest official figures, 754,020 Albanian citizens are fully vaccinated, or about 28% of the country’s 2.8 million inhabitants. Vaccination has slowed despite the fact that vaccines have been widely available to all people over the age of 18 since August 2021. This puts Albania on par with its neighbors and far behind the European Union figures – a poor picture. inspiring given that Albania was one of the first in the Western Balkans to start administering vaccines.
In a sense, it’s easy to see what’s happening in Albania as a mere replication of global trends in the rise in anti-vaccine sentiment that precedes COVID and has since escalated.
But it has been more difficult to assess the situation on the ground given the lack of reliable data on the attitude of the Albanians towards vaccination in general and COVID-19 vaccines in particular. There are no national or international surveys that measure anti-vaccine sentiment in Albania. A quick search conducted in English and Albanian yields very little result, most notable being a University of Minnesota survey showing that only 26% of Albanians think childhood immunizations are important.
Local journalists have nonetheless produced reports that seek to place Albania within the larger framework of how disinformation and the spread of online conspiracy theories have propelled a dangerous anti-vaccine movement. For example, a BIRN profile on the famous anti-vaxxer Alfred Cako highlighted how Albanian broadcasters willingly gave Cako and many of his ilk a great platform to spew out misinformation about the demystified dangers of the vaccine, as well. than on the well-known anti-Semites. conspiracies that see the vaccine as a plot by world elites to assert their dominance.
The Louis Vuitton of vaccines
Yet it is important to distinguish here between those who fall prey to outlandish conspiracy theories, often framed in the language of personal choice, and those whose resistance to vaccination is based on a more complex constellation of reasons. I would say that two interconnected elements also played an important role in slowing the vaccination rate in Albania. First, it is the dependence of the Albanians on the European Union – and the United States – as a behavioral and informational compass. And second, a pervasive fear among Albanians of permanently losing their freedom of movement.
Although steadily declining, Albanians continue to trust the European Union and its bodies at high rates, especially when compared to the trust they place in local institutions and the Albanian government. It would therefore not be an exaggeration to extrapolate that the EU’s attitude towards certain vaccines may, in turn, influence what Albanians think of them.
To give just one example, in March 2021, several EU countries temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for health reasons, despite a scientific consensus to the contrary. And that sense of doubt has spread to Albania where, according to local and international media, teachers – one of the first groups to be vaccinated – have been wary of the vaccine.
Similarly, the reluctance of the Albanians towards the Chinese-produced Sinovac-Coronavac was probably exacerbated by the attitude of the European Union towards it. Specifically, while Sinovac has been cleared by the World Health Organization (and included in the COVAX program), the European Medicines Agency has yet to do the same. This despite clinical trials showing that it protects against hospitalization and death at a rate comparable to that of vaccines made in the West.
Although the EMA’s recommendations are not binding, EU member states tend to follow them closely. As a result, the majority of European Union member states do not recognize the Sinovac-Coronavac vaccine, thus limiting the opportunities for people vaccinated with this vaccine to travel within the EU.
It’s not hard to believe that for Albanians, many of whom have relatives abroad or are committed to the freedom offered by the hard-won visa liberalization agreement since 2010, the idea that their vaccine may not to be recognized is enough to make them hesitate. They have long hopes that in the future they will be able to convince their family doctor to sign them up for a Pfizer vaccine instead. Indeed, interviews conducted by Euronews Albania in June showed that even those who showed up to free vaccination centers said they would have preferred Pfizer precisely for travel-related reasons.
The Albanian government has done little to allay these concerns. By distributing Pfizer (and AstraZeneca) to a limited group of people, and in particular reserving them for those considered “at risk” due to underlying conditions, they are spreading the message that there is something better to do. About Pfizer. No wonder I heard a friend jokingly call Pfizer the “Louis Vuitton” of vaccines.
Things can change. At the end of September, official figures began to decline, although deaths remained high. And while vaccines aren’t mandatory for everyone, they are mandatory for college students, teachers, health workers, and now even MPs. Albania just made another deal with Pfizer to buy half a million more doses, which could solve a problem.
Yet reversing this trend will require a multi-pronged approach that tackles misinformation and misconceptions. The government’s unforgettable “Albania Smiles” vaccination campaign landed with a thud against the feverish and simplistic appeal of viral conspiracy theories. But it will also require good faith collaboration on the part of states and institutions whose refusal to recognize certain vaccines belies a preference for competitive politics and profit over human lives.
Until that changes, with vaccination rates still low and pandemic restrictions largely ignored, Albania may need to prepare for a harsh winter.
The blog was created under the “Tales from the region”Initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomy), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Albania (Go out), Slovenia (DKIS) and Greece (Macropolis), as part of the project “Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement” with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.