It's becoming hard to keep pace with Bulgaria's Covid measures. Because as Prime Minister Boyko Borissov conceded today: "We are like a rubber band - we open up and we close down for 10-15 days."
The rubber band cycle is now in its reopening phase. Despite a record number of Covid-19 infections at the end of March 2021 compared to the worst days of 2020, the state authorities are preparing a partial reopening. Schools, kindergartens and restaurants will gradually reopen over the coming days, Health Minister Kostadin Angelov announced on Tuesday.
This reverses stricter measures from the health authorities as recently as 22 March designed to curb the increasing number of virus-related infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
The change comes against the backdrop of protests from restaurateurs and the imminent 4 April elections.
What is the situation in hospitals?
The third wave of the Covid-19 crisis has been growing since mid-January and is likely linked to the total reopening of schools and kindergartens at that time. Over the past few days the number of new record infections per day has been nearing 5,000. Meanwhile, there are up to 9,300 daily hospital admissions and around 750 needing intensive care.
Most alarmingly, the number of fatalities has also risen steadily - last week, between 99 and 169 new deaths were recorded every day and on Tuesday this week the number jumped to 203. In some hospitals, like the one in Pazardzhik, the situation has been even worse, with the director admitting that no more beds are available for the second time in a week.
The death of a 36-year-old pregnant woman from Burgas on 29 March also triggered debate about the higher risks faced by pregnant women who have lower immune response to the virus.
Reopening, closing, reopening
We are, however, way beyond being dependent only on health statistics. It would appear that political factors have assumed greater importance. So the lockdown will continue just as long as it was planned for and some restrictions will be lifted only eight days after their introduction on 22 March.
The plan (still to be approved by the cabinet) is that from 1 April theaters and gyms will reopen at 30 percent capacity, restaurants with open-air gardens will be allowed to operate them and large supermarkets that sell products other than food will be allowed to partially continue working if they can move business outdoors.
Many parents will breathe a sigh of relief, as kindergartens will open on 5 April, while schoolchildren will gradually return to school under a scheme that is to be devised by the ministers of education and health in the 5-12 April period. According to the head of the headmasters' union, Diyan Stamatov, first- to fourth-graders would likely return on 12 April, while their older peers would follow a two-week rotation scheme of online and in-person attendance of classes.
What is the rationale?
"The rate [of new infections] has slowed down significantly. This or the coming week we will reach peak infection rates. Of course, the numbers are high, but I set my own limits of 10,000 people in hospitals and 800 in intensive care, after which the system gets overwhelmed. We are close to that, but no patients have so far failed to be admitted," Mr Angelov told reporters on Monday.
Health authorities reason that the country has reached - or will soon reach - a plateau. This means the highest possible number of new recorded cases and hospitalizations (up to 12,000, according to mathematicians from the Crisis Committee) and, thus, there is no need to keep the measures in place.
Members of the National Crisis Committee are, however, keenly aware of Bulgaria's unenviable place in European and global rankings of Covid-19 deaths. Prof. Ventsislav Mutafchiyski, head of the Military Medical Academy, said on Monday that the country is second in the world in terms of the increase of the rate of new deaths over the past two weeks. In the EU, only three other countries have a comparably bad situation - and they are all in Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
The Bulgarian "model"
Nevertheless, the government continues to pretend that its approach to the crisis is irreproachable, and that other countries are even emulating it. "Europe does not talk about the Bulgarian model, it implements it," Mr Angelov told Radio Free Europe's Bulgaria section last week. Today, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov made the best summary of what (he thinks) the model is like.
"We are like a rubber band - we open up and we close down for 10-15 days, this is the optimal way to balance between restrictions and the psychological state of the people," he said at his most recent "self-briefing" over Facebook Live.