“Why are you lying?”, “They’re all lying, they’re all the same”, “How can there be a vaccine when the virus is not isolated?”, “Why does this guy think he is knowledgeable about vaccines?“, “Uneducated to extreme”, “He doesn’t lie only when he sleeps”. These are just a few from the many comments, following a January 22 Facebook live lecture on monitoring the progress of COVID-19 vaccines by Todor Kantardzhiev, Director of the National Centre of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, one of the most public specialists since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of the comments usually feature typos, Caps Lock lettering and exclamation and question marks. The obvious rage is also representative for the growing anti vaccination sentiments in Bulgaria, verging on a conspirative thinking about everything that’s happening on the political scene. While they’ve also existed on one level or another, they’re now peaking after several years of strong fake news waves.
The distrust towards any authority, including Western politics and the EU, plus medicine and science, has been gaining momentum. The scenario and the key points are not at all exclusive for Bulgaria but they might have some interesting repercussions, especially in light of the next parliamentary elections, currently scheduled by President Rumen Radev for April 4.
As in other countries, especially in the Balkan region, antivax sentiments in Bulgaria are spread mainly through both secret and open groups in Facebook, who are often affiliated with other conspiracy theories or fake news cycles - antivax rhetoric often intersects with, for example hatred of LGTB “propaganda”, fear from erasure of national identity (Western values seen as endangering the authentic feeling of belonging to your culture), claims connected to the overstated influence of personalities like George Soros, Bill Gates, to a lesser extent Angel Merkel, fake information about foreigners initiating kidnapping in order to adopt local children (a particularly popular conspiracy between 2018-2019).
Conservative views and far-right rhetoric, where the West is portrayed as decadent and Russia an authentic ally, are prevalent in these groups. Several Bulgarian Facebook antivax groups have around 900-2000 members but with a high level of engagement - “Bulgarians against the vaccine” has around 2500 members and 140 posts per day. A lot of the posts described the first vaccinations in Sofia as a spectacle for the media, others are reporting of people dying after vaccinations, all from highly suspicious sources. A narrative that’s also forming is that if you are pro-vaccination, you’re less of a “true” and “strong” Bulgarian. A lot of the posters have also pro-Russia stance. There are also ghostly groups like “Complications and death following vaccination” that have 1,700 members, but no posts and a website with .eu domain that doesn’t work.
Through the last few months, QAnon conspiracies, until recently unknown to the general public, have also taken roots in Bulgaria. In the centre of the first highly publicized case in connection with the theory was university lecturer and former Bulgarian Socialist Party member Mihail Mirchev. Concerned students showed recordings and quotes that he was spreading conspirative, racist and xenophobic claims in his lectures (sidenote: the political affiliation is not surprising the local context - the Bulgarian Socialist Party is a descendent of the one-time Communist party and has retained certain conservative values, which in the contemporary times often verge on the far-right despite the official left status. However, in parliament BSP are the main opposition to the ruling coalition of GERB and United Patriots). Mirchev’s contract was terminated by Sofia University on December 17. In both his lectures and his social media, he has also spread antivax sentiments and has also dabbled with the popular 5G conspiracies.
Against the vaccines = against the government
So far there’s no antivax talk among the government officials and in a strange way, that works against the curb of the novel coronavirus. As the anti government protest wave of the summer of 2020 started to die out following unanswered pleas, unresolved cases of police violence, growing distrust by the protesters towards some of the voices of the movement and a spike in cases of COVID-19, conspirative fractions meddled in the receding crowds. “The masks are to make us silent” slogans started appearing and even burning of masks has occurred.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s cabinet, as constantly criticized and controversial as it is, has been vocal about the need for kickstarting the vaccination process as far as possible. In numerous appearances, he has highlighted that vaccination will be both free and voluntary. The campaign eventually began on December 27 with Health Minister Kostadin Angelov being the first to take the jab.
