New Regime Needed

Bulgaria’s COVID Crisis

One would think that the political crisis, the lack of government, and the third consecutive parliamentary election in a year are hard enough situations for Bulgaria.

But, on 1 November, the country with a population of nearly 7 million, hit a tragic new COVID-19 record: over 6,000 new cases and over 300 deaths.

I don’t even know how to describe the failure, the tragedy, and the stubbornness that led us here. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Bulgaria has the EU’s lowest vaccination rate, while widespread vaccine hesitancy fueled by misinformation and a lacklustre awareness campaign comes amid political turmoil.

As the COVID crisis unfolds and affects more and more sectors of society, the Bulgarian state is making a transition from more than a decade of rule by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb) party.

Borisov stepped back after nearly a year of anti-corruption protests, marked by police violence and wiretapping of political opponents, and even protesters.

This toxic situation was preceded by impunity scandals linked to the Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, for refusing to investigate a number of Bulgarian politicians and businessmen who were sanctioned by the US government in June under the Magnitsky Act for links to corruption and human rights abuses.

The scandal has become one of the main topics dividing the political elite. While the caretaker government published a list of 33 companies and 21 individuals connected to blacklisted moguls, the judiciary has not yet taken action against them.

Incidentally, Bulgaria is the only European Union member state whose citizens are included in this list.

While Bulgaria initially reacted quickly by taking strong measures against COVID-19 in March 2020, Borisov’s subsequent handling of the pandemic has drawn sharp criticism because the country was severely affected during the autumn months after a loosening of restrictions over the summer.

The interim ministers appointed by President Rumen Radev, with whom Borisov has had a long feud, fared no better.

The statistics are grim: 3,117 people in Bulgaria who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in October; 100,330 is the number of new cases for the month, according to the Sofia Globe.

At the time of this article’s writing, Bulgaria is already in so-called “dark red zones,” as the cases of COVID-19 infections have passed over 800 per 100,000.

A partial lockdown is expected if the number of new cases increases to 1,000 per 100,000, which is already a reality in some of the provinces in the western part of the country, including the capital.

With a background of increasing disinformation and fake news, as of the beginning of November, there were over 7,000 people hospitalised.

In most municipalities, there are no intensive care unit (ICU) beds available. A doctor who works in one of the busiest COVID-19 wards in Sofia told me on 28 October, “Ruslan, I don’t know when I will return home – probably not this week.”

While restaurant owners protest against COVID-19 certificates, in Bulgaria’s countryside, there are no available beds in many hospitals.

In the northwestern part of the country, in the provinces of Vidin, Montana, Vratsa, and Lom, there is a lack of hospital staff.

Ambulances rushing to regional hospitals can often be seen on the roads. The situation is similar in other parts of Bulgaria.

However, the majority of the people are still resisting vaccinations.

As I mentioned before, the political situation is contributing to the crisis, as Bulgaria has been continuously in-between elections for over a year.

Though a new anti-corruption party was just elected (the Continuing Change Party), the situation greeting the new government is a difficult one.

There is an intensification of fake news and disinformation, including dozens of sham sites and social media accounts using the stolen personal information of medics.

Several investigations are underway, with no clear results so far. Political parties do not take decisive positions on vaccination, and according to the doctors I spoke with, we can already talk about “a COVID-19 disaster”.

Instead of creating a unified campaign to explain the situation and why it is important for people to be vaccinated, politicians across the political spectrum are competing with silence and dubious statements.

Furthermore, one of the police unions in Bulgaria announced last month that it opposed the introduction of COVID-19 certificates.

The police insist on an awareness campaign and a “grace period” while only 30 per cent of law enforcement officers have been vaccinated so far.

The use of the COVID-19 crisis for political dividends has led to more severe protests.

In late October, interim Education Minister Nikolai Denkov was attacked by supporters of the ultra-nationalist political party Vazrazhdane (Revival), one of the main forces behind the demonstrations against COVID-19 measures.

Fortunately, the minister was not seriously injured, but the case is indicative of tensions and how an unresolved crisis could lead to serious consequences.

Supporters of Vazrazhdane, whose leader is also a presidential candidate and is accused of having strong links to the Kremlin, sometimes use social discontent to gain visibility.

For example, the attack on Minister Denkov took place during a protest by medics.

Another nationalist group is also involved in provoking social tensions in the background of the COVID-19 crisis. At least one vaccination centre was attacked in the past few months, while medics were threatened for doing their job.

Meanwhile, the black market price for a fake vaccination certificate or negative PCR test just hit 350 euros.

In September, the going rate was between 200 to 300 euros, as reported by Balkan Insight.

The lack of a quality political life also affects the general apathy and reluctance of people to comply with recommendations when they come from institutions and the government.

The decline in confidence in leaders, politicians, and authorities, is currently reflected in the attitude to the COVID-19 crisis.

As some analysts commented, some of the social links between people are falling apart because of polarising differences on a number of issues.

This is one of the worst consequences of the crisis. However, there are some good examples.

Local mayors in municipalities are doing everything possible to encourage residents to get vaccinated and some are succeeding.

Organisations are trying to deliver food and essentials to the medics in the ICU wards; some do so completely voluntarily.

If there is anything positive, it will be not because of the situation in the country, but despite it, thanks to efforts by dedicated individuals.

This article was originally published in Global Voices and is reprinted with permission. Photograph courtesy of Oleg Morgan/Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.