Bulgaria was among the EU countries with fewer cases of COVID-19 until mid-June, when measures were relaxed. Bulgarians are now shocked to see other EU nations introducing conditions to allow their compatriots to enter their territory.
The biggest consternation came when Italy, the EU country hardest hit by the pandemic, introduced quarantine for incoming nationals of Bulgaria and Romania on Friday (24 July). The measure is all the more surprising given that Italy is now among the most open countries, in an effort to save its tourist season.
Italy’s Minister of Health Roberto Speranza was obviously unimpressed by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s bragging that thanks to the introduced measures against COVID-19 Bulgaria “is an example for the rest of the EU”.
Instead, Italy based its decision on numbers, and they don’t look good lately. Bulgaria counts roughly 300 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 daily in the past week, which is between ten to twenty times more than in April and May.
As of 24 July, the Italian Ministry of Health treats travellers coming from Bulgaria and Romania in the same way as visitors from high-risk countries such as Brazil, the United States, India, where the number of infected is in the millions, and Russia, where it is approaching one million.
Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo have been on the list of high-risk countries in recent months, with a worrying trend of rising cases, but they are not members of the EU. Bulgaria and Romania are the first EU countries for whose nationals another EU member has introduced quarantine.
According to Italy’s health authorities, the rising number of infections in recent days is due to the arrivals from third countries. The most high-profile case involved passengers on a Bangladeshi flight who escaped control and infected a large group of people. And in southern Italy, an entire barracks was locked down after officers checking arrivals from high-risk countries tested positive.
Other countries are also introducing restrictions, fearing a “second wave”. Greece requires a negative PCR test for incoming Bulgarians and Romanians, although they are the main foreign holidaymakers in the northern part of the country.
Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg have also introduced measures for visitors from Bulgaria and Romania, requiring a negative PCR test, and alternatively – imposing quarantine.
Tables have turned
In the spring, countries in Western Europe were severely hit by COVID-19, while most Eastern European countries registered low numbers of infections.
Bulgaria, for example, quickly closed its borders, imposed a lockdown in early March and kept the number of infections very low. Some virologists have even suggested that Eastern Europeans may be more resistant to the virus thanks to the still-mandatory TCB vaccine.
Intensive care units in Bulgaria were not under pressure and doctors managed to deal with all patients. Before the beginning of summer, a hundred people lost their lives, but compared to other countries, the number was surprisingly low.
On a randomly selected date, such as 26 May, Bulgaria registered 10 new infections and five people were hospitalized, while in Spain, 854 people lost their lives and in Italy the death toll was 521.
Nevertheless, only two months later, the situation completely changed. Most Italian regions have been reporting zero infections for weeks, while in Bulgaria and its neighbouring countries, the number of cases has risen sharply.
The main reason is not the bigger number of tests being made. It’s because the government in Sofia hastened to ease the lockdown measures altogether, and Bulgaria was perhaps the only country in the EU to open the stadiums to the public.
It was a football match in February that turned out to be the most common source of infection in the Italian city of Bergamo, which became a symbol of the pandemic in Europe.
Restrictive measures in Bulgaria were decided by the health minister, but most of them were revoked by Borissov only hours after their announcement.
Fearing people’s discontent
Borissov chose to ease the measures in order to avoid public discontent. The resentment however was not that much against the measures but against himself.
Shortly before the first case of COVID-19 in Europe, Borissov found himself at the centre of a scandal over an an expensive property in Barcelona, which he allegedly bought for a mistress – a claim he immediately denied.
A month earlier, the government was targeted by popular outrage over a water crisis in the city of Pernik. The water crisis together with a scandal of imported waste to be burnt in power plants resulted in the arrest of the minister of environment and water.
The lockdown only postponed the start of a wave of protests in Bulgaria, which erupted in full force on the streets of Sofia and other major cities in July. Many observers in Bulgaria suspect that the cabinet hastened to ease all measures completely in a bid to avoid more popular resentment.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]