By Ivan Radev
Ivan Radev is a journalist with more than ten years of experience working for Bulgarian and foreign media. He has worked as a correspondent of Romanian news agency Agerpres. He is a board member of the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria.
According to official statistics, the number of proven, registered fatal outcomes following a coronavirus infection now exceeds 18,000 cases in Bulgaria. The actual number of fatalities, without a doubt, is higher because many people have died without ever getting tested for the disease. A metric called “excess mortality” indicates that this is the case, and Bulgaria is one of the world’s leaders when it comes to excess deaths per capita. Between April 2020 and April 2021, registered deaths were about 30,000 more than in the past few years.
It is well known that numbers, no matter how high they are, do not have an emotional impact on us. We perceive them as just another statistic unless we can relate them to something we know. Unless we realise that what lies behind these high numbers are the lives of people we knew or who were close to us. Alternatively, we could put numbers into perspective: for one year and three months, the coronavirus has taken the lives of more Bulgarians than all of World War II.
Of course, we by no means aim to diminish the tragedy of war. By this example, we seek to demonstrate that we probably fail to grasp the real human toll taken by the pandemic because it is invisible, unlike military battles and the bombs which left Sofia in ruins. The actual cost is that now each one of us knows someone who died of COVID-19.
But what is the point of saying all of this now, when the number of new cases keeps going down, and it looks insignificant compared to previous months? In the summer of 2021 life seemed almost back to normal, and people seemed to think about the pandemic less and less often, just like the beginning of last summer. After months full of anxiety and the threat of lockdowns, in summer 2020, the situation in Bulgaria was almost normal. It looked like we had gotten away with it, and those who had warned about the dangers of an upcoming new wave in autumn were cast aside as fearmongers.
The result was that while we could have used last summer to prepare, we did not. Hospitals failed to increase their capacity by adding new beds or creating contingency plans. Then autumn came, and we got to a situation where people were dying in ambulances or on the hospital stairs while waiting for admission. There were weeks in which fatal cases exceeded the numbers typical for the same period of the year by 3,000 excess deaths. Despite all that, none of the public figures who “forecasted” that the pandemic would be over by summer and claimed that no special measures were necessary owned up to their mistakes. On the contrary, many of them continued to stroll through TV studios and media outlets continued to extend invitations to them.
As of July 2021 we were in an almost identical situation as we were last summer – the pandemic looked like a distant memory, present mainly in news stories from other countries. In similar conditions last June, we started the rubric “Chronicles of the Infodemic”. Its main goal was to counter the widespread disinformation that, sadly, had found its platform on social and traditional media as well as offline. Disinformation is one of the primary reasons Bulgaria is among the least vaccinated countries in the EU and, correspondingly, why it is among the nations with the highest coronavirus mortality rates.
Source: Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data
According to the European Broadcasting Union (EBC), trust in social media in Bulgaria is the highest in the entire European Union. It is the only EU member state where trust in social media is not only not shrinking, but consistently increasing on a year-by-year basis (read more on the topic in this analysis by Konstantina Vasileva). Considering that social media is the perfect breeding ground for disinformation, it is not a surprise that those willing to be vaccinated are a minority.
Surely, social media is not the only thing to blame. Many media outlets uncritically allow the spread of antiscientific views. An ill-conceived desire to guarantee a plurality of viewpoints makes many journalists ignore their obligations as described in the Bulgarian Media Code of Ethics:
- To provide society with precise and fact-checked information without deliberately hiding or changing facts.
- To refuse to publish information we know is untrue.
- Not to mislead the public and to clearly point out the use of manipulated texts, documents, images, and audio.
Of course, a great responsibility lies in the hands of those politicians who choose to play with people’s fears already stoked by intentional disinformation. Politicians are often not brave enough to expose lies because they fear losing voters who had been misled.
Due to all these reasons, for more than a year, the Association of European Journalists has been making serious efforts to fight disinformation and to publish a series of articles in “Infodemic Chronicles”. AEJ’s new portal factcheck.bg is also a fact-checking hub of significant importance when it comes to health-related coverage. Though necessary, this is not enough. Bulgaria cannot afford to lose another summer and repeat last autumn’s situation. In the first publication in this series, we warned that this is a war and Truth might fall victim to it. It is, indeed, a war, judging by the number of casualties. And in wars, it’s all quiet just before the storm.
A number of experts have warned that because of the Delta variant, a new wave is just around the corner and could come well before autumn. Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov claimed a month ago on Nova TV that he would not like to pay people to be vaccinated or use food “giveaways as we do during elections“.
“What better incentive can I possibly offer than the chance to save your own life?” asked Katsarov.
In theory, the minister could be right. That would be the theory that expects people to always to make a rational, informed choice. That is not so in real life, where a range of other factors determines people’s choices. One of these factors is disinformation, which might turn only a small portion of the population into hard-line anti-vaxxers yet manages to plant the seeds of doubt and fear in many people.
Convinced anti-vaxxers actively refuse to vaccinate. It is hard to change their mind – they believe the information they have confirms their beliefs. They might be vocal, but they are still a minority. Many more people are among the “vaccine-hesitant”. They neither actively refuse to vaccinate nor seek the get a vaccine. They tend to wait and do nothing. The state needs to create a much better-targeted campaign to get the hesitant to vaccinate. Mobile vaccination centres in more towns and cities. On-the-spot vaccination clinics close to post offices on the day retired citizens get their pensions. Travelling clinics that can vaccinate those facing accessibility issues in their own homes. Mobile teams who can visit at least half of the five thousand villages in Bulgaria. A better information campaign and different incentives similar to those in other countries: food, lottery prize draws and raffles, different types of entertainment.
Why can’t the state help theatres, opera houses, and orchestras, who were severely hit by the crisis by buying tickets for the next season for the vaccinated? This could boost both culture and vaccination rates. It would also be beneficial for those who get vaccinated, as it will give them a chance to enjoy a stage performance or a concert. A theatre ticket costs between 8 and 20 BGN, the sum spent for the most prevalent clinical pathway for COVID-19 treatment is 1,200 BGN. In other words, by spending 8 to 20 BGN per person to incentivise vaccination, the state can save 1,200 BGN from treating that same person in the future. And the vaccinated person would be healthy and avoid the risk of a month-long recovery from long Covid (if they are lucky enough to recover at all). There have been a lot of voices in support of such incentives, most notably Maria Sharkova, attorney-at-law and medical law expert, and the Bulgarian Hotel & Restaurant Association, whose members would be severely affected by contingent lockdowns during any upcoming new waves.
If the state keeps its current strategy, the chances of Bulgaria catching up with the rest of the EU member states, and even its neighbours Serbia and Turkey, are practically non-existent. In all probability, this could have a negative impact on the Bulgarian economy. Bulgaria could be avoided as unsafe. More lives could potentially be lost.
A la guerre comme à la guerre: one has to go to war with all available means, and the fight against disinformation must be fought on all fronts. AEJ is preparing a new series of articles for the Chronicles of the Infodemic; as well as an exhibition of all featured artworks and a premiere of a book with all published articles. Meanwhile, at factcheck.bg we will continue to fact-check claims and misconceptions from across the information stream. However, we cannot do this alone. We need the Bulgarian state to join the effort and make this autumn better than last year’s.