Home >Economy >Covid-19 vaccine rollout falters in Bulgaria amid ‘perfect storm’ of mistrust, fake news

As a European Union member state, Bulgaria has access to Western-approved Covid-19 vaccines and enough doses for its population. But a mix of misinformation, low trust in authorities and conflicting messaging means less than a fifth of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated.

With few takers at home and some shots soon expiring, the government recently donated 172,500 doses to the Kingdom of Bhutan, nearly 4,000 miles away. Some expired shots are being thrown away.

Bulgaria, a country of some seven million people, has fully vaccinated far less of its population than the EU average of 61% and the U.S. rate of 54%, according to Our World in Data, a project based at Oxford University. It has emerged as an extreme case study of the challenge to convince vaccine holdouts to get the shot. It also illustrates the risks if those efforts fail as the infectious Delta variant spreads. Bulgaria currently has the EU’s highest death and hospitalization rates relative to the population, according to Our World in Data.

“Here we have a perfect storm of mistrust, antivaxers and fake news," said Prof. Nikolay Vitanov, a mathematician at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who has advised authorities in their Covid-19 strategy. “Mortality is very high yet people just don’t trust anything," he said.

Bulgaria is currently recording around over 1,500 new daily cases of the virus and more than 50 deaths a day. Nearly 20,000 Bulgarians have died from Covid-19 throughout the pandemic, a number experts say is an undercount as not all deaths are being recorded.

Still, only 39% of Bulgarians think that everyone should get vaccinated against Covid-19, the lowest level in the bloc, according to an August survey by Eurobarometer, the EU’s opinion-polling unit.

Incentives have fallen flat. A large hypermarket chain has recently started giving vouchers worth 20 leva, equivalent to $12, to those who get a shot in its vaccination centers. But on a recent afternoon, one center was empty, with only a couple of British tourists asking whether foreigners can get a vaccine. They can’t.

Other Eastern European nations also have low Covid-19 vaccination rates, with Romania having fully vaccinated less than a third of its population. Vaccine skepticism, including toward immunizing children, has historically run high in the region, fueled by an active antivaccine movement, poverty and mistrust. Half of respondents in Eastern European nations considered vaccines safe in a 2018 Gallup poll, compared with 59% in Western Europe and 72% in North America.

In Bulgaria, the deep-seated mistrust in authorities is fueling vaccine skepticism, observers say. Only 33% of Bulgarians trust their public administration, compared with an EU average of 52%, according to a July Eurobarometer survey.

This has historical roots. Many Bulgarians say they grew accustomed to being deceived and misled by authorities during the country’s decadeslong communist rule last century. Some point to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in April 1986, when the Bulgarian government withheld the news for days and allowed May 1 parades to take place even as radioactive clouds had already reached the country.

Bulgaria’s vaccine campaign has been hampered by a political crisis that has the country on course to hold a parliamentary vote in November, its third election this year.

The Bulgarian health ministry acknowledged the slow Covid-19 vaccination rate, blaming it on missteps related to the vaccine rollout by the previous government. That administration, in turn, accuses the current one of mismanaging the process.

The low vaccination level could hit the fragile, tourism-dependent economy of Bulgaria, EU’s poorest member state, officials say. Bulgaria is generally open to tourists from most countries, provided they have a vaccine certificate or a negative test.

“If we continue to behave like the idiots of Europe, it will hit our economy and tourism," Angel Kunchev, Bulgaria’s chief state health inspector, told state television on Wednesday. “Nobody will want to come to Bulgaria if we keep vaccinations below 20%. People will just choose safe places and we won’t be that," he said.

Bulgaria’s available vaccines include those by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the world’s most widely used vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC.

The health ministry said it had set up vaccination centers in shopping malls, beaches and parks and started an information campaign.

“Bulgaria has enough vaccines and anyone can get vaccinated if they want to," it said in a statement.

Galya Staleva doesn’t want the shot. On a recent afternoon in the coastal city of Burgas, Ms. Staleva, 40, was selling rainbow-colored lollipops at her Candy Shop stall and listed a litany of reasons not to get inoculated, including that she doesn’t believe in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

“I don’t trust anything I’m being told," she said.

She said governments are banding together with the pharmaceutical companies to make a profit.

“It’s all business—they produced these vaccines and now they have to sell them," the businesswoman said.

Since early in the pandemic in Bulgaria, false claims have been spreading fast on social media and some news websites. At the same time, mainstream media have devoted significant airtime to vaccine skeptics, including doctors spreading discredited theories and promoting herbal treatments, media experts and officials say.

“Fake news is everywhere and the media has given a lot of time to opinions without any scientific backing," said Dr. Alexander Simidchiev, a Member of Parliament and pulmonologist who treated Covid-19 patients during the pandemic. “This led to the society being highly polarized" around vaccines, he said.

Some Bulgarian health officials have called for mandatory vaccination for sectors such as healthcare and education, though no decision has been made. Only around 30% of teachers and 2% of students have been vaccinated, officials said ahead of last week’s school year start.

Maya Marova, 26, who works at a telecom operator, said she would protest in the streets if vaccination became mandatory. She said she won’t get inoculated because she believes that vaccines were developed too quickly.

“I don’t want to risk my life with something unproven," she said, adding that she thought catching Covid-19 was inevitable for most people.

Another reason Bulgarians are skeptical is that since Bulgaria abandoned communism in 1989, the country has been plagued by pervasive corruption, including in the healthcare sector. This has contributed to just over 50% of Bulgarians trusting medical staff, compared with 80% in the EU, according to Eurobarometer.

Some experts said the rising new wave of Covid-19 cases might persuade some of the holdouts.

“We will simply have to follow how this natural social experiment develops and whether fear will lead to a wave of vaccinations," said Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text




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