A national answer to a global challenge: The case of Bulgaria

by Lyubomir Kyuchukov, Director of the Economics and International Relations Institute, Sofia

Photo: unsplash.com

Is an apocalypse inevitable in order to reach a catharsis? The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted once again how unprepared we all are to face a global challenge. A number of countries are failing to offer adequate protection and support to their own citizens.

Where does Bulgaria stand? Bulgaria acted quick and tough. The herd-immunity approach was never considered as a feasible option for the country – neither by the government, nor by the public. A one-month state of emergency was introduced on 13th March, when there were only 31 cases of COVID-19 with just one death. Measures included a shut-down of all restaurants and shops – with the exception of food shops, pharmacies, and banks. All public events were banned, citizens were discouraged to leave homes, and schools and universities closed. A two-week home self-isolation was imposed on all active cases that were not being treated in hospital and on Bulgarians returning from countries with the widest spread of the infection. Public opinion supported the initial measures. People were concerned, but there was no panic. The measures are paying off: with a population of 7 million, at the end of the one-month lockdown the COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria do not exceed 700 and the number of casualties has not reached 30.

Is there an exit strategy? This question is becoming more and more relevant with each passing day. The government continues to pile up restrictions. The state of emergency was prolonged by another month. Citizens must sign declarations in order to leave regional centres (which are not necessarily the biggest cities in the country). Parks are closed and harsh penalties have been introduced for walking there. The whole ski-resort of Bansko was quarantined and tourists evacuated after several infected foreign tourists were identified. Measures, however, lack consistency: wearing masks became obligatory, then it was lifted and a week later – re-introduced. As no clear criteria for loosening the measures have been announced, public reaction is becoming more ambiguous and adherence to the restrictions less strict.

Helping people or supporting businesses? The negative effect of the lockdown on business was immediate, especially on tourism, transport, trade, and small and medium enterprises. In one month unemployment doubled to 8%. The reaction of the government was rather hesitant. Restrictive measures were fast and comprehensive, supportive ones much slower and selective. The government launched a 60/40 scheme, undertaking the payment of 60 percent of the salaries and social payments of workers and employees in private business provided that the companies contribute with the remaining 40 percent. However, the eligibility conditions are complex, the procedure rather bureaucratic, and the efficiency of these measures is still to be proven. On the other side no additional specific measure in support of the most vulnerable strata of the population, the unemployed, self-employed and the small business have been adopted.

Human health or human rights? Like many governments around the world, the Bulgarian one is also struggling to find the right balance between emergency restrictions, meant to preserve human lives, and the full respect of human rights. The local approach could be placed somewhere in the middle between the laissez faire attitude of some European politicians and the draconian measures of certain Asian governments. The State of Emergency Act, voted by the conservative majority in parliament raised serious concerns with regard to possible human rights abuses. Several provisions, such as tracing of quarantined persons by mobile phones or criminalising the spread of ‘untrue’ news were vetoed by the president Radev (elected as a candidate of the opposition socialists). Despite this, the head of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union is currently held accountable by the prosecution for publicly sharing her concerns about the insufficient supply and eventual deficits of certain medicines. The decision of the parliament to suspend its regular session till the end of the lockdown (although it can be convened whenever the need to vote certain legislation arises), added to the authoritarian and populistic style of the prime minister, Boyko Borisov, is a matter of additional concern.

Together or everybody by him/herself? Lately solidarity has been a popular notion, but a limited practice in Europe. The European Union was unable to offer a common approach and concerted actions against the pandemic. But this time the usual culprit is hardly to be blamed: it was not the ‘EU-Brussels’ but the ‘EU-capitals’ who failed to reach an agreement. A global threat requires united response. But the logic of the immediate measures is in the opposite direction: isolation of countries, cities, families. As a result dealing with the crisis is left to the national governments, while the focus of the solidarity debate in the EU is on financing the future economic recovery. Instead of uniting the Union, coronavirus accentuated the fault lines within the EU: between East and West, between North and South, between donors and recipients. The management of the crisis singled out yet another rift, on values level – between Europe (and the USA) and Eastern Asian countries. COVID-19 shook the world. It is yet to be seen how it will be mended. But in any case it will be a different one. Most probably with different priorities and a new balance of forces.

Lyubomir Kyuchukov, PhD, is a career diplomat. He served as deputy foreign minister, member of the Council on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration to the President of Bulgaria, Member of the National Security Council, and ambassador to the United Kingdom. Currently he is Director of the Economics and International Relations Institute (EIRI), member of the boards of the Balkan Research Centre within the University of National and World Economy in Sofia and of the Bulgarian Diplomatic Society. He was a Board member of Mezhdunarodni Otnosheniya (International Relations) and Novo Vreme (New Time) magazines.