Europe

Vaccination rate slowing in Czech Republic as infections rise

The Czech Republic’s vaccination campaign appears to be stalling as the country’s infection numbers are rising again.

Although the Czech Republic’s vaccination rate is higher than in some other Central and Eastern European countries, it is below the EU average.

As of September 13, some 56.1% of the population has had at least one dose, compared with 52.9% on August 1. And 54.6% of the population is now fully vaccinated, up from 45.4% on August 1 and compared with the EU average of 60.3%.

This means, however, that only 1.6% of the population is awaiting their second-jab, with more than two-fifths of the country not having yet received their first injection.

According to data collated on the opendatalab.cz website, an open-source project by the Czech Technical University, only 26,007 people have registered on the government’s booking portal and await vaccination, although the authorities have opened walk-in centres where registration is not necessary, in some parts of the country.

The vaccination rate peaked in mid-June when about 0.9 doses per 100 people were administered daily. On September 8, it was down to just 0.13 doses per 100 people.

Vaccine hesitancy

Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University, said that one problem is that the government’s vaccination campaign started later than in some other European countries.

Although it began on December 27, when Prime Minister Andrej Babis was the first person to receive the jab, it took several weeks for the vaccination campaign to be rolled out nationwide, and the registration portal was dogged in the first weeks with bugs and technical problems.

On top of that, the authorities were faced with a large percentage of the population who were sceptical — or outright hostile — to the idea of vaccination, said Kopecek. A survey by STEM, a local pollster, in early December, found that only 40% of Czechs would willingly be vaccinated, amongst the lowest rates in Europe.

“The disinformation effect of some websites — sometimes they are apparently associated with Russia — is relatively strong in a part of the population,” Kopecek added.

Jan Cemper, editor-in-chief of the anti-misinformation website Manipulátoři.cz, reckons that between 10-20% of the Czech population still believes in misinformation about COVID-19, a much lower rate than what was estimated in surveys earlier in the year.

It is a problem particularly acute among the young generation “who do not admit that the Delta variant is a risk for them as well,” Cemper said, referring to the more transmissible variant now spreading across Europe.

What impact will the forthcoming election have?

But anti-vaxxer sentiment isn’t the only reason for the slow vaccination rate in recent months. Sources who spoke to Euronews noted that many Czechs went on holiday in July and August, which has affected the rate of vaccination over the past two months. And others are still recovering from COVID-19 following a surge in cases in the spring.

Unvaccinated people are, in some cases, those who live in small villages far from larger cities, where the majority of the vaccination sites are located, Kopecek noted.

Rastislav Madar, head of the Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ostrava, said that politics surrounding the upcoming general election, due in early October, is another factor.

“Vaccination has become a topic for some of the more radical politicians discouraging their supporters from taking it,” he said. It is possible, then, that this politically heightened narrative against vaccination might fade after next month’s general election.

Some of the Czech Republic’s far-right parties have been at the foreground of antivaccination protests this year, while they have also sought to commingle opposition to mandatory vaccination with opposition to some of the government’s most restrictive rules, such as limits on free movement.

However, analysts are unsure of how much of an impact the Czech Republic’s seemingly stalled vaccination campaign will have on the pandemic at large.

According to Madar, the epidemiologist, both post-vaccination and post-infection immunities combined “provide a high level of protection against severe forms of the disease.”

Infection numbers rising

Between October 2020 and March this year, the Czech Republic boasted one of the world’s highest infection rates per population. At some point in this period, it was the worst performer globally.

More than 1.6 million people, almost a fifth of the population, have officially recovered after contracting the virus, which has contributed to some level of natural immunity. Experts reckon the real number is considerably higher.

On the other hand, Madar said, infection numbers will likely rise in the coming months. They have already started to climb in early September. On September 8, officials recorded 588 new cases of coronavirus, the highest daily tally since May 25, according to the Health Ministry.

Although there are only 96 patients admitted to intensive care, according to a statement made by Health Minister Adam Vojtech on September 9, he warned that the Czech Republic will soon be hit by a new wave of COVID-19.

“With a colder season coming and with increased population mobility due to recently opened schools on September 1, we can expect incidence to rise further,” Madar said. “It will bring to hospitals with more severe forms, especially those who did not go through COVID in the past and decided not to vaccinate.”

The vaccination of children aged over 12 began in early July. In recent weeks, the government has loosened some of the bureaucracy surrounding vaccination. Walk-in centres have opened so that people do not need to pre-register for a dose.

On August 30, Prime Minister Babis suggested that general practitioners, who are taking over the vaccination campaign from hospitals, will be offered financial bonuses of 380 crowns (€15) for every person over the age of 65 who they convince to undergo initial vaccinations. Just under a fifth of people in this age group haven’t yet been inoculated, according to open-source data.

Perversely, such an increase in infections and hospitalisations in the coming weeks may work as a stimulus for the remaining unvaccinated population to get a dose, Madar speculated.

What most analysts agree on is that the government is unlikely to tighten pandemic restrictions this month, as the ruling ANO party is set to contest a close election in early October and lockdowns have proven unpopular in the Czech Republic.

What happens post-election, especially if the vaccination campaign continues to stall and infection numbers rise, is another matter.

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