With the lowest vaccine rate in Europe and one of the highest mortality rates in recent weeks, Bulgaria has stepped up restrictions by introducing mandatory health certificates required to enter public institution and places of leisure.

Sports shop staff check for green Covid certificates on Oct. 24, 2021 in Sofia, Bulgaria. With the lowest vaccine rate in Europe and one of the highest mortality rates in recent weeks, Bulgaria has stepped up restrictions by introducing mandatory health certificates required to enter public institution and places of leisure. (Hristo Rusev/Getty Images/TNS)

Governments’ get-tough approach on the unvaccinated may be slowly having an impact on some of the holdouts in Eastern Europe.

In Bulgaria, where fewer than one quarter of the population is fully inoculated against the coronavirus, the number of weekly shots delivered has tripled in the past month. The catalyst? A new edict that proof of vaccination or a negative test is needed for bars, restaurants and gyms.

Czech authorities merely needed the threat of a clampdown to shift attitudes. The rollout has doubled already in November, even before new restrictions came into force this week. People are queuing for an hour or more at centers such as the one at the main train station in Prague.

Fear may also be playing a part in finally driving a shift among some of the reluctant cohort. Infections are rising at a record pace in some countries, hospitals are stretched to capacity, and daily grim headlines about the health crisis on the continent are impossible to ignore.

The virus is also disrupting politics. Governments’ chaotic communications and inconsistent social-distancing measures contributed to the downfall of several leaders across eastern Europe this year.

In Bulgaria, frustration over inability to corral the virus combined with anger over endemic corruption helped to end reign of one of Europe’s longest serving politicians, former Premier Boyko Borrisov. Czech billionaire Premier Andrej Babis was defeated in elections last month.

Slow progress

The change in vaccine demand is a step in the right direction in a region where vaccine take-up has been incredibly slow, and which is now experiencing a spike in infections. Slovakia’s new-case rate over the past week has been higher than even neighboring Austria, where a full national lockdown has been reimposed.

But even at the current speed, it will take months to get vaccinations up to the high thresholds needed to control the spread. And the pace will be impossible to maintain, given entrenched anti-vax sentiment.

Elsewhere in Europe, governments have also been targeting the unvaccinated, restricting their access to everyday activities. Germany has barred them from restaurants and public events in certain hotspot regions, and Italy is debating a similar measure.

Hungary is holding a “vaccine week” across the country where people can show up at hospitals and get a COVID shot without prior registration. While the country was among the first in Europe to roll out the shots, rates have since trailed off and remain below the EU average.

Authorities administered 256,000 shots in the first two days of the week, though the vast majority — 209,000 — were boosters.

The situation in Slovakia, where less than half the population is vaccinated, prompted a depressing assessment from President Zuzana Caputova on Tuesday.

“We are losing the battle with COVID,” she said after a visit to a hospital in Bratislava, pleading with authorities to introduce a full lockdown. “I no longer understand this country where I live.”

The country is debating implementing a lockdown, but it will be a hard sell given the most popular parties are now two opposition groups that have fiercely criticized all coronavirus measures, including social distancing and mask wearing.

The European Union has warned of a threat to the entire continent from the low levels of vaccination, as it could lead to the emergence of a new virus mutation. Given the bloc’s porous borders, and no restrictions on travel as yet, any mutation could easily spread.

“I don’t want to speak of a potential Bulgarian variant over the winter, but if we don’t do anything, we may see a Bulgarian variant,” EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said at an event in Sofia recently. This would be “very bad news for Bulgaria and for all of us on the planet.”

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