No country for (vaccinated) old men

Despite of formally being a priority group, the over-60s people in Bulgaria remain proportionally significantly under-vaccinated compared to the rest of the EU

No country for (vaccinated) old men

Plagued by immunization scepticism, Bulgaria trails all EU countries in terms of Covid-19 jabs

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Despite of formally being a priority group, the over-60s people in Bulgaria remain proportionally significantly under-vaccinated compared to the rest of the EU

© Velko Angelov


"We (initially) thought it would be August, but I am now sure that by May we will have vaccinated 3 million people," former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov fantasized just before the 4 April elections. With the end of May now approaching - and given the current (slow) pace - it is safe to say that Bulgaria will fail to reach this number by the deadline Mr Borissov himself set.

So far, about 767,000 people have received a first dose of a vaccine (11 percent of the population) and around 516,000 of them have received both shots, which means only 7,4 percent of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated. This is a fraction not only of the EU average, but also of the share that other non-EU Balkan neighbors have achieved. For example, Serbia has succeeded in vaccinating at least 35 percent of its population with one dose, Montenegro - 19 percent and Albania - 16.

Bulgaria's record is even grimmer vis-a-vis the elderly. Only 11 percent of over-80s people have had their shot, compared to 50 percent for Croatia and 100 percent - for Ireland. The same goes for the age groups 60-69 and 70-79, where only 18 percent have had one vaccination, the worst score in Europe. Only a third of care home residents have been immunized, despite the notorious reality (accepted from the outset of the pandemic) that these institutions can prove deadly.

Prioritization gone wrong

Last week, caretaker Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov finally sought to get a grip of Covid-19 vaccination policy. He announced on Monday that the elderly, and those with chronic or severe conditions, would be prioritized for a jab. The green corridors allowing anyone to get the shot at any time were suspended. The new rules specified that only those over 60, and people with serious accompanying diseases, would be allowed to get a jab from Monday to Thursday.

By Wednesday of the same week, the policy was all but reversed after his predecessor Kostadin Angelov accused him of slowing down the whole immunization process. Now the "priority" patients would just queue in a different, fast-track line between Monday and Thursday, but the green corridors would remain for everybody at all times.

The prioritization of the most vulnerable people might seem like a very important and belated measure in a country where the median age of those who died from Covid-19 is 72. Yet, according to Mr Katsarov's deputy Alexander Zlatanov, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bulgaria's dreadful track record regarding vaccinations.

One problem after another

Initially, the most significant problem seemed to be lack of access to vaccines and poor planning by the authorities. Sofia failed to unite behind the joint EU members' orders for shots, and the EU itself initially did not manage to gain an upper hand in "vaccine diplomacy". This left countries in Central and Eastern Europe begging for new allocations of vaccines that were in short supply.

The scare over the AstraZeneca shot only complicated matters because Sofia had favored this vaccine, likely due to the lower price. The worry that it could trigger potentially deadly thrombosis, especially in middle-aged women, made the public even warier. AstraZeneca was the most widespread vaccine available but many now preferred to sit it out until the "modern" vector vaccines became available.

Currently, however, there is no shortage of various types of vaccines and access to them is free for all. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Sofia has already received 2,8 million vaccines, but has administered only 1,3 million, or 45 percent of the total available stock, compared to 85 percent of available vaccines used in the EU on average.

A million-and-a-half doses remain in refrigerators of vaccine centers, waiting for people to arrive. But they don't come.

Champions in scepticism

The reason is straightforward - two thirds of Bulgarians are reluctant to get their shot. This puts them way ahead of other EU citizens in terms of vaccine scepticism, according to a May 2021 survey conducted by The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound).

The Eurofound study sheds light over the profile of the sceptics. Unsurprisingly, they are predominantly less educated, come from smaller towns and villages and are either unemployed or housewives. This makes them more vulnerable to anti-vax propaganda and fake news, as most of them told pollsters that social media is their main source of information.

At the same time, it is also undeniable that Bulgaria has so far failed to promote an effective pro-vaccination media campaign. This will change in the coming week, as two separate PR campaigns by the Health Ministry and the European Commission are set to be launched.

If such a campaign fails, perhaps the good old carrot and stick approach - introducing vaccination certificates for hassle-free foreign travel - would motivate those aiming for the Greek seaside. The introduction of "Green passports", allowing exclusive access to certain facilities and services for the vaccinated, similar to those offered by Israel, is another possibility.

In any case, as Bulgaria fails to attain the EU goal of "herd immunity" of over 70 percent vaccinated citizens by the end of summer, the country will face several risks. It could find itself passively isolated from the rest of Europe when it comes to access to travel. This, in turn, would restrict opportunities for economic recovery. The decision by several large European tourist agencies, including UK's TUI, to cancel all reservations for Bulgaria until 27 June due to the high Covid-19 infection rates, is an ominous portent of things to come.

Also, and perhaps even more worryingly, Bulgaria, which has already recorded 17,000 official fatalities through two consecutive waves of Covid-19, might easily stumble into a third, just as deadly round, in the autumn. With the advent of new variants of the disease - including a native one recently discovered by the health authorities in Sofia - such a prospect ought to be alarming. Unfortunately, statistics show that this is not currently the case.

"We (initially) thought it would be August, but I am now sure that by May we will have vaccinated 3 million people," former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov fantasized just before the 4 April elections. With the end of May now approaching - and given the current (slow) pace - it is safe to say that Bulgaria will fail to reach this number by the deadline Mr Borissov himself set.

So far, about 767,000 people have received a first dose of a vaccine (11 percent of the population) and around 516,000 of them have received both shots, which means only 7,4 percent of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated. This is a fraction not only of the EU average, but also of the share that other non-EU Balkan neighbors have achieved. For example, Serbia has succeeded in vaccinating at least 35 percent of its population with one dose, Montenegro - 19 percent and Albania - 16.

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