Czech Republic Insight

In conspiracy-prone Czech Republic, young generations remain unconvinced by vaccine’s merits

prague-covid-czech-republic

Prague, Czech Republic – Despite a drastic decrease in vaccine scepticism, young Czechs remain unconvinced. In a country where conspiracy theories appeal to large segments of the population, only 30% of those aged 25-34 plan to get vaccinated.

“We have no idea of the long-term effects of the vaccine. I will not get vaccinated under any circumstances. I value my health and don’t want to risk the consequences,” said David Formánek, the 27-year-old founder of the Facebook page and website “Open your Mind” [Otevři Svou Mysl], which features alternative truths about Covid-19 and vaccination.

He founded the platform during the first lockdown after losing his job as a hotel receptionist. “I had some time on my hands, so I translated and shared a video interview with Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai.”

“The other side of things”

Formánek’s video featuring the controversial doctor was virally shared amongst Czechs on social media. “I realised that there is demand for what mainstream media don’t tell us. They only present one side of the truth, while the other remains untold”. 

This is why he decided to continue translating and spreading videos explaining “the other side of things”. “No one talks about the fact that we are all part of a scientific experiment, and nobody knows how this will end,” claimed Formánek.

He believes that the increased willingness to get vaccinated is due to media pressure and people being pushed into the corner, believing they have no other choice. “Many succumb to the pressure of media propaganda without thinking for themselves,” he said.

He believes that lesser Covid related death tolls in countries with higher vaccination rates aren’t necessarily connected. “Just because there is a correlation between a reduction in deaths and vaccination does not mean that there is a causation,” he ventured. His Facebook page has over 23,000 followers, while his newsletter goes out to nearly 10,000 people on a bi-weekly basis. Most of his followers are women aged 25-54.

But they are not the only ones affected by this phenomenon. A recent study by the STEM agency found that as many as 40% of Czechs believe in disinformation narratives around Covid. “Our results show that the strongest predictor of believing in disinformation is distrust in public media,” Nikola Hořejš from STEM told Kafkadesk. “As for Covid-related topics, only 60% of respondents said they trust Czech public television.”

Conspiracy theories abound in the Czech Republic

According to the National Pandemic alarm, women in between their mid-20s and mid-50s are also more hesitant to accept the vaccine than men – echoing the results of a global study on vaccine acceptance indicating that men are generally more open to the vaccine than women. 

According to Adam Vojtech, Czech Republic’s former Health Minister, around 70% of the country’s population needs to be vaccinated. “We need to focus on communicating that vaccination is the only way forward. The government needs to be positive in their campaign that means no gloves and needles, but data and examples of good practice,” Vojtech told Kafkadesk.

Those willing to accept the vaccine care about the type of vaccination. Whereas 40% of Czech lean towards Pfizer, only 27% would accept Astra Zeneca. The least popular vaccine was Sinopharm developed in China with only 1% preference, while 11% of Czech respondents said they would agree to the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine. Czech preferences for Pfizer are mirrored by a European YouGov study that found Moderna and Pfizer were preferred over Astra Zeneca.

“What makes Czechs – and other V4 countries – hesitant about vaccines are the low levels of trust, overall life satisfaction and willingness to believe in various conspiracy theories,” said Dr Richard Turcsanyi from Palacký University in Olomouc. 

His data on vaccination willingness collected from 1,500 individuals shows that people with higher economic satisfaction, political conditions in their countries, and those satisfied with their countries’ handling of the pandemic are more willing to get vaccinated.

“Those who believe in alternative truths, for example, that Covid was intentionally spread either by China, the US or that it spread through 5G were also less willing to get vaccinated,” said Dr Turcsanyi.

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Thousands of white crosses were spray-painted on Prague’s Old Town Square in memory of all those who died from Covid in the Czech Republic, which has one of the world’s highest death tolls.

“The illusion of invincibility”

Despite current statistics showing a drastic increase in the willingness to accept the vaccine from 30% in October 2020 to 64% in March 2021 amongst Czechs, young people remain sceptical. Only 30% of those ages 25 – 34 are planning to get vaccinated. 

“I think the reason for young people’s hesitancy is the illusion of invincibility. Covid-19 is often talked about in terms of risk groups which mainly apply to elderly and vulnerable individuals,” said Ivan Duškov, deputy director of state health insurance VZP.

“Many young Czechs seem unconcerned. When you walk through the Náplavka riverside in Prague, you see crowds of young people drinking from the same bottle, passing cigarettes and acting irresponsibly,” he added.

Duškov believes that the new governmental campaign, [Full stop to Covid-19] will play a crucial role in helping people understand the benefits of vaccination. “The willingness to receive the vaccine will continue to grow as most people have now understood that it is the only way out,” thinks Duškov.” 

He recognises a change in vaccination attitudes from last fall. “The introduction of Covid passports presented a shift in how people perceive the vaccine. It is no longer a matter of ‘want’ or ‘don’t want’ , but people know it might have practical implications too.”  

According to Duškov, Czech media amplified conspiracists’ voices. “Although we often hear of anti-vaxers and anti-maskers, in reality, the majority of people accept mainstream pandemic narratives, respect safety measures and understand the importance of vaccination.”

Seeking the truth elsewhere

But film assistant Roland Polyanchuk, 24, disagrees. He feels that the scope of the virus has been exaggerated and that the vaccine is not the answer.

“I wouldn’t get vaccinated unless my employer demanded it. We put so much rubbish into our bodies already, so delivering more toxins into my body seems absurd and unnecessary,” he said. Rather than a global pandemic, he believes humanity is experiencing a “higher calling to wake up and own up to what has been done to the planet”.

He also claims that the media has not been telling the whole truth about the pandemic and that other diseases are more dangerous than Covid-19. “The way Covid is portrayed makes me suspicious that there is something else at stake, but I don’t have time to get into that now,” said Polyanchuk.

According to a global study surveying 19 countries, vaccine hesitancy was higher amongst those who distrust official governmental sources and information. Higher education and income levels were also found to increase vaccination acceptance.

And while more Europeans lean towards accepting the vaccine in 2021 than last year, European vaccine hesitancy remains highest out of all world regions. Most sceptics cite health concerns over its fast roll-out, and blood clot risks which have now been shown to be multiple times higher for those who contracted the virus than received the vaccine.

With trust in the government plummeting to new lows and conspiracy theories allowed to spread virtually unchecked, hard-hit Czech Republic is facing one of its toughest sales yet, and may need to come up with more compelling arguments to persuade its young sceptics.

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

By Anna Kosler

Czech-born, Scandinavian-raised, and Edinburgh-based journalist with a background in social psychology, Anna is an international freelance-writer on political, social, and cultural features.