Ample supplies, anti-vax lies: Why Bulgaria is the EU’s Covid laggard

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TeaThat doctor is desperate. For months she has been trying to persuade her neighbors in this northwestern Bulgarian city to get vaccinated to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19. But it’s a losing battle, and on a recent gray Wednesday afternoon, only a trickle of patients appeared to be vaccinated.

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With abundant supplies and the option of a Pfizer, Moderna or Janssen vaccine, yet only 12 percent of people in Vidin, a city of 63,000 residents near the Romanian border, have been double jab.

“Cases have risen,” said Pepa Svetanova, a physician and public health official who is vaccinating residents of this crumbling Danube River port city, where dozens of new cases appear every day in hospitals.


The nation hit a pandemic record of over 6,000 Covid-19 infections per day last month, while daily deaths also hit new highs this month.

“We’re trying to convince people that the only way to limit the disease is to vaccinate, and it’s our duty to do everything we can to stop it,” Svetanova said.

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“We’re trying to communicate the message. But the most common thing I hear is they read something somewhere and don’t want to expose themselves to the vaccine.”

Bulgaria has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates and the highest mortality rate in the European Union. The pandemic has so far claimed over 27,000 lives in the country of 7 million.

Although officials have tried to encourage jab with media campaigns and visits to schools, businesses and health facilities by vaccine advocates, one in four Bulgarians have been fully vaccinated.

This is despite Bulgaria having enough vaccine stock that there were over 170,000 untested vaccines. Donation to the Kingdom of Bhutan in July before ending.

Bulgaria is not an outlier; There is skepticism about the vaccine in Eastern Europe. In neighboring Romania, only 37 percent have been vaccinated. Only one in five Bosnia residents have been vaccinated.

And in Ukraine, where just 21 percent of people have been confiscated, hospitals are overflowing with Covid-19 patients, forcing medical facilities to set up temporary tents to care for the sick and die.

Actual vaccination rates in Eastern European and Balkan countries may be even lower than official figures. Health workers are issuing so many fake digital COVID-19 certificates that officials are considering installing cameras in vaccination centres. Poorly paid physicians can also seek benefits from vaccine skeptics who are willing to pay up to $300 for a fake certificate that will allow them to travel to and from work.

“To get into the database, a doctor has to type it,” said Hristov Ivanov, a leader of the opposition Yes Party and a staunch vaccine advocate. “You go to the doctor, they go through all the administrative steps, and then throw the vaccine in the trash instead of shaking you off.”

The low vaccination rate has worried EU and WHO officials, who are urging the Balkan region, including Bulgaria and Bosnia and Moldova, to accelerate vaccinations for their own sake, but also for the rest of the world.

The EU official in charge of the vaccine rollout, Thierry Breton, told reporters in Sofia last week: “The first exposure is certainly to the Bulgarian population, but also to generate a new variant, which is more resistant than the others.” Will happen.” “If we don’t do something we may see the Bulgarian version because a lot of people are not being vaccinated.”

To encourage vaccination, officials in Eastern Europe have used a mixture of carrots and batons. The government of Ukraine gave each recipient the equivalent of about $40 in cash for the vaccination. Bulgarian authorities have sought to compel employers to make jabs mandatory, but also removed the requirement for recipients to sign a liability waiver, which fueled conspiracy theories that the vaccination was unsafe.

Generally speaking, I trust doctors. But the vaccine, I don’t believe

Karamfil Kamenov, lorry driver

The measures have resulted in small successes, especially among educated professionals in cities such as Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, where about a quarter of people have been vaccinated.

At a vaccination center in a metro station in a busy, upscale district of the city, administrators said the number had risen from about 30 to 150 as new rules forced businesses to make vaccines mandatory.

But public health officials warn that the overall figures are not rising nearly fast enough to counter potential winter surges. Unlike in France, where a stern speech by President Emmanuel Macron in July prompted a dramatic increase in vaccination numbers, doubts about the jab run deep in Eastern Europe.

It is rooted in a longstanding distrust of officials dating back to the era of communist rule.

“Since we lived under totalitarian rule, we believe that the truth does not rest with those in power,” says Ilyan Vasilev, an analyst and former diplomat in Sofia.

But the hesitation is also the result of a new wave of effective propaganda campaigns by zealous anti-vaccination activists promoted through social media, taking place around the world.

“The problem with these first-generation vaccinations is that they are not mature enough,” said Tihomir Bezlov, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy. Collectively tested for years before being used.

“And it gives anti-vaxxers an opening and an opportunity. ,

Analysts also cited the persistent influence of religion as a factor.

During a recent visit to rural Romania, an Orthodox Christian priest said he opposed any public discussion about the vaccine or vaccination status, calling it a private decision. Two priests also under in Romania Investigation After reportedly removing vaccinated members from their circles.

Russia’s Orthodox Church last summer publicly urged believers to respond. But critics have accused Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church of supporting mass vaccination and subtly promoting an anti-vaccination message rather than speaking about the sanctity of the body of Christ.

In all of these countries, the health care system has been decimated by immigration, and a lack of investment, fostering mistrust in the authorities. In recent weeks, deadly fires broke out in COVID wards in both Romania and Bulgaria, killing a total of 12 people.

Like much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, vast parts of rural Bulgaria and Romania have suffered from overpopulation.

Bulgaria’s rural northwest feels like a barren land. Hundreds of homes look desolate, with broken windows, stained doors, and weeds. Huge warehouses and hollowed-out factory complexes are covered with rust and graffiti. Some businesses operate.

Those residents who think of towns and villages have little faith in the future of their country, let alone vaccines.

“I suspect that the vaccine they give to rich people is the same as that given to poor people,” said a teenager in Vidin’s main square.

The polarised, fragmented politics has also hurt the confidence of the people. Romania has been without a government for months. Ukraine is forever locked in a state of crisis, the east of the country is occupied by pro-Russian forces. Bosnia is said to be close to exploding, with Serbian nationalists challenging the country’s 25-year peace deal.

Bulgaria has had three inconclusive elections this year, and has yet to form a governing coalition.

Critics blame the conspiracy the country’s political elite, including both former longtime prime minister Boyko Borisov and his opponents. He took prompt action regarding the pandemic by first implementing sensible lockdown measures. However, he sought to shield himself from any political fallout by creating two bodies overseeing health care, each with conflicting messages.

“He would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Today I’m going to meet with this group and support their message. Another day, another group,'” opposition leader Ivanov said.

While Borisov’s popularity seemed to be rising last year, as the nation rallied around his COVID measures, the opposition questioned vaccinations about the lockdown, mask mandates and, ultimately, his demise.

An far-right political party entered parliament for the first time earlier this month with a stern anti-vaccination message. Surveys suggest that up to 70 percent of Bulgarians oppose the vaccine. In interviews, their reasons vary. Some question the effectiveness of the vaccine. Others cited unfounded concerns about side effects. And there are those who worry about a conspiratorial agenda.

“I’m a healthy person, and I don’t need vaccinations,” said 52-year-old lorry driver Karamfil Kamenov.

“Normally, I trust doctors. But the vaccine, I do not believe. ,

The prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment makes those a quiet minority who choose to get jobs.

Valentin Tsenov, 47, a Bulgarian who works in agriculture in Britain, was getting his first job while traveling back home to visit his family in Vidin. He said seeing life slowly return to normal near Canterbury, where he lived, had convinced him that the vaccine was safe and effective.

However, he refused to serve as a vaccine advocate for his friends and family in Bulgaria.

“I prefer not to quarrel with them,” he said. “Because I’m afraid they’ll try to persuade me not to get vaccinated.”


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