Inés Berniell with Anne Laferrère, Pedro Mira and Elizaveta Pronkina (2023) – The COVID-19 curtain: Can past communist regimes explain the vaccination divide in Europe?

As of December 2021, all former Communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe were still lagging behind in terms of COVID-19 vaccination rates in Europe. Can institutional legacy explain, at least in part, this heterogeneity in vaccination decisions across Europe? To study this question we exploit novel data from the second wave of the SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) COVID-19 Survey fielded in Summer (2021) that covers older individuals in 27 European countries. First, we document lower COVID-19 vaccine take-up amongst those who were born under Communism in Europe. Next, we turn to reunified Germany to get closer to a causal effect of having lived behind the Iron Curtain. We find that exposure to the Communist regime in East Germany decreased one's probability to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by 8 percentage points and increased that of refusing the vaccine by 4 percentage points. Both effects are large and statistically significant, and they hold when controlling for individual socio-economic and demographic characteristics. We explore several possible mechanisms. The East-West Germany gap does not seem to be explained by differences in the impact of the first wave of the pandemic or in general exposure to vaccines. We find that East Germans have lower social capital than West Germans and that social capital correlates negatively with Covid-10 vaccine uptake, but only a small fraction of the East-West Germany Covid-19 vaccination gap can be explained by our measures of social capital.