Over a year has gone by since the World Health Organization proclaimed COVID-19 a global pandemic. Our lives have changed in unthinkable ways. It wasn’t easy at first, but I have learned to adjust and adhere to basic measures such as safe distancing, mask use, and strict hand hygiene. What remains painful is coping with my curtailed freedoms to work as I used to, to socialize and network, to celebrate, to travel to see my family, and importantly, to be close to those I hold dear who grieve the loss of loved ones.
But with time I realized that there is, however, the light at the end of the tunnel!
Thanks to monumental efforts by scientists and researchers, a range of safe vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed in record time, thus becoming game-changers in the fight against this deadly virus. Ukraine has joined global efforts to vaccinate its population, justly prioritizing frontline workers and other high-risk groups, with a commitment to ensure that in due course every Ukrainian can access a vaccine. The United Nations together with Ukraine’s international development partners is committed to helping the Government of Ukraine expedite its ambitious goal.
With every day that passes more citizens can access vaccines, whether via new mobile teams, digital apps, or simply through a family doctor. However, the single, most serious worry that clouds my hope for a return to normalcy is the extraordinarily high hesitancy among Ukrainians to get vaccinated. Our best chance to bring an end to the pandemic phase, with COVID-19 infection rates lowered to a level that can be managed just as any other infectious disease, is to convince many more Ukrainians to get vaccinated.
As a United Nations representative but also in my personal capacity, I want here to challenge doubts and skepticism and put forward arguments in favor of considering getting vaccinated:
True, all the vaccines are new, and as research continues furiously, indeed we do not have answers to all the questions. However, all the vaccines on the WHO Emergency Use List (EUL) have undergone a rigorous process and are declared safe. All existing research and evidence show that while vaccination does not guarantee that you will not get infected, just as the regular flu shot, getting vaccinated significantly reduces your chance of contracting a life-threatening form of the disease requiring hospitalization and potentially causing death.
Importantly, taking the vaccine is also critical to reducing the spread of the virus to others. Here I have a message to young Ukrainians who think: “I am young and healthy. I don’t need to take the vaccine.” While the virus is more threatening to older persons, if you are young, consider that by taking the vaccine you are protecting your Babushka and Dedushka. And to those who say: “I’ve had COVID-19 and recovered, so I am immune.” We now know that you can contract COVID-19 more than once and that you can also continue spreading it to others.
True, there have been some cases recorded of health complications associated with getting vaccinated. Countries have taken different approaches to such occurrences, with some putting a temporary hold to do more research. What we need to recall is that these cases are extremely rare. Just as we don’t stop taking medicine prescribed by a doctor based on warnings on rare complications contained in the medicine leaflet, we should listen to those who can provide expert advice on vaccines, including organizations such as WHO and UNICEF. To put things in proportion, it was helpful for me to listen to those knowledgeable in statistics who say that my chance of getting into my car and having a lethal accident is considerably higher than suffering complications from COVID-19 vaccination. Considering that the pandemic has caused the loss of over 45,000 Ukrainian lives this past year, it seems to me that the advantage of getting vaccinated and protecting myself from getting severely ill greatly outweighs the risks.
What about those who wish to wait for one vaccine brand they heard is better and safer than another that is available to them right now? True, vaccines are not all the same. We learn more every day about levels of effectiveness. I would, however, point out again any of the vaccines on the WHO EUL is recommended as effective and safe.
Just last Friday, Sinopharm became the latest vaccine to join the EUL, alongside AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and a few others. More are in process. I wish to point out the process of approval for inclusion on the EUL certifies the uniform quality of vaccine production, therefore a preference for a vaccine manufactured in one country over another is baseless. While WHO cannot proclaim judgment on a vaccine until the review is complete, that does not mean that vaccines not yet on the EUL are bad. Personally, I respect the decision of individuals in many countries who have chosen to take a vaccine still in process of approval by WHO but already authorized by their national health authorities. Bottom line – my view is that rather than waiting and delaying, getting any recommended vaccine on offer now can contribute to containing the virus.
Finally, I often hear that vaccine hesitancy in Ukraine relates to a post-Soviet legacy of mistrust in the healthcare system. As Ukraine approaches the landmark anniversary of its 30th year of independence, I suggest it is time to stop repeating this statement so that we also stop believing in it. Ukraine is a country committed to the global sustainable development 2030 Agenda and moving forward as a European modern democracy.
True, there is a lot to do to advance reforms, but a lot of progress has already been accomplished, in the health sector in particular.
With full respect for the individual right and freedom of every Ukrainian citizen to decide to take or not to take the vaccine, I urge every Ukrainian to consider getting vaccinated, to beware of disinformation, to reach out to trusted sources including the UN so as to ensure you have the best available evidence-based information to make the right decision.