ATHENS – Except for making them be vaccinated, Greece’s New Democracy government is going after COVID-19 skeptics and anti-vaxxers with restrictions on entering restaurants and public spots and still pitching a persuasion campaign.
It also includes a combination of making shots mandatory for those over-60 as of Jan. 16, 2022 – and fining those who don’t – while trying to make access to vaccinations more accessible around the country.
In a feature, Al Jazeera correspondent John Psaropoulos said mobile vans are being used in some remote areas to reach people who can’t get to urban centers and targeting the elderly, among the most vulnerable and reluctant.
Yiorgos Toumanidis of the northern village of Mandalos, population 1200, was one of them who showed up at the mobile unit to get a booster, afraid of the health consequences if he didn’t.
“I know what it’s like,” said the 71-year-old, who has had the virus. “I spent a month at home with antibiotics … That’s when we understood what’s going on, how dangerous the situation is. I didn’t hesitate. With the first opportunity, I did the vaccine.”
But the refuseniks abound too even though the pandemic had surged in the autumn, bringing record numbers of cases, hospitalizations, people on ventilators in public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and deaths.
Despite those grim statistics, Maria Kourouktsidou, from the same village, waited for the busy summer season at the local fruit cannery, where she works, to pass, the report said.
“I was worried, of course,” the 54-year-old said. “Many people got sick at work … not everyone wore masks. Management told people to, but then they’d take them off.” And that’s part of the problem.
Northern Greece, including the second-largest city of Thessaloniki that has become a symbol of defiance of health measures, has been overrun with the Coronavirus but it hasn’t moved many anti-vaxxers to get the shot.
Those over 65 are especially resisting vaccinations even though they are the most likely to die if infected, making up only 12.2 percent of call cases but 50 percent of hospitalizations and 83.2 percent of deaths, the report noted.
The government recruited private doctors to help but not private clinics even though ICUs have overflowed and the head of the hospital workers union said some beds were being reserved for VIPs, which the government denied.
Those rates have surged since early October. Infections have tripled to roughly 6,000 a day, and deaths to about 90 a day.
The strategy, which has largely failed for months with the number of fully vaccinated stuck at about 62 percent, below the 70 percent that health officials said is needed to slow the pandemic, remains the same: convincing people to be inoculated.
Dimitris Tsalikakis, heading the effort from Thessaloniki to the Turkish border, said he’s reached out to mayors, priests and football teams to help bring crowds to vaccination events although clerics are among the most reluctant to be inoculated.
AN OLD ARGUMENT
“Some people put it off for the summer because they had work in the fields. Others didn’t understand how serious this disease is. Others were confused by the different viewpoints they heard,” Tsalikakis told Al Jazeera.
“The point is, people need to understand this is serious. We see what’s going on in hospitals. We’re asking the elderly to get vaccinated because it’s key to how they weather the illness,” he said.
Some blame mixed messages coming from the government and a lack of information as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis turned his attention more toward accelerating an economic recovery than dealing with the pandemic.
“People who don’t want to do it are afraid, or think they know more than doctors do … They say, ‘Why are you doing it? The cells in your body will be destroyed’,” Mandalos’s community President, Christos Avramidis.
“They thought their lungs will be destroyed,” he told Al Jazeera, as they apparently didn’t think about how dangerous and deadly that COVID-19 is, targeting their respiratory systems.
Kourouktsidou also heard conspiracy theories at the cannery. “They heard about a microchip being put inside you that controls you,” she said, many anti-vaxxers believing the shots are aimed at altering their DNA.
Yiorgos Anastasiadis, 64, told the site that pharmaceutical companies have enlisted politicians and experts to sell a placebo to make money, offering no evidence or sources.
“Don’t experts get paid? Don’t they go to whomever pays them most? And don’t they say what the people who pay them want them to say? Am I wrong?”
In the summer ,the government offered 150 euro ($169.75) bonuses for the unvaccinated from 18-25 to get shots, and 308,000 responded, and in October the inducements included 15-17 olds 50MB of free mobile phone data.
But as of mid-January those over 60 who don’t make appointments for shots face monthly fines of 100 euros ($113.17) that could be a big chunk of monthly pensions that would be deducted.
“It’s not a penalty. I’d say it’s a health levy, motivation for precaution, a boost to life, but also an act of justice towards the vaccinated majority,” said Mitsotakis.
“We can’t have people being deprived of public health services they need because certain others have dug in their heels and refuse to do what is self-evident.” That saw about 60,000 in that age group make appointments.
So why don’t people get vaccinated in the face of fear or even death?
“I think it’s mainly a question of ego. Fear of side effects comes second,” said Thanasis Tilegrafos, a mathematics student at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki.
“The unvaccinated think they’re invulnerable and now there’s also a confrontation with the government. It’s no longer a question of persuasion … they think they’re special.”