The main story of two recent years is the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted the world unprecedentedly. Subsequently, the main question across the globe is how to end it or mitigate its devastating adverse effects. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “vaccines play a critical role in preventing deaths, hospitalization caused by infectious diseases; licensed COVID-19 vaccines are contributing to controlling the spread of the disease” (WHO, 2021). Therefore, the nations, governments and organizations understood that further development and deployment of vaccines worldwide was rapid compared with previous healthcare experience. Despite this undeniable achievement, there have been numerous issues regarding vaccination that humanity faced during the process. These, for instance, included the cases when developed nations bought enough vaccines to cover their populations three-four times, subsequently leaving developing countries with fewer options for themselves (Cunningham, 2021). At the same time, besides some objective problems, there have been less expected yet influential ones, including the global anti-vaccination movement. Opposition to vaccination has existed as long as vaccination itself, since the 18th century. While initially resistance primarily occurred due to religious reasons, later, in the 19th century, the vaccination opponents pointed to its questionable efficiency and contradictions between its declared and actual outcomes (Wolfe and Sharp, 2002).
The situation with vaccination in the Central Asian countries is objectively poor. According to international research, all countries of the region score below the world average in terms of vaccination, as their share of citizens who received at least one dose of vaccine is below 26.3 % of the population by July 19 (Mathieu et al., 2021). More precisely, Kazakhstan scores just under that threshold, with 25.95% of people covered with at least one dose and 14.77% of the population covered by two doses, which is slightly higher than the world average of fully vaccinated people – 12.97%. In other countries of the region, the situation is dramatically different, as in Uzbekistan, only 6.2% of the population is at least partially vaccinated, and 3.58% is fully vaccinated. Tajikistan’s government was able to partially vaccinate 3.75% of their citizens, while just 0.21% are fully vaccinated; simultaneously, in the Kyrgyz Republic, 1.13% of the population received two doses of the vaccine, while 1.53% received one dose. There is no data regarding the situation with vaccination in Turkmenistan. The problem does not change significantly when some post-Soviet countries beyond the Central Asia region are added to statistics. Russian Federation, the country that registered the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, scored below Kazakhstan, with only 21.99% of the population vaccinated with at least one dose, while Ukraine scored below Uzbekistan, with 6.1% of the people at least partly vaccinated. However, the reasons for such a situation in the mentioned countries are different.
The results of vaccination attitude surveys in Kazakhstan demonstrated an interesting and primarily positive dynamic. In November 2020, Demoscope’s survey indicated critically low levels of anti-COVID vaccination acceptance in Kazakhstan – around 45% of surveyed did not want to receive any vaccine, third wished to wait, and only 14% expressed the desire to be vaccinated as soon as possible (Demoscope, 2020). Later, the Public Opinion Research Institute’s survey supported Demoscope’s results; the Institute’s survey demonstrated worsening trends – 55.5% were hostile towards the idea of vaccination, while only 22.9% supported it (CAREC Institute, 2021). It should be noted that the survey was conducted at the end of 2020. Finally, a survey by Demoscope published at the beginning of May demonstrated a significant positive shift, with 59% of respondents being in favor of vaccination, 23% being neutral towards it, and 12% believing in adverse effects of the vaccination (Demoscope, 2021). The authors believe that such a drastic shift can be explained by the positive experience of the vaccinated and emerging scientific data supporting the safety of vaccines. At the same time, recently, there was an attempt in several cities of Kazakhstan to conduct anti-vaccination rallies (Levina, 2021). Moreover, the government started to address the problems of anti-vaccination directly; for instance, employers in numerous spheres were required to vaccinate their employees (Forbes, 2021). Therefore, it can be observed that while the overall anti-vaccination problem is not too critical in Kazakhstan, it is already attracting a lot of attention from government and society.
In comparison, the situation in Russia looks more complicated in terms of anti-vaccination mood, as according to surveys, by June 2021, 54% of respondents were not ready to be vaccinated, while only 25% planned to get a vaccine, and 19% were immunized already (Levada, 2021). Third of those against the vaccine said that they were afraid of the vaccine side effects, while 20% expressed the wish to wait for the results of all the possible tests and trials. Russian government reacted by introducing compulsory vaccination (RBC, 2021). For a country that developed and registered the first vaccine globally, such results demonstrate a low performance in terms of communication between citizens and the state.
The situation is not very different in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – both of the countries introduced compulsory vaccination as well. Tajikistan introduced the procedure at the beginning of July, as the country possesses around half a million doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines (Ozodi, 2021). Uzbekistan did the same in the middle of July, as the country received another batch of vaccines, bringing the total to 7,4 million doses (Abdulkerimov & Asgarli, 2021). It seems that mandatory vaccination is the strategy for countries that have enough vaccines, but their population does not want to receive the shot or does so too slowly. This description may be relevant for all of the mentioned countries so far. Kyrgyzstan is the only example of an opposite case in the region that confirms the rule. The government never introduced mandatory vaccinations; at the same time, there are cases of queues for the vaccine, as the country has not been able to vaccinate all of the volunteers (Hristova & Alyshbaev, 2021).
Regarding the reasons for the creation of anti-vaccination movements, various hypotheses can be relevant. Firstly, people may have low levels of trust in the vaccines that they are offered. As the saying goes, bad news spread quickly where some rare negative side effect cases related to the Russian Sputnik V vaccine have been used by anti-vaccination groups to cause a mistrust to this vaccine in whole. As we know today many vaccinations did not complete their trial periods fully due to shortage of time period but have been used under the emergency conditions caused by the pandemic. So far the Sputnik V vaccine has not yet been certified by WHO (WHO, 2021). In such an informational field, it was easy for citizens of Central Asian countries to miss the information in various international scientific journals about the actual safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Secondly, there is an issue of lack of trust between government and society. The data demonstrate a correlation between the strength of the anti-vaccination movement and the levels of trust in national governments in the region (Our World in Data, 2018). While Russia struggles with the highest levels of the anti-vaccination movement, it is also a country with low levels of trust in the national government – only around 53%. Kazakhstan is higher on that list with 71% confidence in the national government, but it is much lower than Uzbekistan’s 99% trust.
Thus, local society and government still have to address the anti-vaccination movement issues directly. There is a need to raise public awareness of the quality of the vaccine’s positive outcomes. Government by using its resources needs to set a straightforward opinion about the vaccine’s effectiveness and how the advantages greatly outperform the potential side effects which happen to be seen lightly and so rare. In order to reduce the spread of misinformation with scientific evidence. Therefore the public would have a better understanding regarding the benefits of vaccination and hopefully it would reflect positively towards the vaccination efforts in Kazakhstan.
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CAREC Institute (2021). Analysis of public attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccination in selected CAREC countries. Retrieved from https://www.carecinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/CAREC-Institute-vaccination-attitudes-report-RUS-22-Apr-2021.pdf. Accessed on 19.07.2021.
Cunningham, Paige Winfield (2021). The Health 202: The U.S. bought enough coronavirus vaccines for three times its adult population. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/11/health-202-us-bought-enough-coronavirus-vaccines-four-times-its-adult-population/ Accessed on 19.07.2021.
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Demoscope (2021). Poll: Since the beginning of the pandemic, a third of Kazakhstanis have changed their minds in favor of vaccination. Retrieved from http://demos.kz/opros-s-nachala-pandemii-tret-kazahst/ Accessed on 19.07.2021.
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Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Nadirova Gulnar Ermuratovna graduated from the Oriental Faculty of Leningrad State University, in 1990 she defended her thesis on the Algerian literature at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, in 2006 doctoral thesis - on modern Tunisian literature at the Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor.