Thursday, December 2

Bulgaria’s COVID nightmare no one wants to have

Bulgaria currently leads the global ranking of COVID-related deaths per capita two weeks before holding snap elections for the third time this year, to be held on November 14.

“Every day, Bulgaria loses the equivalent of a plane crash. It’s really horrible, ”said Ruzha Smilova, program director of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies.

However, the grim headlines have not made the population susceptible to restrictions, with protests in several cities against Green Passes, or certificates that have been made mandatory to enter shopping malls or restaurants.

The country has gone through a difficult political crisis, marked by a months-long protest movement that began last year calling for the resignation of the populist government led by Boyko Borissov and his “Gerb” or Coat of Arms party, which has been in power since 2009.

Since then, parliamentary elections have been held twice, in April and July, but the winning parties were unable to form a governing coalition. Currently, the country is run by an interim government that has been reluctant to pass stricter measures for fear of public backlash.

The fastest shrinking country in the world

Bulgaria has also been experiencing a significant demographic decline due to migration and low birth rates. The current death spiral due to COVID will likely exacerbate the problem.

“The tragedy will only grow. It is shocking to see this in a society that is obsessed with the demographic crisis in the country: Bulgaria is the fastest contracting country in the world and has lost 10% of its population in the last 15 years since accession ”, explains Smilova .

“So even though there is a demographic panic, society is insensitive to the massive loss of life today. It is not prepared for stricter measures. Unless this changes, I don’t see how the president will introduce stricter measures, “he said.

At this point in the pandemic, Bulgaria recorded 338.83 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, with only Brazil behind them with 287.46 victims. The only other European country in the top five is neighboring Romania, with 237.73 deaths per 100,000 residents, putting it third overall, according to Johns Hopkins data from October 29.

Its citizens are also the least vaccinated in Europe. Only 1.38 million people have received two blows, which is equivalent to 20 percent of the population of almost seven million.

Still, the introduction of the Green Pass took place relatively quietly “in a country used to its politicians minimizing anything that might upset their voters,” says Angel Petrov, a reporter for Dnevnik, one of the most notable online outlets. from Bulgaria.

“When the current interim government realized this summer that there would be new elections in November, it decided to be very careful with public measures that could lead to discontent,” he said.

Bulgaria has had major problems deciding who should succeed former prime minister Borissov, who resigned in May. Before the next elections, Bulgaria held two ballots in the span of three months. The July results echoed those of April, with the same six parties and coalitions crossing the mandatory electoral threshold.

But while the results meant that any of the six were potential contenders for a governing coalition, almost none agreed, and interim President Rumen Radev had to call another third round. This time, Bulgarian voters will elect both the president and the parliament.

Since May, the provisional government appointed by Radev and led by Stefan Yanev, a former military officer and former defense minister, has been very careful not to upset anyone in what Petrov describes as a “culture of appeasement.”

“What I do know is that the attitude of the Bulgarian authorities has not helped people to accept what has been happening during this pandemic. This is obvious from the fact that all the different policies in the last year and a half have been aimed at appeasing the people, ”he said.

“This is a culture that was nurtured by Borissov’s ten-year rule, and President Radev and his interim government have been absolutely ruined by this.”

“It is the policy of always trying to make sure that no one is offended or enraged by what is happening, a government that constantly wants to show that it is adapting to everyone’s demands,” Petrov illustrated.

The appeasement approach was the easiest way to govern what is historically a nation that is highly distrustful of government institutions, he believes.

“I think it has a cultural element. I believe that the problem is a deep and pathological distrust not only of the government or of the institutions, but also of the distrust in any collective organization outside the globe itself ”, Petrov concluded.

Bulgaria was one of the key empires in Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, intersecting with significant periods when it was the subject of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, respectively. Apart from a period between the 12th and 13th centuries, interrupted by a Mongol invasion, the country did not regain its independence until 1878.

An ally of Germany in both world wars, the country became a communist satellite state of the USSR in 1945. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw Bulgaria go through a painful period of transition to capitalism. like most other countries. Southeastern European countries.

The communist period, in particular, has led citizens to distrust an exaggerated government presence in their lives, especially a government that does not always appear to be the most efficient or particularly interested in putting the well-being of its citizens before their personal interests. , which remains the main complaint against Borissov.

It is precisely this caution that has prompted widespread vacillation about vaccines.

“The doubts about vaccines in Bulgaria are mainly due to the lack of a sustained campaign supported by the state in favor of vaccination. The state did very little, a month ago the first campaign to promote vaccination began, ”explains Smilova.

Global mistrust of the AstraZeneca vaccine, seen in several European countries in particular, didn’t help either.

“Although we have not had a problem with access to vaccines, we have a much larger supply of AstraZeneca compared to Pfizer and Moderna. The reported adverse effects related to AstraZeneca is one of the reasons that people began to doubt whether they should get vaccinated at all, ”he said.

For some, it also meant that they had to completely doubt the existence of the virus, and an estimated one-third of the population belongs to that group.

This is a large constituency in the eyes of national politicians. Several mostly populist or outright nationalist actors vying for power in the next round of elections are trying to gamble on this sentiment. Election debates weeks before the vote typically feature fringe and nationalist parties expressing sentiments skeptical of COVID.

“Vazrazhdane, an ultra-nationalist far-right party has been the leading voice in the campaign against vaccination, and they are about to cross the threshold to enter parliament. But even the centrist parties have played with this rhetoric, ”Smilova said.

The proclaimed anti-elite party “Ima takăv narod” (There are such people) headed by television host and musician Slavi Trifonov who arrived first in July also played on anti-vaccination sentiments in the run-up to the July elections.

Despite the victory, Trifonov’s party struggled to form a government and is expected to perform worse this time. Now, they are choosing to completely ignore the nightmare situation in the country in their campaign.

Parties that crossed the threshold in July, such as Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Out !, as well as the IMRO led by right-wing nationalist Krasimir Karakachanov, who failed to make the cut in previous elections, are all scrambling for support in the run-up.

But according to Smilova, parties that do not openly participate in COVID skepticism are also to blame for not trying to be the voice of reason. On the contrary, some openly ridiculed the danger posed by COVID-19 instead of taking a firm stance in favor of vaccination, he said.

“Many of them became infected during the second or third wave, and after recovering they made statements saying that they would not be vaccinated yet,” illustrated Smilova. “Many politicians in Bulgaria were fueling anti-vaccine sentiments or doing nothing to stop them.”

The only parties with a pro-vaccination platform are the Turkish minority party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Gerb.

It is President Radev who can prevent the country from being further devastated by the virus, Smilova believes, but not before the elections.

“The responsibility for solving the problem rests with the president. He is the one who appointed the interim government, ”he said.

“He is the only one who can basically take responsibility now, however I don’t expect him to because he is running for re-election. So I don’t expect things to change before the November elections, ”Smilova concluded.

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