By Georgi A. Angelov
Georgi A. Angelov started his journalistic career in 2002. Since then, he has been working as a political reporter and editor in a number of national publications. Currently he is an editor at OFFNews, an online news site, and contributes to the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle.
You must have heard the rumour. Surely you know someone whose colleague experienced it first-hand. The information always comes “from a very reliable source” whom your friend trusts fully. In fact, you never actually know the source — to get to you, the story first went through at least two other people. But whoever tells you that story swears it’s true — there’s just no way their friend lied to them. They are not that kind of people. And as you listen, you start to wonder if there might be some truth to what everyone keeps saying:
“You can get 1,800 leva cash by claiming you are sick with COVID-19.”
It is difficult to trace the origin of this rumour. A Google search reveals that the oldest news piece on the topic dates to April 16 this year. The title reads SCANDAL in Narod.bg: People are being offered money to report fake COVID-19 deaths! Who benefits from inflating the number of victims?
“The mother of our first cousin died. They contacted her on the phone to offer her 1,800 leva to report that she had died from coronavirus. What more can I say…”, a user named Gergana Dimitrova wrote in a comment on Facebook. It’s not clear under which post she left her comment. Dimitrova’s photo is blackened out, which makes it impossible to check whether her social media profile really exists.
Although Narod.bg claims to have investigated the issue and to have received “enough tips that the number of infections and deaths are being artificially inflated”, the publication doesn’t give any other examples apart from Dimitrova’s comment. Also, despite what the title implies, the supposed news story fails to explain who exactly is paying people to skew the data on purpose.
Narod.bg’s website doesn’t provide any information about the publication’s owner or editorial team. However, a closer look at the site’s domain shows that its owners maintain a network of dozens of online media outlets regularly publishing sensational and misleading pieces on various political and social issues.
In the aftermath of Narod.bg’s story, the conspiracy that someone — it is unclear who — is paying people to report fake cases of COVID-19 begins a life of its own.
Other sites republished this “shocking” revelation. Meanwhile, the rumour circulated on social networks and in the comment sections of traditional news media. “1,600 leva to be diagnosed with coronavirus, 1,800 leva to report a deceased friend or relative as a COVID-19 patient,” reads a comment from June 17 under a story by the online media Dnevnik.bg. Apart from the estimated “prices”, the user does not provide any more details.
In general, most of these articles rely on sensational headlines and photos with dubious authenticity while actual facts remain scarce. It is hardly a coincidence that these stories do not meet basic standards for trustworthiness and fact-checking, and fail to answer any of the five fundamental questions in journalism. In this case — who is offering these payments and how are they doing it? The authors do not cite sources for any of the claims they make. Why, for example, is the sum exactly 1,800 leva and not a different amount?
One possibility is that the rumour is linked to the funeral expenses of a deceased patient with COVID-19.
Coincidentally or not, a few days before the story in Narod.bg, local and national media covered the death of a 69-year-old woman from the Bulgarian town of Hissarya. In early April, she was admitted to a hospital in Plovdiv, a nearby city, with pneumonia before testing positive for COVID-19. After the patient died on April 12, the Municipality of Hissarya had to cover the funeral expenses, which reportedly amounted to 1,800 leva.
In an interview with 24 Chasa, the hospital’s manager, Ilian Doikov, said that the coffin alone, which has to be made from metal and decontaminated, cost around 1,000 leva. There are different versions regarding why the Municipality of Hissarya had to organize the funeral. According to the deceased’s family, they were not notified of her death, and were also in quarantine. The management of the hospital and the Plovdiv Regional Health department claim that they repeatedly tried to contact the woman’s relatives, but without success. Meanwhile, the curious circumstances of her funeral and the sum of 1,800 leva have been gaining media attention for days.
In early June, another outbreak of coronavirus happened in Dospat, a small town in Southern Bulgaria, after dozens of workers from a local factory got infected. This became a convenient source of speculation that residents of the city receive money to report fake cases of COVID-19.
In several outlets, including Nbox.bg, which often cites Narod.bg, a Stefan Ilevski from Karlovo is quoted as a source. On Facebook, Ilevski allegedly said he had a conversation with “a fellow student and a good friend from Dospat,” who told him the following story:
“They offer you 1,800 leva in cash to record you as a coronavirus patient. You stay quarantined at home for 14 days. During that time, they take you to work every day and you get paid.”
Unlike earlier publications on the subject, this one explains the supposed scheme in greater depth. Ilevski’s friend allegedly told him that some of the workers in the factory volunteered to join in, and the city’s mayor was rumoured “to be exploiting his personal connections to get all of Dospat infected.”
Apart from the quoted Facebook post, the publication does not indicate that it tried to confirm the information, something that any self-respecting news outlet should do. At the moment, such a post is not available on Ilevski’s public Facebook timeline, and he did not respond to our attempts to contact him.
The conspiracy about paying to become part of the corona statistics in Bulgaria also includes celebrities.
According to one theory, famous Bulgarians are getting paid to say they have been infected with coronavirus. One website claimed that tennis star Grigor Dimitrov has become the new face of COVID-19 for a fee of 1 million leva.
On June 21, Dimitrov’s Instagram account announced that the player had tested positive for the virus after the Adria Tour, organized by Novak Djokovic. According to the text, Dimitrov didn’t get sick due to the lack of any preventive anti-epidemic measures during the tournament, which both Bulgarian and international media reported on. Instead, the real reason for his infection is a supposed advertising fee to promote COVID-19. The source of this rumour, Basta Report, doesn’t provide any evidence to support its wild hypothesis. The website’s owner, Ventsislav Angelov, is better known for his criminal record than his reporting skills.
