Over the past year, southeastern Europe has been deeply affected by the COVID public health emergency on various fronts, including the economy, the political environment, and society as a whole. This crisis has led to growing calls for economic reopening, growing resistance to public health measures, and an eagerness to return to everyday life. This has also resulted in large amounts of misinformation about reopening plans, vaccines, and how COVID emerged. The rise in conspiracy theories during the COVID era is one of several troubling trends in the region. It affects how people view the vaccination drives, the origins of the virus, and alleged schemes about the public health crisis.
The main trends in the region indicate that there is a sizable number of people in several southeastern European countries that believe in alternative facts about the pandemic and the vaccines. For instance, Balkan Insight reports that a survey done by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) shows that “55% of the citizens of North Macedonia would be unlikely to get a COVID-19 vaccination if it was offered to them.” The main concerns reported by the survey are that the vaccines may be unsafe (38% of respondents) and that they are useless (29% of respondents). Another key finding of the survey is that “For every 100 people, only 12 agree with the explanation about the cause of the pandemic offered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which says: ‘COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.'” This all means that a significant population of the country is still doubtful about the public health crisis and the vaccination drive meant to mitigate it. The high number also indicates a lack of targeted strategies by the government or regional groups to debunk alternative facts, doubts, and misinformation in general. However, these problems are a glimpse of similar situations in neighbouring countries.
When it comes to conspiracy theories about the pandemic, there is no commonly believed one in particular but rather a prominent few. For instance, a report from the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG) highlights six major conspiracy theories about the pandemic and the vaccines, which include: The Chinese government engineering the coronavirus, the pharmaceutical industry playing a role in spreading the coronavirus, a link between 5G and the coronavirus, the United States military made the coronavirus a bioweapon, Bill Gates is using the vaccines to plant a microchip inside people that track them, and that coronavirus “escaped” from a Wuhan lab. Among the six countries analyzed, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, at least ten percent of the population believes in one or several of the conspiracy theories listed above.
According to one of the graphs in the report, 70% to 81% of people believe “a lot or some in ANY conspiracy theory in the countries above.” For those that “don’t believe in ANY conspiracy theory,” the number is ten percent or less. The report notes that different groups of people believe in other conspiracy theories, meaning there are differences among younger people, older people, men, women, and the middle-aged, which adds a new layer of complication. Another report from the Open Society Institute looking at media literacy shows Albania, Bosnia, and North Macedonia are the most susceptible to fake news spreading in the country, RFE/RL reports. This aligns with findings of conspiracy theories and misinformation from the BIEPAG report.
Conspiracy theories, concerns and misinformation about COVID and the vaccines are partly attributed to a lack of a coordinated strategy by top health officials in the respective countries. There is also the role of social media in helping users quickly share content, including alternative facts or other forms of misinformation. Also, information from neighbouring countries or the greater region can quickly spread in southeastern Europe given the countries’ proximity. It is also important to note that the rise in conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news, in general, is not a new phenomenon in the region. The recent history of southeastern Europe holds years of ethnic conflict and mistrust in the government. Thus, any efforts to take on conspiracy theories and misinformation alone are unlikely to be effective give the various factors in the region that influence what people think and believe. According to BIEPAG, “conspiracy theories fall on fertile ground [because] Institutions are weak and often distrusted and there is a pre-history of conspiracy theories that flourished in particular during the [wartime] 1990s [and due to this] they are stronger in the southeastern Europe and potentially more destructive.” Different groups of people also believe in other things, making a uniform national/regional strategy a challenge to implement.
One other factor that is hampering efforts to debunk conspiracy theories and ease worries about vaccines is their slow rollout in the region. According to RFE/RL, on March 28, Kosovo began to inoculate its population thanks to “a batch of 24,000 AstraZeneca vaccines through the COVAX program” that just arrived, with the final goal of “a total of 100,800 doses” via the program. Other neighbouring countries that have been lagging in vaccines include Bosnia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Serbia has fared off better than its neighbours as it acquired vaccines from Western nations along with those from China and Russia, and it has donated vaccines to neighbouring countries that have struggled to secure vaccines. The lower availability of vaccines has made it difficult to persuade the populations of these countries to take them because few have done so. It is difficult for them to know what happens when you take the vaccine, what side effects there are, and the overall efficacy. One can present information about what things look like in other countries. Still, populations in southeastern Europe are warier about outside entities, given some of the conspiracy theories people in the region believe in.
Many of the countries in the region are among the least economically advantaged in Europe, meaning that economic struggles and hardships are common. In countries such as Bosnia, there are major economic disparities between top officials and the general population, with accusations of corruption and bribery being frequent. With all of these factors combined, there are reasons as to why significant portions of the populations in southeastern Europe feel uneasy about the vaccines. There is low trust in government institutions. Someone can quickly spread rumours on Facebook or other social media. It is easy for many to believe in conspiracy theories after years of failed promises by their governments. This is even more relevant for minority groups and populations which have lower trust in the government given the years of marginalization and discrimination.
A single strategy to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories will not be sufficient, and the government (or other agencies and groups) must carefully consider how its strategies will be effective for various groups. Another challenging factor is the wartime history of the area, which has led to greater mistrust between the government and other formal institutions. To ease the worries of their populations, leaders of various countries have publicly taken the COVID vaccine, such as Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. In contexts like Western Europe, this would create a trust for the vaccine, its promotion, and good publicity for the country’s leadership. However, this is harder to achieve in southeastern Europe, given its recent history and high levels of mistrust in institutions and national leadership. Regardless, it is still important to implement this strategy as it can gradually change the minds of skeptics if the number of vaccinations begins to increase.
On a similar note, having others speak about their experiences during the pandemic and getting vaccinated will be an effective way to gain the trust of communities and minorities in getting vaccinated. When there are minority individuals speaking about their experiences to others of their own community, it sends a message that they too will be okay after the vaccine and that there is a brighter future ahead. There will still be some skeptics, but if implemented, this strategy is likely to convince a sizable number of individuals to feel more confident about the vaccine and look more into the facts about the pandemic. Additionally, using personal anecdotes about one’s lived experiences can help emotionally appeal to others, which is also another effective way to speak directly to those feeling worried, unsure, or doubtful about the current events. Regional humanitarian organizations, community centers, or any group in the region that has assisted local populations with their hardships can assist authorities with these efforts. When someone starts to hear how their priest, their neighbour down the street, or a trusted person has navigated the pandemic and/or has been vaccinated, it makes someone more open to new information since they know the person(s).
Local, regional, and national governments in southeastern Europe must implement some of these strategies or a combination of these as they begin their vaccination drives and/or want to reduce skepticism about the region. This will also to some extent, help combat the prominent conspiracy theories among the population. As the number of vaccinated individuals grows, more can report about how they feel and reflect on their experiences for the past year. In a region with low levels of trust in the government and a wartime history where there have been similar issues with misinformation, this is a great opportunity for southeastern European countries to turn the course of things around. It would also assist with the broader efforts of vaccination drives and tackling misinformation and conspiracy theories, which benefits society as a whole.