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A week after saying COVID-19 was under control, Bulgaria locks down

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Retailers and owners of cafes, bars and restaurants and their staff shout slogans and wave flags as they attend a protest against COVID-19 restrictions
Retailers and owners of cafes, bars and restaurants and their staff shout slogans and wave flags as they attend a protest against COVID-19 restrictions   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP
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A week is a long time in politics in Bulgaria, it would seem.

On March 11, health minister Kostadin Angelov said the country's COVID-19 outbreak was "serious but under control".

On March 18, with hospitalisations and deaths rising, Angelov issued an order to lock down, including restaurants, cafes, shopping malls, schools and kindergartens. The tighter restrictions will last for 10 days, with only pharmacies, grocery stores and small businesses remaining open.

“We might appear to make inconsistent decisions,” said Angelov as he announced the lockdown. “I want to assure you that all the decisions we have made up until now have been based on science and on everything that is happening around us.”

COVID-19 cases spiking in Bulgaria

Coronavirus cases are increasing. There were 4,000 new infections reported on March 19.

Hospitalisations are also hitting an all-time high since the beginning of the pandemic: 8,082 patients are currently being treated in medical facilities in Bulgaria. There are 670 people being treated for the disease in intensive care.

Hospitals in some regions are completely overrun. Ambulances have had to take emergency patients to different hospitals, looking for a free COVID bed. Medical facilities have suspended planned operations to free up staff.

As of March 16, a little over 50% of all hospital beds in Bulgaria were occupied, but COVID wards are at full capacity or near full capacity.

A week ago, military medical academy director Ventsislav Mutafchiyski was warning of the incoming surge.

"There are hospitals that are full or almost full," he said. "This morning there were five free beds at the Military Medical Academy, and there were three people in the ER [intensive care] waiting to be admitted.

"By the time I get back to work from this briefing, all free beds will be taken. Things are not going well and we need to take measures."

'People are not ready for more restrictions'

Angelov, speaking at the same press conference as Mutafchiyski, opposed any further restrictions.

"We are not ready for another lockdown," he said. "It might make sense from a medical point of view but people are not ready for it.

"We cannot tighten restrictions when people do not believe in them."

Infection rates have been steadily rising since February.

But, amid protests and growing discontent among restaurant owners, prime minister Boyko Borissov bowed to their demands and reopened all venues.

"On March 1, you're going to open up the restaurants," he ordered Angelov during a visit to a hospital in northern Bulgaria on February 14.

"End of discussion. Even if there are 2,000-3,000 COVID cases a day, we'll open up. The wave should have passed by then."

Election looming

Fast forward to March 19 and fresh restrictions have been announced.

The new measures will fall short of a full-blown lockdown, which PM Borissov has been reluctant to impose amid a wave of protests in the summer of 2020 and ahead of a parliamentary poll on April 4.

Borissov could take advantage of this anxiety-provoking context to win the elections, according to experts.

According to the latest poll published Thursday, Borissov's Gerb party is leading the way in voting intentions (28.8%), despite the protest movement last summer. The divided socialist opposition is credited with around 23% of the vote.

This third wave "is fueling concerns and fear, which should lead to a low turnout in the elections," analyst from the research firm Trend, Dimitar Ganev, commented for BGNes, stressing that the uncertainty favoured, in general, the status quo.