Bulgaria capitals

Bulgaria’s vaccine battle: mistrust behind COVID outbreak


Fortunately, it all started with a bit of luck. I landed in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, on a Sunday afternoon in late November. The weather was mild and sunny. After checking in at my hotel, I went for a walk around the city center with my film kit.

“I’m not a grandpa and grandma killer”

Just five hundred yards from the hotel, I ran into about two hundred people chanting and shouting loudly. Among them were children and the elderly; whole families drumming and waving big Bulgarian flags. I walked over and asked them why they were protesting.

“Vaccines are a very insidious way to influence people’s lives,” one woman told me. “I don’t want to be a part of this experience,” said another.

So I started filming. I had come to Bulgaria to find out why the country has by far the lowest vaccination rate in the European Union: only around 25% of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated.

Suddenly I was there, at the very heart of a spontaneous rally against the vaccine, the vaccination campaign and the health pass. Banners with messages such as “I am not a grandfather and grandmother killer”, or “We do not accept medical tests on our children”.

I followed the demonstrators for three hours. Their claims struck me as a complex and confusing mix of disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, social discontent and political distrust.

“If you are not vaccinated people start to hate you.”

Night had fallen when I met the organizers. Among them was Hristo. An engineer in nuclear physics, he was fluent in English and French. He told me that he was familiar with the scientific literature on the pandemic.

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

Responding to me, he said, “I don’t understand the statistics in light of the vaccination. I don’t see the effectiveness.”

Another COVID-19 anti-vax activist, Kalin Ivanov, told me that they were not only protesting against vaccines but also “against segregation” and “against discrimination”. Nazi Germany. We do not live in the Soviet Union. We live in a liberal democracy. And one of the main talking points of liberalism is that the rights of the individual lie above collective uses. “

A sudden heavy snowstorm overnight would drastically change the cityscape, but not the nature of my questions. Why do so many Bulgarians trust such messages? Especially since the country has the worst case-to-death ratio from COVID-19 in the EU – this is according to Johns Hopkins University. What are the consequences? And are there solutions? Or is it already too late?

In search of answers

The next morning I met the man who was trying to get as many Bulgarians vaccinated as possible. Acting Deputy Health Minister Aleksandar Zlatanov blamed the low vaccination rate on logistical problems and political instability – the country held three parliamentary elections in eight months.

It shows me some recent official online campaigns released to promote jabs. Things are improving now, he said: “The vaccination rate is now three times higher than in August. We expect that rate to quadruple or fivefold by the end of December.

Still, it’s hard to see how such optimistic numbers actually translate on the ground. Immediately after my interview with the Acting Deputy Minister of Health, I visited one of the busiest vaccination centers in the capital. The center has the capacity to vaccinate up to two thousand people per day. The recent average, however, is between six and seven hundred people.

I was allowed to film at the center for only an hour. Most of the people I met were coming for their third jab.

“I have to take care of myself. It is in my own interest. This is my third dose. I’m not afraid of the vaccine, ”a woman in her sixties told me.

“Getting vaccinated is not compulsory but it is necessary. It is the only defense we have. I need it. Like the others. That’s what I think,” said a man of the same. age.

Dimo Dimov, coordinator of the vaccination center, said that the emergence of new variants demonstrated the urgent need for action: “As doctors, since the start of the pandemic, we have been convinced that containment and social distancing do not ‘were only temporary fixes until we had a vaccine 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 said.

Dr No from Bulgaria

Yet even some medical staff are actively contributing to the country’s reluctance to vaccines. In a nearby hospital for infectious diseases, I met the head of the pediatric department. He tells patients and families that the safety and effectiveness of existing COVID-19 vaccines have yet to be sufficiently proven.

“When you are immune you can still get infected and infect other people. So by immunizing yourself you are not protecting others. You are just protecting yourself. And that should be your own decision,” he told me. doctor Mangarov.

“Are you yourself vaccinated? I asked.

“No, I am not,” he replied.

“Why?

“I work at the COVID clinic every day. I [am in contact] with between sixty and one hundred COVID patients every day. I had the disease. I don’t use masks. I don’t use gloves. I have worked in the field of infectious diseases for 39 years. I know a lot about infectious diseases, and I know how to protect myself “

Suspicion of authority

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

In this context, can the situation ever change in favor of vaccines? It won’t be easy, sociologist Anatas Stefanov tells me. He recently participated in ten studies related to health policies linked to the coronavirus, including the current vaccination campaign: “Bulgarians decide more through public figures than through institutions. They personalize their perspective on politics and civic life. Bulgarians prefer the shorter, negative message. And, there is a huge lack of trust in public institutions. “

A far-right party has just entered the new Parliament with an open anti-vax program. The national press reported the widespread falsification of false vaccine certificates. After four days of reporting here, I leave Bulgaria thinking that the country has still not accepted its COVID-19 vaccination campaign.