Ukraine and Its Fight Against an “Infodemic”

In late February, Ukraine finally received its first shipment of vaccines — 500,000 AstraZeneca doses. According to AP News, Ukraine became the second to last country in Europe to start the vaccination process. However, after dealing with the geopolitics of vaccine distribution, Ukraine found itself in a new struggle against the pandemic — persuading its people to get the shot.

A national poll of 1,207 realized in early February by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found 60% of the country’s people do not want to get vaccinated, which is 20% more than a month ago. Why are Ukrainians becoming increasingly opposed to vaccination, despite infections rising sharply? 

The United Nations Development Program and UNICEF released a study showing that Ukraine was suffering from an “infodemic,” while social media “flooded with false narratives” about the disease and vaccination.

The study identified over 250,000 messages with disinformation narratives related to COVID-19 in Ukrainian online media, forums, blogs, messenger and social networks. The infographic below summarizes false narratives related to wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the origin and even existence of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 disease, and false rumors about coronavirus testing and vaccines’ effectiveness.

UNICEF Information Narratives Map

The governmental officials have done very little to debunk COVID-19 myths and educate the population about the importance of a vaccination process. The Administration of President Zelenskiy seemed to believe that the immunization of high-ranking officials will be the turning point in public confidence towards the vaccine’s safety. 

However, a miracle didn’t happen, and vaccine hesitancy still dominates public rhetoric. So far, according to Our World in Data, only 0.2% of the total Ukranian population have received their first dose of the vaccine. At the same time medical facilities were forced to destroy many doses of the vaccine — which can only be stored for a few hours after the vial is opened — because the medical professionals who had been prescribed vaccinations did not show up. As reported by AP News, Health minister Maxim Stepanov said that only about 40% of medical workers treating coronavirus patients have agreed to receive the vaccine, citing suspicion towards the vaccine as a primary reason.

According to euronews, Disinformation, conspiracy theories, and myths spread on social media networks and some mainstream media have also contributed to public distrust worldwide. For instance, as reported by the Guardian, nearly four in ten people in France, more than 25% of those in the US and 23% in Germany say they definitely or probably will not get vaccinated against Covid-19, according to a survey that underlines the challenge facing governments.

To curb the pandemic, Ukraine needs to tackle the “infodemic” first. Vaccine hesitancy or distrust makes it harder to reach “herd immunity.” For COVID-19, experts told the New York Times that they are estimating between 70% and 90% immunization rate within a community is needed to achieve herd immunity.

Therefore, Ukrainian authorities need to direct their resources towards information campaigns that will promote behavioral change and influence public opinion on the COVID-19 vaccine as well as revise its legal framework by introducing laws against spreading fake news such as health disinformation to hold those who deliberately spread false information accountable.  

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MIAN Editorial Board

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