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Bulgaria and the vaccination rollout: a tale of chaos, panic and disinformation

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“Everything is under control”. The phrase has been repeated by officials in Bulgaria many times over the past 12 months but it’s usually a sign of a disaster in the making.

On April 4 Bulgaria will vote for a new government and the elections are setting to introduce several new players, although this will probably won’t be enough to shake the throne of the controversial ruling party GERB, headed by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

The elections are coming at a time where the COVID-19 pandemic was seen by many to be entering its final stage. However, things in Bulgaria took turn for the worse, as on March 1 the government decided to noticeably ease the measures amid a new surge in cases, fatalities and hospitalizations – and that led to a further increase of the infections. On top of that, Borissov’s decision to stop the use of AstraZeneca in Bulgaria has almost completely halted the vaccination process and provoked further worries in the society.

How the vaccination rollout is reflecting on Bulgarian politics

While the current government always highlighted the need for vaccination, the mismanagement of the process has created an atmosphere where every failure is used against the state and adds to the already wide antivax sentiments in Bulgaria.

Several of the parties who are set to run in the elections have criticized the measures and the vaccination in different ways – the Bulgarian Socialist Party is seeing the situation as a way to criticize the slow EU processes, small scale leftist party ABV has recruited COVID-19 skeptic Dr Atanas Mangarov, former night show host Slavi Trifonov, entering the political stage with “There’s a Nation”, has compared overcoming the health crisis as an obstacle similar to getting out of the Ottoman rule in XIX century. Meanwhile, far-right parties are deep in the conspiracy talk and the idea that the pandemic does not even exist.

President Rumen Radev, who won in 2016 as an independent candidate, supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, has also non-directly dabbled with COVID-19 skepticism as a way to attack the government, which he has previously compared to a mafia entity. On March 3, the day on which Bulgaria celebrates its Liberation Day from Ottoman dominion, he criticized the state decision not to let people gather on Shipka hill, a historically important place in the fight for independence. “Those in power are trying to put our national memory under quarantine”, Radev said.

Vaccination started in Bulgaria on December 27, but up until mid-February, when without previous notice major hospitals started offering the jab to whoever wanted it, the rollout was criticized for its slowness. Often the number of people getting vaccinated was merely a few hundred to a few thousands per day. After the sudden speeding up of the process, delays by AstraZeneca, the major supplier in Bulgaria, caused the drying up of all available doses. On February 26, Kornelia Ninova, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, openly demanded the government to approve the use of the Russian-made Sputnik V. On March 5, her request was officially denied as so far the state is obliging to the EU-approved brands.

On March 12, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov single-handedly decided to stop the vaccination with AstraZeneca following the international concerns over a suspended batch in Austria. Health Minister Kostadin Angelov said that the decision was taken also because of the suspicious death, shortly after the inoculation, of a 57-year old woman with several chronic diseases. The cabinet is said to be awaiting a response from the European Medicine Agency, although a statement from March 10 assures there’s no link of evidence regarding cases of blood clots and the use of AstraZeneca. A decision on the further use of this brand will be taken on Thursday.

This essentially slowed down the inoculation in the country to a minimum. It continues only for prioritized groups with Pfizer-BionNTech and Moderna. According to statements by Chief Health Inspector Angel Kunchev, Bulgaria is expecting a growing number of batches. However, similar statements were given back in January without any noticeable increase of the deliveries. As of March 16, 341,707 Bulgarians had been vaccinated.

According to media statements made by doctors, alerts for side effects by people recently inoculated are growing but they are a product of a paranoia among the society and the effects described are rarely beyond the listed.

Giving the vaccines a bad name

The “stop-and-start” state of the rollout has caused further disbelief in the system and an increasing tension between medical professionals and the government. Putting AstraZeneca on hold also put general practitioners in an uneasy position, just as they had started to vaccinate their patients.

“The vaccination program has failed, as those who are chronically ill never managed to obtain the drugs”, said on March 16 Natalia Maeva of National Patient Organisation, during an appearance at Bulgarian National Television. On the same day, Dr Assen Baltov, director of the main emergency hospital in Sofia, warned that the capacity for treating COVID-19-positive patients is again close to the limit.

