Covid-19: why is Bulgaria so late in its vaccination campaign?

Why does Bulgaria have by far the lowest Covid-19 vaccination rate in the EU? What are the consequences ? Is there a solution, or is it already too late to catch up? Our journalist Julián López Gómez visited the site to find out more. Here is his story.

It all started with a little luck. I landed in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, on a Sunday afternoon in late November. The weather was mild and sunny. After settling in at the hotel, I walked around the city center with my filming equipment.

“I am not a grandfather and grandmother killer”

Barely 500 meters from the hotel, 200 people had gathered and chanted slogans, beating loud drums and waving large Bulgarian flags. Among them families and the elderly, opposed to vaccination.

Vaccines are a very insidious way to influence people’s lives“threw a woman at me.”I don’t want to be part of this experience“, added another demonstrator. So I activated my camera to report the unease that crosses this country, deeply divided on the issue of vaccines.

Whileabout 25% of the population is fully vaccinated (data from December 2021, European Center for Disease Prevention and Control), by far the lowest level in the EU, the demands of opponents resonate like social discontent, tinged with political mistrust and disinformation.

I’m not a grandpa and grandma killer“Could I read from a sign held by a child. Another poster had the slogan:”We do not accept medical tests on our children“.

The claims of these opponents appeared to be a muddled mix of fake news, conspiracy theories and social discontent.

“If you are not vaccinated people hate you.”

After three hours among this crowd of opponents, I had the opportunity to speak with Hristo, one of the organizers of the event. This nuclear physics engineer assured me that I am “knowledgeable about scientific literature“linked to the pandemic.

I asked him : “So, for you, vaccination is not a solution?

I do not understand the statistics in light of the vaccination“he replied, adding:”I don’t see the efficiency“.

Another much younger anti-vaccine activist, Kalin Ivanov, told me that they are not only protesting against the vaccines, but also. ”against segregation” and ”against discrimination”.

We don’t live in Nazi Germany. We do not live in the Soviet Union. We live in a liberal democracy. And one of the main arguments of liberalism is that the rights of the individual are superior to collective uses.“he argued.

As Johns Hopkins University estimates Bulgaria has the worst case-to-death ratio from Covid-19 in the EU, I wonder why so many Bulgarians give in to such messages. The night giving advice, I decided to try to answer these questions the next day.

In search of answers

Sofia woke up under a blanket of snow that morning, the day I met with the country’s deputy health minister.

According to Aleksandar Zlatanov, the low vaccination rate is rooted in the country’s logistical problems but also in its political instability; Bulgaria having held three parliamentary elections in eight months.

The vaccination rate is now three times higher than in August“The minister is satisfied, however, after showing me videos intended to promote vaccination in the country.”We expect this rate to quadruple or fivefold by the end of December **e ** “he adds.

These rather optimistic numbers prompted me to dig, so I went to visit one of the busiest vaccination centers in Sofia, inside a hospital. With the capacity to perform 2,000 injections per day, he has only performed an average of 600 to 700 lately.

The only defense we have

I was only allowed to film in the center for one hour. Most of the people I met were coming for their third injection. “I need to take care of myself. It is in my own interest. This is my third dose. I am not afraid of the vaccine“, a woman in her sixties told me.

Getting vaccinated is not compulsory but it is necessary. It’s the only defense we have. I need it. And the others too. That’s what I thinksaid a man of the same age.

The coordinator of the center, Dimo ​​Dimov, believes that the arrival of the new variants makes this vaccination campaign even more urgent.

As doctors, from the start of the pandemic, we were convinced that containment and social distancing were only temporary solutions until a vaccine was available. And now that the vaccine is here, we say it again: vaccines are the only real solution we have to beat this pandemic. Vaccination must be the priority“, he assured me.

Bulgarian anti-vaccine doctors

Yet even some members of the medical staff actively contribute to the “reluctance” of some of their patients to be vaccinated. In a nearby hospital specializing in infectious diseases, the head of the pediatric service questions the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, ‘”not sufficiently proven **s ** “according to him.

When you are vaccinated, you can still get infected and infect other people. So by immunizing yourself you are not protecting other people. You only protect yourself. And it should be your own decision“, said the doctor in question to me, Doctor Mangarov.

“I asked him : “You yourself have been vaccinated ? “

No I’m not“, he replied.

Why ?

I work at the COVID clinic every day. I am in contact with between 60 and 100 Covid patients every day. I had the disease. I don’t use masks. I don’t use gloves. I have been working on infectious diseases for 39 years. I know infectious diseases fairly well and know how to protect myself“.

Suspicion of authority

Before coming to this country, I had read that Bulgarians were among the Europeans most suspicious of democracy, government and the media, but also of their own healthcare system. Nearly 50 years of communist dictatorship have undoubtedly contributed to fuel this lasting mistrust.

In this context, can the situation one day evolve in favor of vaccines? It won’t be easy, sociologist Anatas Stefanov tells me. He recently participated in a dozen studies related to health policies relating to the coronavirus, in particular the current vaccination campaign:

Bulgarians form an opinion through public figures more than through institutions. They personalize their views on politics and civic life. Bulgarians prefer short and negative messages. And, there is a huge lack of trust in public institutions. “

A far-right party that has just entered the new parliament has also campaigned on an openly anti-vaccine program. The national press reported on the widespread falsification of false vaccination certificates. After four days of reporting in Bulgaria, it is feared that the issue of vaccination will continue to shake the country’s society.

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