In a peculiar way, the Polish celebrity COVID jab affair could do more to raise vaccination rates than any number of official PR campaigns.
It is hard to fight against the disinformation that is influencing the behavior of Central Europeans as COVID-19 vaccines begin to arrive. But there seems to be one recipe from Poland: Create a scandal about celebrities getting preferential jabs and you see an immediate jump in support for vaccination.
A 25-point jump: that was the increase from November’s poll by the United Surveys agency, when 43 percent of respondents said they were willing to be vaccinated, to January’s poll, when 68 percent said they’d get the jab. Two main reasons underlie the rise, according to researchers: unlike in November, vaccinations became a reality; and the widely reported and discussed vaccination of about 20 Polish celebrities including actors and politicians.
Those celebrities were not among frontline healthcare workers or old people in danger, but according to different media reports, they were approached by people who were surprised at the low level of interest in getting the jab and were afraid vaccines would go to waste if not used during the vaccines’ short lifetime.
The details are still being investigated by the media and Warsaw University, where the celebrities got their jabs. The scandal has created a much-needed debate about the need to get vaccinated, because there is strong reluctance to do so not only in Poland but across the region. Only about 40 percent of Czechs are willing to be vaccinated, well below the 60 percent threshold needed to achieve herd immunity.
Regional governments are not conducting their vaccination campaigns well, as the celebrity scandal shows. Not only is there a lack of vaccines, but the rules about who will get the jab first are not clear. There is a similar scandal unfolding in Slovakia where former star tennis player Dominika Cibulkova and her husband were vaccinated ahead of those in most need.
Adding to the confusion, authorities have failed to produce clear messaging or campaigns to persuade the population that vaccination is the only way back to normal life. For example, Czechs share with envy social media posts produced by the Slovak Health Ministry about the need to be vaccinated. There is no Czech government campaign at all.
Czechs and Slovaks, according to some surveys, belong among the biggest European vaccine skeptics. There was even a demonstration in the center of Prague last Sunday where former President Vaclav Klaus questioned the danger of COVID-19 itself. And it’s disgusting to see those vaccine skeptics who are wearing yellow Stars of David as “not vaccinated” badges, likening themselves to Holocaust victims in a protest against proposed restrictions for those who do not get vaccinated.
Vaccination has become the hot political topic of the day. Czechs are talking about German or Israeli vaccination strategies. While the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis stumbles around without a proper plan, some newly elected heads of regional administrations from opposition parties are playing hardball and preparing their own plans and big vaccination centers. Parliamentary elections will take place in October and for local politicians this is a chance to show their leadership skills.
But any public campaign should be centrally organized. The Polish way seems to work – creating the impression that only the rich and privileged can get the jab calls to mind the old communist times when everyone wanted the scarce goods only the elite was able to obtain. But Czechia is a hard case. As somebody pointed out in one Twitter exchange, the best way to instill a strong desire to be vaccinated would be to ban it.
The stuttering start to vaccination drives dramatically illustrates the scale of distrust in governments – which, almost a year after the coronavirus outbreak began, are still zigzagging between pandemic control measures – and how weak, or non-existent, the official communication strategies are. As of the first week of January, the Czech Health Ministry was still posting ads on job portals to find the person responsible for communicating its vaccination messages to the public.
Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.