Bulgarians of all ages, some as young as 20, joined long queues at hospitals this weekend after low uptake on priority lists led the government to open up vaccinations to everyone.
Fewer than a third of those designated as first in line for Covid-19 jabs have chosen to take up the offer since they became available in late December.
Many of those queueing this weekend were eager to be among the first non-priority Europeans to get vaccinated, after Bulgaria announced Friday that some hospitals would start administering AstraZeneca shots to anyone.
The decision to scrap its original prioritisation lists came after Bulgaria recorded the lowest vaccination rate in the European Union — largely due to worries over side effects and growing distrust of the government and its institutions.
Other people however were happy to take the place of the sceptics.
“To be frank, I did not expect that we’d be allowed to go so quickly,” said Denitsa Valkanova, a healthy 31-year-old who got vaccinated together with her mother.
“Friends who live abroad now tell me they will have to wait for another seven or eight months before anything like this could happen,” she added.
There were 355,000 people in the first two priority groups, which included doctors, nurses and teachers. But of that number, fewer than 100,000 chose to get inoculated.
“Before, we were pleading with people to come and get vaccinated,” said Silvia Cholakova, manager of the Pirogov emergency hospital medical centre in the country’s capital, Sofia.
But since the process has been opened up to all Bulgarians, “the teams are busy to the maximum and we do not turn anyone away”, Cholakova said.
– Chaos and distrust –
Most people have welcomed the decision, but some analysts have objected that the sudden announcement disrupted the priority group system just as elderly and chronically ill people were next in line.
That meant that over the weekend, these vulnerable groups had to line up for hours in the same queues as healthy people in their twenties.
“The government is great — it unclogged the vaccination through monstrous chaos!” daily newspaper Sega commented Sunday.
By Tuesday however, the lines had become much shorter and medical staff in larger cities reported vaccinations were running smoothly.
Distrust of vaccines is higher among Bulgarians than in other EU countries.
In two separate public opinion polls published last week by the BBSS Gallup and Alpha Research institutes, 48 percent and 52 percent of respondents said they would not get vaccinated.
Conspiracy theories, fake news and experts contradicting each other had all created “an extremely hesitant public opinion about vaccines” even before the first doses arrived, Alpha Research analyst Boryana Dimitrova told AFP.
The fact that trusted members of the public such as doctors and teachers were refusing to get vaccinated added to public distrust.
“People say: ‘If doctors don’t vaccinate, why should I?'” said Dimitrova.
The authorities failed to convince key groups that the vaccines were safe, she added.
“This is a serious flaw on the part of the government.”
– Politicised rollout –
Images of young, active people getting vaccinated have dominated broadcasting stations.
“But this is not good news,” said Gallup analyst Parvan Simeonov. “The idea is that there’s people from the risk groups in the queues.”
Low vaccination rates are the result of Bulgarians’ distrust in institutions and the government’s management of the health crisis, Simeonov said.
At just 10 percent, the approval rate of conservative Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s outgoing cabinet has plummeted to its lowest in the 10 years he’s served as premier, Gallup’s latest poll indicated.
With the next general elections slated for April 4, the vaccination campaign is highly politicised, with Borissov aiming to inoculate 10,000 people each day.
Some 150,000 people, or about 2.1 percent of the population had received at least one dose by Wednesday, compared to more than 27 percent in the UK, 4.2 percent in Germany, and 3.8 percent in France, according to the Our World in Data website.