COVID-19 IN BULGARIA

Yoanna Angelova
Sofia, 3 de Julho de 2020

The first cases of COVID-19 in Bulgaria were registered on March 8th 2020. In the following days, the number of confirmed cases was growing. That along with the situations in Italy, France and other European countries led to the establishment of state of emergency for the whole country, starting on Friday, March 13th. At first, the measures were welcomed by the people – the constant news of Coronavirus spreading throughout the world made people scared. Even weeks before the first registered cases there were no protective masks and gloves or sanitizers left in the pharmacies. Most of the people were scared of the unknown, but were hoping that the situation would resolve on its own. Then the emergency state happened. Among the measures were postponing all medical interventions that are not urgent, transferring all education to online method, closing the cafes, restaurants and night clubs and shopping centers. It was also recommended that people work from home. We, the Bulgarians, have an ironic saying about ourselves: “you cannot make the Bulgarian person follow the rules”. The situation, arisen by COVID-19, showed the opposite. Even though people were reluctant and displeased, they followed the measures, imposed by the government.

Unfortunately, as the days went by, the cases started to grow. As a result, new measures were taken – closing the parks and all public places. People were encouraged to go out only when they need to buy food or medicine. In addition, to all public places people were obliged to wear protective masks and there were financial fines if the rules are not being followed. I believe that these additional measures, along with the entire unknown about the virus (virulence, incubation period, cure etc.) made people nervous. On the one hand, people are scared of any unknown, on the other, we were being told that the virus kills and nobody knows how to stop it, and on top of that, the country was basically closed, but that showed no result. What is more, a National Crisis Headquarters was created in order to help prevent the spread of the virus and their representative, accompanied by the Minister of health and other government officials, gave briefings each morning. Those briefings however showed that the people in charge also do now have clear action plan and try to manage the situations as they arise. That however led to a loss of trust in the Government. For example, the situation with the masks: at first, no protective masks were available, then they were made obligatory, but nobody could buy them. After that, the government announced the obligatory mask wearing is postponed until the pharmacies are loaded. Then everyone had to wear them in closed space, then everyone had to wear them everywhere, then the wearing was recommended, then it was again obligatory. In the social networks there were more than a few jokes with regards to that measure.

Generally, we could say that this type of state of emergency is very new to the Bulgarian people, especially in the last decades. A lot of people were skeptical regarding the actual danger the virus poses for us. The opinion of the people varied, but it was most divided into the following groups:
• People who believe that the measures against the virus, taken worldwide, aim solely the destruction of the economics;
• People who believe that the government is being overcautious and there is no need of such strong measures, given the fact the death rate is lower than the one for common flu;
• People who were scared of the virus and therefore welcomed the measures, taken by the government, with open arms.

On April 13th the state of emergency was prolonged with one month – until May 13th. What is more, additional measures were taken by the government in order to stop the travelling between cities, because up until mid-April, most of the cases were mainly in the Capital city – Sofia. Checkpoints at the entrances and exits of all district cities were made and representatives of the police force were checking all the people trying to cross over. The people were allowed to cross between cities only with respectable reasons: medical care, address or work (the last one required a special official notice by the person in charge of the working place). These measures were welcomed with huge dissatisfaction by the Bulgarians. The reasons are few, but understandable. On the one hand, the measures were taken especially with regards to the Easter holidays, when everyone expected to see their close ones, their family. On the other hand, the creation of checkpoints made the entering of the cities, especially the capital, very difficult – people were waiting in their cars for hours and this is not common for Bulgaria. Lastly, after more than a month in social isolation, I think the people just wanted a few days, when everything can, even a little bit, be the same as any other year. Unfortunately, some of them did not get to do that. And here the opinions varied even more.