However, on January 6 highly popular entertainer Slavi Trifonov, who formed a party and will be running in the March government elections, made a video statement on Facebook, where he directly described the current protective measures against the pandemic as limiting people’s freedom. Trifonov, who so far was shying away from radical sentiments, compared the pandemic to the Ottoman slavery times, as in another obstacle the Bulgaria nation has to overcome. “Gradually they’re taking from us the most important - our freedom”, he said without specifying who are “they”.
The antivax and anti-restrictions narratives are creating a dangerous precedent - to be interpreted as rebellious, anti-status quo and part of the role an opposition force has to play in order to battle with the big parties. Far-right and openly pro-Russia out of government party “Vazrajdane” initiated several days of protests in mid-January, demanding more transparency regarding the vaccination process and claiming there are many cases of severe side effects and deaths following injection.
This development, however, is a trap that ruling politicians dug for themselves. If there was initial trust to authorities and community feeling about following the measures after announcing state of emergency on March 13, the government gambled this trust with numerous restrictive laws coming in and coming out (sometimes in the space of 48-72 hours), chaotic money spending, unclear guidelines on getting state aid funds, which has also caused several protests by different small businesses, most recently from people in the restaurant and entertainment industry. And this all unfolds as the cabinet is increasingly seen in the shadow of its questionable ties with oligarchs and responsible for Bulgaria’s shrinking media freedom and financial stability.
Recent statistics also show growing impatience with the measures. In a research, made available on January 22, Gallup Agency stated that while in March and April, 83% of the Bulgarians were willing to give up some of their rights to be better protected from the virus, as of early 2021, 56% are up for severe restrictions.
What’s peculiar in Bulgaria’s case are also the low interest levels by the first prioritised professionals in the vaccination process - the doctors and the teachers. Several sociological researches from December pointed that Bulgaria is divided on the topic of vaccination - between 45-50% of the nation are pro-vaccination. On January 11 Health Minister Kostadin Angelov disclosed that only 21% of the teachers, the second prioritised in the process group after doctors, have applied to get the jab (that went up to 38% two weeks later). In previous statements, Angelov pointed out that doctors and medical workers had different levels of willingness - in some towns 33% of the medical staff was applying for a vaccine, in others the number reached 48%.
Off the record, both local teachers and doctors confirmed to Veridica that uncertainty over the current vaccine options is making their colleagues hesitant and while not exclusively anti-vax, some are waiting for the outcome for the first rollout before signing in. A possible explanation is also that numerous professionals in these areas suffered from COVID-19 already, so they don’t feel they need the jab right away. In the medicine field, the first time the local doctors were able to sign in for the waiting list (around December 10), they were only three days to respond - insufficient time for those who are ill, non-stop duty or on a leave.
One can interpret all the hesitant moods as rooted in distrust of the system - the anti-vaxxers think that the government will betray them to outside forces and interests, the people waiting aside for more options and information - that the government will mess up the process even if the vaccines are legitimate.
Spring of Hope
According to the official info portal about the spread and the curb of the pandemic in the country, as of January 22, over 25 000 Bulgarians, mostly medical professionals, have been vaccinated, predominantly with “Pfizer-BioNTech” and on a smaller scale, “Moderna”. Bulgaria expects further batches from both companies and has secured significantly bigger purchases from “AstraZeneka”, which is currently yet to be EU-approved. The process has been criticized for its slowness and uncoordinated organisation (in some towns general practitioners got the shot, in others they’re still waiting for it). The start of vaccination of the second prioritised group after doctors and medicine workers, the teachers, has been delayed several times because of insufficient doses, however, it’s expected to finally happen until the end of the month.
According to statements by Chief Health Inspector Angel Kunchev from mid-January, mass vaccination will be available by April. Dr. Kantardjiev, mentioned above earlier, made a bold prognosis on January 22: that nearly 2 million Bulgarians might get vaccinated until the end of the summer.
The first comment on Facebook under a news article about this? “You have no idea about which country you serve, you’re a laughing stock and nobody believes your lies anymore”, posted by a middle-aged man with antivax stickers on his profile photo, an Orthodox Christian imagery on the cover photo and “I don’t have one” under “job occupation”.