In late December of 2020, Ani Panossian’s physician husband, who rarely shares personal content on social media, posted a photo of himself getting jabbed.
Friends and family rushed to comment. “Is he okay? He should be very brave to take the vaccine.”
“I’m doing this not just for myself, but for others,” he reassured them.
A few months later, when the COVID-19 vaccine was made more available to the public, many of their friends revealed that they decided to get vaccinated because of his photo.
Panossian, who works as a COVID-19 contact tracing supervisor in New Jersey, says the Armenian community had a unique reaction to the pandemic. At the start of lockdown, she heard from many who either did not believe in the severity of the virus or felt they were immune from it after enduring such a brutal and traumatic history.
“Unfortunately, we know that the virus doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter. Religion, your race, we’re all on the same boat with this,” Panossian said in an interview with the Armenian Weekly.
And like other cultures whose natural instinct is to gather together and embrace, physical distancing was a challenge, especially during the 2020 Artsakh War when the need for community was vital.
“It was a double hit for Armenians,” she says. “I really wanted to be around my friends to hug them, to cry, to talk.”
And as vaccines have been rolling out alongside mandates, doubt still lingers in the community.
One reason that Armenians aren’t getting vaccinated, Panossian believes, is due to their religious faith and the belief that God will protect them from the virus. She wishes more leaders in the Armenian community, particularly those in church, would publicly encourage others to get vaccinated. “It’s good to have a positive mindset, but your faith is not enough to protect you from the virus,” Panossian says.
Kim Hekimian, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at Columbia University, believes that the Armenian community in the US mirrors the political divide in the United States in response to the virus. “There were some Armenians in the US who took the virus very seriously, and they adhered to the public health advice and guidance pretty strictly, but I think there were others who felt that people were making a big deal out of something that they shouldn’t have,” says Dr. Hekimian.
She divides non-vaccinated people into two groups, the first being anti-vaxxers, who are more unlikely to be swayed in opinion. The second, more common group, are those who simply feel hesitant and skeptical about getting the vaccine.
This group is fearful of the potential side effects, the quick development of the vaccine and the risk of fertility issues. “The way to go is to get down to the granular level of the community, identify your influencers, arm them with information and also bring the vaccine right to the community,” Hekimian advises.
Back in the homeland, concerns ring similar. On April 12, Armenia launched its vaccine campaign after receiving its first distribution of 25,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines.
AstraZeneca, which is cheaper to purchase and store than other vaccines, soon began to receive reports of rare blood clotting. Many European countries, including Germany and France, had suspended their distribution around the time Armenia first received their doses.
As a result, many Armenians, who were already skeptical, had less reason to get the vaccine.
“For every hundred people that they would call to come into the clinic, only three people would come. It was terrible,” Hekimian says.
Initially, first priority went to nursing home residents and employees, health care workers, social workers, those 65 and older and between the ages of 16 and 64 with chronic illnesses. However, due to the low rate of vaccinations, and with 25,000 vaccines set to expire in six weeks, Armenia opened up its eligibility to most everyone above the age of 18.
Araz Chiloyan, a consultant at Armenia’s Ministry of Health, says the biggest barrier facing Armenia during this pandemic—besides the anti-vax movement within the general public—is skepticism with the healthcare systems.
According to a recent study conducted by Center for Insights between April 8 and May 4, 71 percent of Armenians said that they would not get vaccinated if the vaccine was made available to them. Thirty-seven percent said it was because they are concerned about the side effects, while 25 percent said they do not think they need it. Fifteen percent said they want to know more about how well the vaccine works, and 13 percent said they do not get vaccines in general.
Behavioral insight surveys also reveal that Armenians tend to trust their physician the most. According to Chiloyan, however, in recent months, many healthcare workers have been providing inaccurate information to patients regarding the safety of vaccines, their need to get vaccinated and the effects. Many doctors and nurses in Armenia are also skeptical and refuse to get vaccinated themselves.
Chiloyan and her team are trying to tackle these issues surrounding misinformation with more healthcare worker training sessions to allow them to voice their concerns and provide them with the most accurate, up-to-date information about vaccines.
“I think that vaccine skepticism has increased significantly due to the worlds’ access to information at any given time and the incredibly fast spreading disinformation that has plagued the entire world during this pandemic,” Chiloyan says.
Armenia had purchased the Sputnik V vaccine knowing that some Armenians trust Russia, while also receiving a donation of China’s Sinovac vaccine. The government also plans to purchase Pfizer with the hopes of boosting the vaccination rate.
Hekimian notes the lack of vaccine coverage in the media among post-Soviet states, given the history of distrust within the healthcare system.
“There is a legacy of the Soviet Union not being at all transparent with data, manipulating data, utilizing data for political reasons and people not trusting the government, not trusting even the healthcare professionals,” says Hekimian.
Particularly for those who have family or who have personally had negative experiences within the healthcare system, this makes it difficult to launch a successful and trusted vaccine campaign.
“We Armenians have gone through a lot in the past year, and sadly we have lost too many lives to COVID-19 and war,” says pediatrician Tsoline Kojaoghlanian, who specializes in infectious diseases. “I was disappointed to find out that the main tool with which we can control COVID—the preventive vaccine—was not taken up and utilized in the Armenian community as fast and with as much enthusiasm as I hoped it would have been,” she continued.
In recent weeks, there has been a slight increase in vaccinations among Armenian citizens, which Chiloyan attributes to social influences from family and friends and strict international travel measures for tourists. As of August 1, the World Health Organization reports a total of 173,017 vaccine doses have been administered in Armenia.
At the same time, thousands of Iranians, who are facing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, have traveled to Armenia to take the doses that many Armenians are rejecting.
“On the one hand, you want to have vaccine nationalism for your own people, but when your own people aren’t taking the vaccine then you might as well be part of the solution and offer vaccines,” Hekimian says.
And as the delta variant continues to surge worldwide, the push for vaccinations only increases.
One way to encourage Armenians to get vaccinated, Panossian says, is to help educate the community, particularly the elderly population who either do not possess the language skills or access to research themselves. If the information is given to them by people that they trust, such as close family and friends, that may also help ease anxieties.
Back in April 2020, an Instagram page called Armenian Public Health was created by Armenian American graduate students to spread public health awareness and education among the Armenian Diaspora. Several posts include debunking COVID-19 myths and tracking case trends in Armenia. Another post breaks down the ingredients in the vaccine in both English and Armenian.
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“Dear protestors, while our soldiers are fighting to keep Armenia safe, make sure you keep your community safe. During the protest, keep your mask on! Protect yourself so they can protect you!” read one post written during the 2020 Artsakh War.
In Glendale, California this year, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) of Western USA hosted community vaccine clinics and assisted in securing vaccination appointments.
Chiloyan believes the best way to motivate people to get vaccinated is for the government and healthcare workers to provide transparent and accurate information in a way that is accessible.
Likewise, she says labeling people who are feeling hesitant as “anti-vaxxers” only aggravates the situation more.
“People are allowed to be skeptical and have concerns,” explained Chiloyan, “but it is our job to provide them with all the accurate information and science to encourage them to get vaccinated.”