One date does the rounds in Bulgarian social media these days - August 2040. According to Politico-Europe calculations, this is when the country will reach the EU-wide target to administer vaccine shots to 70 percent of its adult population. This obviously places it at rock bottom in any league table of EU members.
Of course, the date is only speculative. It is based on the average doses administered in the country over the past seven days and assumes the number remains constant, which is (hopefully) not how things will transpire. More vaccines are coming and the pace of deliveries is supposed to accelerate.
But it served up some shameful headlines and spurred the government into action. The medical authorities tried to debunk the Politico article by saying that the "tempo of the vaccination depends on the deliveries [of vaccines] and not on the organization" at hospitals and medical cabinets, adding that the country could get 50-100 000 people vaccinated per day "in ideal conditions".
Yet conditions have never been ideal in 2020 and will not be so in 2021 either. Governments nowadays are judged by their ability to react quickly and take difficult decisions in complicated situations. So this is a sobering reminder of how the Bulgarian authorities have dragged their feet on vaccinations, with only 26 143 people receiving shots by 25 January.
The EU debacle
The problems are not all domestic - nothing in the EU vaccination plan went as expected. There are still only two approved vaccines in the Union and their deliveries are slow.
Sofia received 14,000 dozes of the Pfizer/BioNTech shots a week later than anticipated. It still has only 2400 vaccines from Moderna (a further 24 000 arrived this week). AstraZeneca - the company Bulgaria pinned most of its hopes on - told the EU on Friday, 22 January, that its members will receive a "lower number of vaccines than initially anticipated".
But, that said, Bulgaria's government has its own failings. Sofia put most, if not all, of its eggs in one basket - the AstraZeneca vaccines, which are still pending approval by the EU regulators, and only pre-ordered symbolic amounts of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna shots. Why it did so is still under discussion.
It means that even in a perfect scenario, it will have, at most, vaccines for 154 000 people by March. This is less than a third of the recommended groups for vaccination by that date - namely those aged over 80 and health workers. Even with Moderna and Pfizer keeping their delivery schedules, it will have vaccines for 750 000 people by July when the stated goal was 4 million people.
There are no mass vaccination sites planned, like in Israel or the UK, and most of the work is left to mobile units and GPs. This will be a logistical nightmare: 4500 GPs will have to receive micro-deliveries of frozen vaccines on a regular basis.
Organization, as shown time and again, is not the strong suit of this government.
Business pessimism and protests
The slow immunization process is riling struggling businesses. According to an internal poll among members of the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, only 2 percent of business owners are optimistic about the coming year and 90 percent say they are pessimistic.
Without a clear vaccination schedule, some industries are left to rot. Restaurants and bar owners already plan a protest, and people in the culture and entertainment sector are already doing so regularly.
This Wednesday, 27 January, some of the people employed in the sector will take to the streets in Sofia to protest against lockdown measures that are disproportionately affecting them. The Bulgarian hotel and restaurant association (BHRA) has called for adequate state support for the sector and its employees, as well as clear, predictable rules about the conditions under which their facilities could open.
To add insult to injury, the government has broken its promise to pay support money in a timely manner.
What is opening?
Against this tense background, the Bulgarian health authorities seem to have yielded to pressure to, at least partially, reopen the state. On Monday, 25 January, Chief Health Inspector Angel Kunchev announced that the authorities are probing ways to reopen restaurants and bars at half capacity, and impose a 22:30 or 23:30 closing time.
"It is one thing if you dine with your family and leave at 22:30, it is quite another to stay longer, when there are singers, people start dancing, have two shots of rakia, drop their safeguards and start intense contacts," Mr. Kunchev said, colorfully. "We will make an important compromise," he added.
Gyms and most stores in shopping malls would also reopen, the Chief Health Inspector added.
After meeting Deputy Education Minister Tanya Mihaylova, the two announced that three groups of "priority" students - from 7th, 8th and 12th will start attending classes in-person on 4 February, alongside primary school and kindergarten students who returned to class at the beginning of the year.
A breath of fresh air
So far, it seems that the limited lockdown imposed at the end of November has helped to limit the spread of the virus, especially compared to the deadly months of November and December when the medical system was struggling to care for most of the sick.
As of 25 January, the number of recorded deaths attributed to the new virus are on a trajectory to be half the deaths recorded in December 2020, when 3,700 people lost their lives to Covid-19.
On Friday, 22 January, however, it was announced that the new strain of the disease, now referred to as the "British strain", has arrived in Bulgaria, with eight out of 50 samples tested for it on that day registered as positive. The new strain, announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be at least 30 percent deadlier than the original one, might start to endanger the already battered Bulgarian health system just as light seemed to glimmer at the end of the long lockdown tunnel.