BELGRADE, Serbia — At the main hospital in Romania’s capital, the morgue ran out of space for the dead in recent days, and doctors in Bulgaria have suspended routine surgeries so they can tend to a surge in COVID-19 patients. In the Serbian capital, the graveyard now operates an extra day during the week in order to bury all the bodies arriving.
For two months now, a stubborn wave of virus infections has ripped mercilessly through several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are much lower than elsewhere on the continent. While medical workers pleaded for tough restrictions or even lockdowns, leaders let the virus rage unimpeded for weeks.
“I don’t believe in measures. I don’t believe in the same measures that existed before the vaccines,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said, last month, as the Balkan nation sustained some of its worst daily death tolls of the pandemic. “Why do we have vaccines then?”
A World Health Organization official declared, earlier this month, that Europe is again at the epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic. While several Western European countries are seeing spikes in infections, it is nations to the East that are driving fatalities. Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkan states recorded some of the highest per-capita death rates in the world in the first week of November, according to the WHO.
Experts say fumbled vaccination campaigns and underfunded and mismanaged health systems set the stage for the latest outbreaks, which gathered pace as leaders dithered. Some are acting now — but many doctors say it took too long and is still not enough.
Many governments in the region are facing elections soon, and that no doubt made them reluctant to force people to get vaccinated or impose unpopular lockdowns even in former Communist nations that once carried out mandatory inoculations without hesitation or where leaders were quick to introduce closures earlier in the pandemic.
But politicians’ failure to quickly heed the calls of the medical community has likely undermined an already weak trust in institutions in countries where corruption is widespread. Misinformation about vaccines has also found fertile ground amid the broader distrust of authority.
That has left countries stumbling through the latest surge with few protections. While nations around the world have struggled with resistance to vaccines, many in Central and Eastern Europe have particularly low rates for places where supply is not an issue. Bulgaria and Romania, both in the European Union, have fully vaccinated about 23% and 35% of their populations, respectively. Bosnia and Herzegovina has just 21% fully vaccinated.