Romania is turning to the men of God in a last-ditch attempt to boost coronavirus vaccine take-up as another wave of infections threatens to sweep over the country this fall.
Romania’s vaccination campaign started with a bang — it was among the most rapid EU vaccinators in the early part of 2021 — but soon fizzled out. August data shows just 25 percent of the population is fully vaccinated while new first-dose appointments have almost ground to a halt. Rural areas are especially lagging.
There’s also not much room for complacency. While current coronavirus case numbers are low, they’ve been nudging upward in recent weeks, causing the health ministry to warn that the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant will likely cause hospitalizations to rise.
With fears mounting of a deadly wave that could revisit the skyrocketing rates of last fall and winter, politicians are turning to the Romanian Orthodox Church for help. But the keepers of the faith have so far been ambivalent about promoting vaccines. Some high-ranking church figures have openly promoted vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, Patriarch Daniel, the 70-year-old leader of the church, refuses to discuss his vaccine status despite the fact some of his colleagues have died from COVID-19 — not to mention his own risk due to age. His spokesman said last week that the patriarch consulted with his doctor and that “if he decides to be vaccinated … the Romanian Patriarchy will announce it publicly.”
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Barna on Monday met with the patriarch to discuss the clergy’s role in vaccination, calling him “much more open than I had felt he would be from public perception.” But the result of the meeting remains to be determined, Barna conceded in an interview afterward with POLITICO. “There’s a component of society that pays much attention to the messages of the church and that’s why I wish for the church to be active in this campaign to promote our health.”
This first meeting aimed to bring the church and government “closer in regards to sending a convincing message,” Barna said. While not “necessarily very pleased,” he said it was “a good result that gives me hope … that the church will help encourage vaccinations.”
“From the perspective of an unwanted but highly probable fourth wave, I hope the contribution [of the church] will be more visible and consistent,” he added.
His comments underscore a reality of Romanian life: The church has for years enjoyed greater confidence from the population than any other institution, surveys show.
“The church could have been a very strong partner,” said Răzvan Cherecheș, executive director of the Center for Health Policy and Public Health at Babes-Bolyai University. “In a lot of rural areas, the local priest is the go-to person — the local influencer. He could have persuaded entire communities.”
Barna and his colleagues want the church to put this status to good use in the vaccine drive and assist the government as it also considers more coercive measures, such as requiring “vaccine passes” for indoor shopping or requiring health workers to get jabbed, as some other European countries have done.
However, President Klaus Iohannis has signaled reluctance to go this route, saying Wednesday that “we cannot defeat the pandemic through discrimination.” At the same time, he said, it’s “unacceptable” for medical personnel to be unvaccinated.
Fall from grace
Romania’s dramatic fall from near the top of the EU vaccine league table to being second last can be explained by the campaign’s botched rollout, said Cherecheș.
Unlike other countries, which generally followed a priority schedule according to age and health risk, Romania quickly opened up the vaccine offer to the whole population. While this meant that everyone who wanted a shot was able to get it, enthusiasm quickly fizzled out because a “big mass of skeptics” remained un-jabbed after the first rush, Cherecheș said.
In most other countries, by contrast, anticipation and enthusiasm were higher across age cohorts because each had to wait their turn, he argues.
In Romania, the skeptics constitute about 59 percent of the population, according to a May survey from Eurofound. Uptake has been so bad that the government sold 1.17 million doses to Denmark and another 1 million to Ireland, while closing multiple vaccination centers.
This failure is all the more notable given that Romania has a history of successful vaccination drives. In the 1970s, for example, it pulled off a comprehensive anti-polio campaign as part of the global effort to eradicate the disease, said Claudiu Crăciun, a politics lecturer at the National School of Political Studies and Administration in Bucharest.
What has happened since, he explained, is “the withdrawal of the state from public services, which has only partly been compensated for by the charitable activity of the church.”
Aside from the church, “no other institution in Romania has such a good presence at the local level,” he added.
Complicating matters is that the church allows a high degree of independence among its priests, and its leadership has been reluctant to set a tough messaging line on vaccination.
“The church could have made a big difference in vaccination rates, but it backed itself into a corner by choosing not to impose its authority on the mass of priests,” Crăciun said. “Its neutral stance on vaccination is equivalent in practice to opposing vaccines.”