Doctors opposed the decision to ease the measures on March 1 as well as the temporary stop of the vaccination with AstraZeneca - especially as cases are surging because of the so-called British strain of COVID-19, currently circulating at large in Bulgaria. The country, which has over 7,000 symptomatic people hospitalised, is back to the levels of infections, fatalities and hospitalization recorded in October/November, when it was hardest for the healthcare system and many were left without the possibility to be treated.

Little before the elections, in which GERB will face a growing but fragmented opposition, the government has failed to handle the health crisis on several levels: communicating decisions with the society and take measures when needed, speeding up the vaccination rollout and relying on more than one major manufacturer, compensate the smaller businesses without making the bureaucratic process impossibly complex.

In a late bid to fix the situation, Bulgaria will enter a new lockdown, starting on Friday. This one is the most severe since the first between March-May 2020, and it involves the temporary closure of cultural and entertainment centers, schools, bars and restaurants. Another layer of the chaos is that the decisions over how eased or stricter the restrictions will be, has been delegated from the Health Ministry to the local Regional Health Inspectorates, meaning every municipality is deciding its own strategy to curb the spread of COVID-19. This had led to several instances where certain measures were decided upon and then canceled within 24 hours.

After much discussion on how people in quarantine can vote, on March 16 authorities decided that they’ll simply not be eligible to take part. This puts a lot of people aside – according to coronavirus.bg, the official online source on the spread, there are 44,667 known cases of COVID-19 in Bulgaria.

The pandemic - not the only enemy of the government

Despite mass protests in the summer of 2020, long-standing claims of corruption and oligarch ties and general failure to handle the pandemic, Boyko Borissov and GERB are set to be re-elected although voting tendencies show fragmented sentiments.

Research by the polling agency Alpha, released on March 2, put GERB first in the polls with of 28.5% of the voting intention, followed by the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on 23.2%. Highly popular entertainer Slavi Trifonov is boldly entering politics with “Ima takav narod” (“There is Such a Nation”), a new party, which has already won the trust of 13.3% of the voters. “Movement for Right and Freedoms”, associated with many controversies connected to corruption through the decades, stands on 12.5%. Democratic Bulgaria, an alliance of opposition parties “Yes, Bulgaria”, Democrats for Stronger Bulgaria and The Greens, comes fifth on 5.7%. “Stand Up.BG”, a new party by former socialist member Maya Manolova and protest activists “The Poisonous Trio”, often critically seen as a possible future partner of BSP, is on 4.5%.

The elections will see even more new parties, created by former GERB and BSP members looking for reinvention, as well as “Bulgarian Summer”, headed by oligarch in exile Vassil Bojkov, who in January 2020 escaped to Dubai after his highly profitable lottery business was nationalized along with other ventures, and was charged with numerous crimes (money laundering, extortion, bribery, murder, rape).

Meanwhile, local far-right parties are looking increasingly fragmented (the parties in the United Patriots alliance, currently in coalition with GERB, will run separately). Although a lot of the parties have attached doctors to look more credible and prepared, there’s a noticeable lack of clear exit strategies from the pandemic in parties’ manifestos.

Following the parliamentary elections on April 4, Bulgaria will also go through a presidential election in late 2021 where current President Rumen Radev will go for a second term.

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  • The government has failed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic on several levels and it seems like no lessons have been learned during the last year. All of this, right before the country votes for a new parliament.
  • While the current government always highlighted the need for vaccination, the mismanagement of the process has created an atmosphere where every failure is used against the state and adds to the already wide antivax sentiments in Bulgaria.
  • The “stop-and-start” state of the rollout has caused further disbelief in the system and an increasing tension between medical professionals and the government.
  • Despite mass protests in the summer of 2020, long-standing claims of corruption and oligarch ties and general failure to handle the pandemic, Boyko Borissov and GERB are set to be re-elected although voting tendencies show fragmented sentiments.
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