Over half of Georgians are skeptical about vaccines and this might undermine future efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research released today.
A survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) into public attitudes towards COVID-19 found that more respondents were negative than positive about vaccines, and women were 25% less likely to want a vaccine than men. Using random digit dialing, CRRC surveyed around 1,000 people per week over six weeks from late April until early June, including minority groups in four different languages.
Many skeptics believed that their immune systems would be able to beat COVID-19, and that the threat of the virus has been exaggerated. Over 40% of respondents believed that the virus had been created in a lab, 44% said they weren’t sure, and 13% believed this proposition to be false.
While 40% of people surveyed said they didn’t believe 5G and COVID-19 were related, half of respondents weren’t sure and 9% of respondents (potentially over 300,000 people) believed that COVID-19 was directly related to 5G infrastructure.
"The data clearly indicate Georgia has a problem with anti-vaccine sentiment and important shares believe outright misinformation about vaccines in Georgia,” says Dustin Gilbreath, CRRC’s deputy research director.
Disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has been widespread on social media in Georgia. One of the most important initial sources was a “Stop 5G” group on Facebook, which mostly shared Russian and English posts linking the 5G network to vaccines.
The group was soon shut down by Facebook, but a new one popped up. This time, the posts shared were mainly from Georgian users. One featuring a video of an emotional woman claiming that the “government is lying about the vaccines” and that the “Georgian people will be used as guinea pigs”, received over 400,000 views.
Davit Jakubashvili, a member of parliament representing the right-wing Free Georgia party, has argued that a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be safe.
“There is talk that [a COVID-19 vaccine] will have liquid nanochips, which is very dangerous and rumours float that trials have been conducted which ended fatally,” Jakubashvili told openDemocracy, adding that other diseases such as the flu, are more fatal than COVID-19.
Meanwhile, some Georgian Orthodox priests have claimed that a vaccine “will serve not so much to combat the virus as to enslave humans, control people, subdue them”. They also claim that it will become a tool in the hands of the devil “to sway people and easily seduce them into sin”. The Orthodox church, which is one of the most trusted institutions in the country, has seen an increase in trust during the pandemic, CRRC’s research suggests.
“Attitudes towards vaccines in the US are considered both a public health and security issue. In comparison, about twice as many in Georgia think that vaccines can cause autism”
When the CRRC investigated why people were against vaccines, it found that one in five respondents believed vaccines cause autism, a quarter believed they contain unsafe toxins, and a quarter believed they weren’t worth “the risk”. About 14% of people surveyed stated that vaccines aren’t necessary to protect children’s health.
"In the United States, about one in ten people believe that vaccines can cause autism,” said Gilbreath. “Attitudes towards vaccines in the US are considered both a public health and security issue. In comparison, about twice as many in Georgia think that vaccines can cause autism.”
The results of CRRCs survey are worrying but not surprising, says Sopo Gelava, editor at Myth Detector, an organisation which tracks disinformation in Georgia.
“Anti-vaccine misinformation was going around before the pandemic, but there has been a real increase in vaccine related mis- and disinformation,” says Gelava, who attributes the ability of misinformation to spread in the country to government inaction.
Gelava also believes the government’s failure to counter misinformation has resulted in a high number of people responding “I don’t know” to questions related to vaccines and COVID-19 in the CRRC surveys.
About 10% of children in Georgia under the age of six have not been vaccinated, according to statistics of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC) from 2019.
“If in the past children were deprived of vaccination because of parental neglect, today ideological anti-vaxers consciously reject vaccination,” says paediatrician Lela Zangurashvili.
Zangurashvili is especially concerned about the high numbers of people who may not want to vaccinate their children: “I am really worried. If it’s not an overestimation, we may face big problems in terms of vaccination coverage of the population.”
During a recent global measles outbreak in 2019, 3,920 people in Georgia were infected while 2,199 were infected in 2018, according to the NCDC. From 2018 to 2019, this is an increase of 78%, according to the NCDC’s annual report. In 2018, the country was one of seven EU member states that recorded measles cases, according to the World Health Organization.
Paata Imnadze, the head of the NCDC, has previously attributed the rise in measles to misinformation and disinformation spread online.
“All over the world, social networks host different anti-vaccine groups where disinformation regarding the negative effects of vaccination is disseminated based on various Russian sources; Georgia is no exception,” Imnadze said in an interview with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
During 2019, the first anti-vax petition was distributed in Georgia by an organisation calling itself Vaccination and Risk Factors. I came across it at my son’s pre-school, Waldorf Georgia.
Although the petition, which demanded that parents should have the “right to choose” to vaccinate their children, was taken down after complaints, the organisers claimed that they had collected more than 100,000 signatures.
CRRC’s Gilbreath adds that the negative attitudes towards vaccines are extremely important to understand and counter, both for the fight against Covid-19 and for public health more broadly in the country.
“The numbers are troubling for public health in Georgia,” Gilbreath said. “If vaccine skepticism means people do not immunise their children, then the numerous negative health side effects that have been witnessed elsewhere could emerge here.”