The foreseen failure of vaccination efforts in Bulgaria
At the end of May, the IME wrote that it was high time for a ramp-up of vaccine efforts in Bulgaria. By this, we meant that the vaccination process should be made the first and foremost governmental priority, and that as many tools as possible should be sought and employed to speed up the pace. The reason was obvious. The country was substantially far behind achieving the set target – vaccinating 70% of the adult population by the end of August. The aforementioned ramp-up of efforts did not follow, with the country gradually plateauing at around 12-13 thousand vaccine doses delivered per day. The results of this today are evident. The end of August has been met with a new wave of virus transmission, with barely 1.2 million Bulgarian adults having completed their vaccination cycle, while the target was for more than 4 million to have done so by this date.
It is expected that all the blame will be directed towards people who were tricked by social media into not getting the vaccine, when the real blame lies with the politicians who throughout the year consistently and dramatically undervalued the importance of vaccination. They underestimated the number of vaccines requested to be delivered at the end of 2020, which led to the EU having to save us with solidarity deliveries. Nevertheless, today we still see the entire vaccination campaign being constantly played down, essentially denigrated to be a sectoral-administrative task for the Health ministry. The focus here is not the vaccination itself, but the related explanations and reasoning. The Bulgarian leadership now claims that it is unimportant that the percentage of vaccinated adults reach 70%, or that we have to count both those vaccinated and those who have had COVID before, or that vaccine’s efficiency against the DELTA variant is not proven, and so on.
To put our situation into perspective, almost all EU countries have achieved their goal and have vaccinated around 70% of their adult populations. As a result, they are now able to open back up – be-it coffee shops, restaurants, or stadiums. In this respect, the efficiency of the European virus response is predictable. A virus comes along – everything closes, a vaccine is developed – older people get vaccinated first, at some point over half of the population gets vaccinated – everything opens. This logical flow is absent in the Bulgarian response. We made a blast with the so-called “green corridors”, just to be able to say that we were first to provide open access to the vaccines, and for young people to be able to beat older folk in the vaccine race, which ultimately drove us into the ground. Now, there are talks of a lockdown, presenting a political conundrum: how does the government explain to the Bulgarian people that there will be a privilege-divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated, when the latter group is bigger?
One detail regarding the division between vaccinated and unvaccinated people indicates an underestimation of the topic. A few months ago, everyone could check whether someone was vaccinated if they were given a certificate. All it took was the verification of their QR code on the government’s specialized website, and that was it. One didn't have to be an employee of an organisation with access to specialized software to check someone’s vaccination status, as is the case in Vienna, where going for a beer or to a café comes with a complete checking process. Now, when the conversations point to similar rules being implemented here, this feature has been removed. On the website there is no longer the option to check someone’s QR code. Instead, one must manually enter a text code that is 25 characters long. Imagine how a large store or even a restaurant starts checking all customers by entering 25 characters per person?
There is the option of using a freely available application, however such an app does not exist here as of now. It is possible to use another country’s app – for example, the Greek one works. Nevertheless, given that there is no readiness to introduce an application, it is a mystery why the working feature of a website was removed. Moreover, the latest order of the Minister of Health already makes the pending division possible. If you want to use a location to its full capacity, instead of the current 50% allowance, you need to make the gathering open only to vaccinated persons. That is, you must go through the process of checking the 25-character codes of all attendees or look to use another country’s existing application. A small but indicative example. In Bulgaria, things are once again made harder and less efficient.
In the coming weeks and months, a lot of energy is likely to be spent on the division debate and the diverging rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The severity of this debate is a direct result of a weak immunization campaign. The cost of one, even partial, lockdown is several times higher than any efforts that will be made to increase the rate of vaccination. Problems in the fall are already inevitable, but there is still an opportunity to prepare for the winter. However, this requires that vaccination really be made a priority, and not just another topic in the centrifuge of public discourse.