The Bulgarian National Assembly declared the state of emergency on 13th March. The decision was taken in the attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19 across the country since the first cases appeared in the towns of Gabrovo, Central Bulgaria, and Pleven, North Bulgaria. On 18th March, the Bulgarian town of Bansko, Southeast Bulgaria, was the first area put under quarantine due to the outbreak of reported cases of COVID-19 among locals and a large number of tourists who had come for the end of the winter season.
Overall, the state of emergency restricted freedom of movement between cities, travelling from and to Bulgaria, particularly from/to Italy and China at the very beginning of the pandemic, and freedom of assembly in public places, including green areas. At present, travelling is restricted unless absolutely necessary. People arriving from China and other countries are subject to medical checks at points of entry where thermal cameras are in use. If there is any evidence of infection, people are placed under 14-day quarantine or directly hospitalised. Across the country, people without symptoms who have not been travelling are not forced to stay under quarantine. Yet, everyone is obliged to wear a mask in public spaces and stay home going out only for work, to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy.
Public institutions, schools, universities and cultural centres have been closed and suggested to transfer their activities online. In this regard, it should be noted that schools had been closed prior to the declaration of the state of emergency due to the expected peak of seasonal flue (type B) in the country. Only businesses that are considered essential such as grocery stores, warehouses, supermarkets and pharmacies, are allowed to remain open to clients during workhours. They are obliged to respect safety measures within the shopping areas: maintenance of high level of hygiene, avoiding crowding of people, masks and gloves for personnel, and alike.
Similar to many other countries, Bulgaria is not able to provide mass-scale testing, lacking sufficient number of tests. Masks are imported from China or produced in the local pharmaceutical companies. Other medical supplies arrive from Turkey, or from the NATO operation that delivered 1,600,000 masks and 50 ventilators for the Intensive Care Units (ICU) in the country. The emergency call number 112 remains at disposal of all people residing in Bulgaria, open to all questions regarding symptoms that may reveal other cases of COVID-19 infection.
At this stage, Bulgaria has confirmed 1,234 cases, 197 of whom recovered and 54 dead. The large majority of infected patients remain at home, isolated from the rest of family or other people.
On a political level, the declaration of COVID-19 emergency has shown certain idiosyncrasies of political actors and national institutions. Churches and worship areas have not been closed and religious services were held during the Easter period (17-20 April). This has opened up critical discussions in the national media outlets about the role of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in such time of emergency, and its coexistence with political actors. At the same time, Roma neighbourhoods, especially in the capital Sofia and in the towns of Nova Zagora, Kazanlak and Sliven, have been heavily patrolled by police forces and residents not allowed to go out. This decision, however, put human security at risk since the police containment of certain segment of the Bulgarian society in their areas of residence appeared as a clear form of discrimination.
The state of emergency was recently extended to 13th May. Given the circumstances in the country, measures might be gradually relaxed only for certain areas or businesses.
Written by Francesco Trupia, April 2020.