Zurab Azarashvili: “The government has indeed spared no effort for the vaccination process.”

Verdict: FactCheck concludes that Zurab Azarashvili’s statement is a LIE.

The Minister of Health, Zurab Azarashvili, stated the following whilst speaking about the vaccination process: “The government has indeed spared no effort. If we take a look at the practises of other countries and how they motivated their population, all of these opportunities have been used.”

Georgia was late to bring COVID-19 vaccines to the country and start a universal vaccination. Of note is that there was no problem of vaccine availability, although there was no increased demand for vaccinations on the part of the population. The state was unprepared for the launch of a mass vaccination process. In particular, the government did not have a relevant informational campaign which could have enhanced both the trust and the demand of the population vis-à-vis the vaccines. The level of disinformation which was promoted simultaneously with the coronavirus pandemic was unparalleled. COVID-19 vaccines have been the most important targets of disinformation campaigns. An antivax campaign started as early as in September 2020 when COVID-19 vaccines were still in the production phase and none of them were authorised. As opposed to the disinformation mouthpieces, the government failed to proactively provide the population with comprehensive information about vaccine efficacy and safety as well as COVID-19 dangers and the need for vaccination. The government started an informational campaign only after importing the vaccines, although it was still inconsistent and insufficient. At the initial stage, the lack of a relevant informational campaign and strategic communications was a deliberate move in order to make sure that there was no growing demand for vaccines among the public and, therefore, no increased burden on the government.

The informational campaign became more robust from autumn 2021 when the country started to face an outbreak of the Delta strain and representatives of the Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC) started to hold meetings with people in the regions. For people in the biggest risk group of COVID-19 complications, a special financial reward programme was launched which is still ongoing. However, this was insufficient because the government lacked a proactive, consistent and uniformed strategic communication during the vaccination process which inflicted significant harm to the vaccination process.

The COVID-19 death rate in Georgia is alarmingly high. According to the Worldometer figures, Georgia ranks 7th in the world in terms of COVID-19 deaths per one million people. This is directly related to the low vaccination level and the government indisputably bears responsibility for this. On top of the late vaccine rollout and informational campaign, the government failed to have proper communication with the population in the subsequent period as well and was unable to convince people about the importance of vaccination. As of April 2022, there are only 1,259,000 fully vaccinated people in Georgia which is 43.5% of its adult population and 33.7% of the total population, respectively. Only 242,000 people have received their booster doses. For the sake of comparison, around 70-80% of the population is vaccinated in other European countries.

Therefore, the vaccination level in the country is critically low which is largely the outcome of malignant disinformation. In this light, it was and remains crucial to provide true and factual information to the people. The government failed to do so and furthermore, recent public statements of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health denigrate the importance of vaccination. As the outbreak of the Omicron strain and its unprecedented scale of spread ravaged Georgia and it was vital to vaccinate people in risk groups (people over 60 years of age and people with health conditions who have risks of serious complications of this infection), the Minister of Health, Zurab Azarashvili, equalled Omicron with the seasonal flu (catching a cold) instead of convincing people to get their shots. The Prime Minister himself continued to stubbornly claim that vaccines do not work against Omicron and do not protect people from infection. In this manner, the Prime Minister further corroborated the already sceptical attitudes of a certain part of the public. Of particular interest is the fact that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health reiterated those myths which were actively promoted by anti-vaxxers. In fact, in accordance with the World Health Organization’s information, Omicron is a more dangerous disease as compared to a typical cold and non-vaccinated people are facing the highest risks. In addition, it is a myth that vaccines do not work against Omicron. Full vaccination and the booster dose protect people from serious complications and deaths from all strains of COVID-19, including Omicron.

Later, against the backdrop of an improved epidemiological situation in Georgia, the Minister of Health informed the public that “we are getting closer to the end of the pandemic.” This type of statement logically makes people feel that the pandemic is over and in turn this makes the public relaxed and people do not get vaccinated because importance of vaccination is no longer visible. According to the World Health Organization, although the number of confirmed cases and mortality decreases globally and a number of countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is still far from being over.

The fact that Georgia’s epidemiological situation continues to be stable is not a guarantee that we are coming closer to the end of the pandemic. Moreover, some Asian and European countries have confirmed that new cases are rising. Vaccines give protection from complicated disease and death caused by any COVID-19 strain. The efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, similar to plenty of other vaccines such as the influenza vaccine, decreases in time and it is necessary to get a booster dose. Vaccination with a booster dose is particularly vital for those in risk groups (people over 60 years of age and people with health conditions who have risks of serious complications of this infection). In fact, it is very important to reach the target figure of vaccination because the virus has not gone anywhere and the pandemic is not over. If the public becomes overly relaxed, this may lead to an aggravation of the epidemiological situation. It is true that the Minister of Health states that 70% of the population should be vaccinated by the end of this year but proper communication with the population is still not happening.