I am from Yambol – a small town in South-Eastern Bulgaria, but currently I live, work and study in the Capital. So when the Easter holiday came, I had no way to travel (since I do now own a car and public transportation between cities was closed), but the father of a friend of mine, who was allowed to come to Sofia for work, managed to get us both home to Yambol. So I was one of the lucky ones, some of my friends were not let through the checkpoints. A lot of other people also weren’t – each day we were watching news reports about problematic situations at the checkpoints – traffic jams, violent behavior, nervous breakdowns, unrealistic suggestions like “leave your girlfriend here at the checkpoint on the highway and after you finish your work come and get her”. So many people, myself included, considered these measures absurd. However I was very disappointed to see in my social media messages like “You, village people, who want to live in Sofia, now want to go and see your families and have fun. You should be ashamed that you are contributing towards the spreading of the virus”. This was the first time since the start of the state of emergency, when I saw spite in people, aimed at other people in general. There is of course, explanation: people were already scared and I image it may have seemed unfair that some people would want to risk spreading the virus in order to see their families. The positive side was that this spiteful behavior ended rather quickly and people turned back to caring for each other. Instead of the usual “Hi, how are you doing”, now when old friends saw each other, the greeting was more like: “Hi, are you and your family healthy?”

After the Easter holiday, the checkpoints were removed and consequently in the beginning of May some of the restrictions were taken down – the cafes and restaurants with tables outside were allowed to work, some sports activities were also allowed; the parks were open once again. Bulgaria went out of emergency state on May 13th, after two months in it, but immediately entered in “epidemic situation”, which allowed the Minister of health to further issue restrictions, if needed. Little by little the restrictions were taken down by the middle of June. Only one remains: protective facial masks are still obligatory in closed spaces and in the public transportation.

As anyone could have guessed, the cancellation of restrictions lead to more registered cases per day. Around the Easter holidays, they were 30-40 a day, in the past two weeks there are between 150 and 180 cases per day. However people tend to be less scared now. Irrespective of the group they belong to (from the aforementioned three), most people got tired of living in a state of emergency. So even if they are a little scared of the virus, people close their eyes and say “ah, I hope I will not contract it, let’s live our lives”. What is more, some of the people are now being told they have to go to the office, so working from home is no longer encouraged and often neglected. And even though the law says it is obligatory to wear protective mask in closed spaces, even if it is an office, most of the people are not doing it. Unfortunately, in my office for example, we are around 8 people and only I am wearing a mask.

Now the Coronavirus is probably the most common topic in formal and informal conversations. People still discuss the measures and wonder what they should do. What I find curious is that there is no concrete opinion that one can ascribe to a concrete group of people (for example “young people think so”, “the older people think that”, “all intellectuals believe that” etc.). What is generally true for all people is that this state of emergency took us right out of our comfort zone and we are still learning to live though the aftermath. For example, the education was hindered considerably. On the one hand, teachers and university professors were having difficulties with changing their whole methodology, with meeting different needs and obstacles. That is to say, they worked maybe double than before. On the other hand, for people who were studying it was also more difficult: with no personal contact with the teacher, with the need of self-discipline for the young ones, with the lack of social contact with pillars. And that is just one of the spheres, which were heavily affected by the situation around the virus.
Me, I am from the third type of people – the ones who believe that the taken measures were completely adequate (with the exception of the checkpoints) and that they delayed the spread of the virus. So I still follow all the protocols and the measures, even if they are not obligatory anymore. I even go further by disinfecting everything I buy and all surfaces. But by talking with close ones and friends, I see that I am not the only one. These personally chosen measures may be in vain, but if they provide us with even a little comfort, I think they’re worth it, because Coronavirus or not, stress is one of the main cause for deceases.

In conclusion, it is notable that the negative effects of the state of emergency in Bulgaria, caused by the spread of COVID-19, were more than a few: for the education, for the sport, for the social system (not to mention the obvious – people dying and suffering). But I cannot look past one of the positive effects, namely, the people became more humane: to their close ones, to other people in general, even to themselves. Whether it is shown from a distance or in close contact, one can feel the concern that people have to other people. Concern that it feels like we had lost. Concern and humanity that we all need – both to give and to receive.