Nearly two-thirds of citizens in North Macedonia believe that coronavirus was created to control humans, a new study has revealed.
Around 65% of respondents said they supported the unfounded theory that COVID-19 was artificially created in a lab, according to the poll.
Meanwhile, a large proportion of citizens in North Macedonia also believed other baseless theories related to the pandemic.
Around 46% of those surveyed said the virus was being sprayed in the air using aeroplanes.
And 44% think that their health ministry has inflated the number of COVID-19 victims because they are receiving money.
The research was conducted by the Societas Civilis Institute for Democracy (IDSCS) in collaboration with the Presidential Center for Political Education (PCPO).
The poll surveyed 1,000 citizens aged over 18 across North Macedonia and was conducted in Macedonian, Albanian, and English.
Journalist Bojan Stojkovski told Euronews that the polls are “not surprising” and “on the spot”.
“There are lots of people in North Macedonia that believe these sort of theories, it can be difficult to wrap your head around it,” he said.
“The rise of fake news here is well-documented … but I think the pandemic has only added another dimension.”
Analysis by the IDSCS showed that citizens who were employed and have higher education were less susceptible to conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, those aged 30 to 39 years old were the least likely to believe the unfounded claims.
Analysts say the rise of unfounded claims is linked to deep mistrust of politicians and democratic institutions.
Stojkovski also pointed a lack of government accountability for a recent deadly fire at a COVID-19 hospital in Tetovo.
“Conspiracy theories and a distrust in authorities — especially health authorities — are connected to each other,” Stojkovski told Euronews.
According to Our World In Data, just 37.9% of adults in North Macedonia have been fully vaccinated against the virus. The rate is well short of the European Union average of 68% amid widespread hesitancy.
Last month hundreds of people marched through Skopje to protest against new restrictive measures and recommendations that vaccination certificates are mandatory for public servants. Sales in fake COVID-19 vaccine certificates are also flourishing across Eastern Europe.
“The authorities did not put enough effort into a campaign explaining in simple terms what the Covid vaccine does, how it will protect them, and the benefits,” Stojkovski said.
A rise in populism has also been linked to increasing conspiracy theories. Stojkovksi told Euronews that social media also plays a “big role” in spreading unfounded rumours.
“On an average day, you see hundreds of [false] posts connected to vaccination and the COVID virus,” he said.
“Especially with the new [Omicron] variant, I am expecting it will become much worse when it comes to disinformation campaigns.”
“We definitely needed more efficient campaigns … and now we are facing the consequences and trying to have some damage control.”
The IDSCS poll also showed that a significant number of people in North Macedonia believe other unfounded theories.
Around 29% of respondents said they did not believe in climate change at all, while 46% said they thought climate change is controlled by certain satellites or radars.
A majority 72% also believe that a handful of powerful families control the world, the study found.