COVID, holidays and vaccine hesitancy within Eastern European communities

If someone told me a few years ago that any other issue will divide our communities as much as Brexit did after the EU referendum, I would not have believed.

This year, I was lucky enough to travel over the summer holidays. A lot of people like me, who live abroad, are often left with very little choice. COVID restrictions, stress around planning and cost of tests is putting many people off, however there are not many alternatives if we want to see our loved ones.

The health pandemic was a central part of many of my conversations in Poland and Croatia. Although most of my friends had at least one dose of the vaccine, what are the reasons for “vaccine hesitancy” within the Polish and other ethnic minority communities?

The most recent data from the Hertfordshire County Council Public Health team shows that 69% of any other white backgrounds of residents living in the county received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is significantly lower than e.g. white British individuals (around 90%). There is still some work that needs to be done to address the issue of relatively low levels of the vaccine roll-out within minority ethnic groups.

It is also clear that there are many reasons why some people, also from my community, are hesitant towards the vaccination programme. Social media plays a big part in shaping people’s views on whether to have the vaccine or not. Targeted online campaigns, believing only in one source of information, being fed up with listening to “experts” often means that it is not easy to change people’s “fixed mind-sets”. For those living in the UK, occasional language barriers could be some of the motives of vaccine resistance.

Social, cultural and religious factors might often affect reasons why individuals from so-called “hard to reach groups” are reluctant to get vaccinated. In my experience, our church leaders encourage people to get the vaccine, however there are some isolated voices of individuals who question whether the vaccine was e.g. produced in an acceptable way, without using human embryos.

There are still some people who believe that because they are healthy and fit, they will not catch COVID. This often changes if a friend or relative becomes ill.

Polish people are often proud individuals. After years of oppressions, communism, they cherish their liberties and many people feel that, in particular COVID restrictions limit their freedoms. In my view, maybe because of the historical reasons, mistrust of the public institutions is still ingrained in the Polish way of thinking.

The health pandemic has drastically changed our lives. Whether it is work, travelling, or our social norms; things feel and look different. However, our perspective on vaccination depends on “where we sit”. My, maybe “selfish hope”, still is that our lives will return to some sort of “modified normality”, however I accept that the “new norm” might have to look a bit different.


* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and former councillor