The conspiracy about “paid” cases of COVID-19 is spreading not only in Bulgaria.
In Russia, for example, it is claimed that people are paid between 15,000 and 25,000 roubles to falsely diagnose deceased relatives as COVID-19 patients.
In May, a video featuring Dr Judy Mikovits, a prominent supporter of the anti-vaccination movement, gained popularity worldwide. In the video entitled Plandemic, Mikovits claimed that in the United States, medical workers receive $13,000 to diagnose people with COVID-19. According to her, the payment for putting someone on a ventilator is three times higher. Plandemic, which was quickly denounced as a conspiracy, contains further baseless claims. Mikovits says that masks “activate” the virus, beaches have healing powers, a vaccine against COVID-19 will kill millions and, of course, that the ultimate goal is to get everyone vaccinated.
Indeed, in the United States, coronavirus patients are getting paid. The important difference is that these payments are made under Medicare – a health insurance program for people over the age of 65 or people with specific illnesses. For example, hospitals treating respiratory infections receive $13,297, while treating patients on artificial ventilation for more than 96 hours costs $40,218 (according to 2017 data).
The mathematics of misinformation: 618 > 1800
Some of the articles that “cover” the coronavirus-related payments cite claims that doctors and or hospitals are the ones deliberately inflating the number of COVID-19 cases. In Bulgaria, coronavirus patients are admitted to hospitals along the already existing clinical pathway #104: “Diagnosis and treatment of contagious viral and bacterial diseases – acute, with complications.”
Until August the pathway set a price of 618 leva per patient for the hospital stay while the treatment lasts about 14 days. This means that the hospital received about 43 leva per day for the treatment of one patient. Paying a sum nearly three times higher than the clinical pathway would lead to bankruptcy. Since August, the amount of the clinical pathway has increased to 1,200 leva. However, this still doesn’t come close to the 1,800 leva publicized by controversial news outlets.
In theory, hospitals treating coronavirus patients could benefit from an artificial increase in the number of infections due to the monthly bonuses of 1,000 leva for first-line workers.
These additional funds are distributed by the Bulgarian health ministry. If they have treated no more than five coronavirus patients, up to 40 medical and non-medical staff receive money. For treating between six and ten patients, up to 70 staff members earn bonuses. And for 11 or more hospitalized patients, 100 hospital workers will receive 1,000 leva each.
In the first wave of the coronavirus, however, funds were only distributed to hospitals treating proven cases of COVID-19. These cases must be confirmed with a positive test performed by one of the reference laboratories. In addition, it is easy to track how many coronavirus patients each hospital has as well as for how many of them hospitals can demand bonus payments.
The “someone told me” news agency
For this story, we contacted five people who supposedly knew of someone who had died of another disease but had been recorded as suffering from COVID-19. Our attempts to learn more about these cases hit a dead end. Our follow-up questions were met with either silence or a lack of information.
None of the sources, it turned out, has first-hand knowledge of the “scheme” and no one agreed to be interviewed on the record, even with guaranteed anonymity.
Or so claimed the “intermediaries” spreading the allegations.
In one of the cases, the source initially said that a family member was offered 1,800 leva to write in the death certificate of her relative that they had died of COVID-19. After requesting more details and asking follow-up questions, the version changed significantly — the proposed sum was turned out to be 150 leva and the deceased relative had tested positive anyway.
Another source shared the following story: “My daughter’s kindergarten teacher told me that around Easter a very close friend of hers died of cancer. His wife was asked if he could be recorded as suffering from corona. I personally trust her, but the information came second-hand. That’s it.”
We also contacted the author of a Twitter post, which claimed their relative was offered money by a doctor at a Sofia hospital. “He and another family member were there and the doctor offered them 3,000 leva.” After requesting more details, we received the following answer: “At this point, that’s all I can tell you, I’m sorry,” and our correspondence suddenly ended.
The myth was created
This is how, from site to site, from person to person, from comment to comment, the myth that 1,800 leva are paid for “fake” COVID-19 patients has been created. The plethora of identical comments by different users suggest that this is probably a disinformation campaign. We should not forget the way most anonymous websites earn money — the more traffic they have, the better.
Many online media do not verify information because fact-checking requires time and resources but does not attract more readers.
Plandemic and Judy Mikovits’ fictional story still live on the websites of major Bulgarian online sites, although the video itself was removed by YouTube and Facebook. This is in conflict with the code of ethical journalism, which should inform the public, but with verified facts and not with misinformation.
To generate a few more clicks, in July some publications didn’t shy away even from exploiting the death of an ambulance worker in Sofia, by speculating that the medic did not actually die of coronavirus, as announced.
This is not just about spreading falsehoods. Denying the existence or seriousness of coronavirus poses a danger to everyone’s health and life.
The rumour that people are being paid to report fake COVID-19 cases gives the impression that coronavirus isn’t real, and social distancing measures are nothing more than unnecessary restrictions favouring the corrupt elite. These speculations can spark anger among the public and make them much more vulnerable to manipulation.
In Bulgaria, where the healthcare system is chronically underfunded and co-payments in cash are a widespread practice, such doubts can be easily exploited.