The former Soviet republic of Moldova has come up with a novel approach to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 350,000 and killed almost 9,000 there.
Heath officials are using shock tactics, black humor, and pop music to try to scare people who aren't vaccinated or simply not worried about the virus. One of the videos as part of the recent campaign tells viewers: 'Don't worry. We have the biggest cemetery in Europe.'
The unusual government public-awareness campaign, sponsored by the World Health Organization, aims to promote vaccination against the backdrop of rampant disinformation and vaccine skepticism, which is common across Eastern Europe.
Officials hope that humor and pop will make more people decide to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Emilian Cretu stars as a medic, a patient, and an undertaker.
The video that has grabbed most attention is a 1:05-minute film that mixes comedy with the macabre. Popular Moldovan actor Emilian Cretu, who has almost 500,000 followers on Instagram, stars as a medic, a patient, and an undertaker.
In his different roles, he tells viewers, 'You don't have to worry' about the virus, although it's clearly a lesson in reverse psychology.
'More than 7,000 Moldovans have died of COVID-19. There are new, much more contagious and aggressive strains, but you don't have to worry,' he starts off, wearing a ginger wig and sipping from a bone-china cup, which he firmly places on a saucer. A gravedigger then appears with a shovel at the top of a huge, recently dug grave.
'Classic arguments don't work anymore, people are no longer receptive, they are weary. There was the idea that we should get out of our comfort zone,' Valeriu Pasa, a civic activist and member of the Watchdog think tank, told RFE/RL.
'Black humor is part of our region, it's about laughing and crying about a situation. The video matches the mentality of this region,' Pasa explained. 'It makes you think. You laugh and then you get scared.'
Coronavirus has hit hard the impoverished country of 3.1 million, which lies between Ukraine and EU member Romania.
Since it officially began its vaccination campaign on March 2, Moldova has had to rely on vaccine donations from Romania, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and China. It has also received tens of thousands of vaccines through COVAX, an international program that helps less developed countries obtain them more cheaply.
As of November 24, some 8,915 people have died of COVID-19 in Moldova and there have been a total of 359,401 cases of the coronavirus, according to data from the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.
Some 1.6 million shots have been administered with 919,000 people receiving two doses, the government website reported on November 23.
Medical staff attend to COVID-19 patients inside the intensive care unit at the Emergency Institute in Chisinau.
Around 35 percent of Moldova's population was vaccinated, according to November 23 figures from Our World in Data. Commentors say the percentage is actually much higher, as more than 1 million Moldovans live and work abroad, sending remittances home, and have been vaccinated in their countries of residence.
'I think more than 50 percent of the population is actually vaccinated, as we have more than 1 million Moldovans living abroad,' Pasa said. 'I can't say the vaccine rate has exploded, but there is a rhythm and [actor] Emilian Cretu is popular with the public.'
Another Moldovan pro-vaccine clip, which was done in cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO), is a parody of a popular Romanian pop song, These Two Words. Romanian group Taxi gave their permission for their song to be used in the campaign, Radu Sarbei, who directed the video, told RFE/RL. The tune is the same, but the new catchy lyrics call on people to get a COVID-19 jab.
In the clip, titled Together We'll Stop The Pandemic, a young man sings about being 'a bit scared,' but still goes to get an anti-COVID shot. He sings that he doesn't understand why people 'believe in conspiracy theories.' The clip then shows him sitting on the grass with a group of friends before finally getting a shot. The song's refrain is 'I got vaccinated.'
'We treat serious subjects with humor. It's an easy way for people to understand,' Sarbei told RFE/RL. 'We care about the vaccine campaign and this is our message.'
Another clip makes fun of some aspects of the pandemic, showing social distancing, how to wear a face mask, and get a vaccine. It is also presented by popular actor Cretu, who appears dressed in drag washing his hands at a sink in the middle of the park. He's told by a man on a park bench to keep his distance and then a medical assistant appears with a medical trolley and gives the protagonist a vaccine.
The Moldovan Health Ministry, which endorsed the WHO-funded campaign, declined to comment when reached by RFE/RL.
Whatever It Takes
Despite its relatively low vaccination rate, Moldova has a multipronged vaccine strategy. According to the government information website, people can get jabs at 115 vaccine centers in Moldova proper and the breakaway Transdniester region.
Two men transport a COVID-19 patient's dead body to the morgue at the Emergency Institute in Chisinau.
Another efficient, if less imaginative way to promote vaccines is through the country's pharmacies. Some 150,000 people visit pharmacies every day and they are the most visited medical points in the country, particularly in rural areas.
There are leaflets and stickers in every pharmacy and pharmacists discuss the vaccines with customers, an initiative supported by the Health Ministry, the WHO, and the Association of Pharmacists.
'Being at the forefront of communication with patients, pharmacists can provide people with scientifically proven information, helping to increase the acceptability of the vaccine, and increase the vaccination rate among the population,' said Zinaida Bezverhni, a medical doctor and state secretary.
But it's the humor that is staying in people's minds. 'We want to go directly to the public, to the young and the old,' said video director Sarbei. 'Other campaigns are more serious. We have the same aim. This is a serious subject and we want to reach everyone.'
He adds, 'Of course there has been a dose of hate, but it's from the same people who don't understand the situation we are in.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036