Mistrust and Disinformation: Covid-19 conspiracies in Bulgaria6 min read

 In Civil Society, COVID-19, Eastern Europe, Opinion
Since the announcement of a global pandemic, states across the globe have deployed their best researchers to create a vaccine against Covid-19 as rapidly as possible. Looking at a country like Bulgaria, it seems like the already existing disconnect between decision-makers and the public has widened due to inadequate or missing information about the pandemic and how to combat it. While the Bulgarian government has focused on vaccination as a way out of the pandemic, changing strategies and restrictions appear to increasingly polarize public opinion. Where information is lacking, conspiracy theories have been allowed to fill the gap. 

Public opinion regarding the pandemic has been far more multifaceted than the straightforward focus of the government to avoid both an economic and a health crisis. Polls show that more than 40% of Bulgarians believes in Covid-19 conspiracies. The two most popular conspiracy-based opinions focus on the appearance of the virus; the first considers the coronavirus as a tool in an evil plan to control or eliminate human civilization, the other questions the existence and the threats of the virus itself.

Some conspiracy theories portray Covid-19 as a man-made virus that was manufactured, most likely in China, and spread around the world to reduce the world’s population. Such explanations are not only popular in Bulgaria, but influenced by global movements. Who commissioned the virus range depending on the beliefs or political attitudes of the person who regards this as true. It could be by the American or Chinese government, by transnational corporations or aliens or a small circle of people who rule the world, such as the Illuminati. Some theories assert that the dispersion of the virus happens with the help of drones that fly above big Bulgarian cities such as Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv and Burgas, spraying the virus over these cities.

The other extreme opinion is that the virus does not exist. The virus is perceived as a political manipulation, again by a world-ruling elite, to incite fear and obedience across the population. Following this line of thought, face masks are considered a symbol of silenced outcry and protest. These are the so-called Covid-19 deniers.

Covid-denialism and political opportunism

Another strand of Covid-19 deniers are the ones who acknowledge the existence of the virus but hold that it is not so deadly, making restrictions unnecessary. In Bulgaria, Professor Atanas Mangarov became really popular due to his expertise in infectious diseases and his public performances that advocated against restrictions and masks.  Mangarov’s authority in the field has most likely been influential in increasing anti-covid, anti-restrictions and anti-vaccine public attitudes. 

He used his prominence among conspiracy circles to become a politician. In the Parliamentary Elections in April 2021, he ran for office for the conservative socialist party Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV). Despite not managing to get a seat, his engagement with politics represents a particular group of Bulgarian society – a mix of anti-establishment followers and Covid-19 deniers.

Anti-5G graffiti in Sofia / Kristina Tsabala

The conspiracy that provoked the most vocal outcry has been concerning the vaccines that Bill Gates has funded, which started in American far-right circles and became popularized in Europe by the populist right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Bulgaria entered full lockdown on 13 March 2020 when Covid-19 infected were few in comparison to European countries like Italy, France, and the UK. The lockdown continued for 3 months until mid-June when public gatherings were allowed again. The first day after the lockdown was marked by a protest against the pandemic restrictions, Gates’ vaccine and 5G technology. By conspiracy believers, this vaccine is considered problematic as it is thought to implant microchips in the brain, which will control or turn humans into robots. Similarly, 5G technology is seen as another tool to control humans, which has become linked to the spread of coronavirus.

Hindering the fight against the pandemic

The Covid-19 conspiracies have become most problematic and obstructive to battling the virus during the ongoing vaccination process. Since the government bought the first vaccine doses, some groups of people were considered as priorities based on their profession. One of the first prioritised groups for vaccination were teachers in public schools. However, over 50% of the public school teachers in Bulgaria has rejected vaccination, and in places such as the small village of Boyadzik, this number increased to 100%. 

In response, representatives of the National Operational Headquarters who govern during the state of emergency in Bulgaria, with officials from the Ministry of Education like the Deputy Minister of Education, Tanya Mihailova went on touring among villages and small towns to inform teachers about the vaccines and to try to crush the anti-vaxxer attitudes. The representatives of the National Operational Headquarters had to assure the teachers that microchips will not be implanted in them.

“Masks down”, anti-restriction graffiti in Sofia / Kristina Tsabala

The current spike in news stories about people who developed medical complications and died after getting vaccinated substantiates the anti-vaxxers’ worries regarding the purpose of the vaccines to somehow endanger human civilization by either creating additional diseases or simply eliminating human beings.

The low degree of trust in the government, its institutions and political authority, in general, contributed to the low observance of restrictions. Despite strict government guidance, compliance is relatively low. Many people outside the health sector consider face masks meaningless and uncomfortable, frequently not wearing them in public transport and shops. The presence of underground parties and illegally opened bars and clubs additionally contribute to the normalization of no compliance with the governmental guidelines and incites more controversial attitudes towards Covid-19.

Why are conspiracies so popular?

Generally, it can be said that the Bulgarian government seem to have underestimated public opinion and social processes of informal communication, as well as people’s need for precise and clear information. Information campaigns have been limited and largely inefficient and did not reach many Bulgarians. The work of the National Operational Headquarters (NOH) during the state of emergency was distant and excluded public participation. A lack of trust in governmental institutions is usually widespread, but the constant changes of pandemic requirements added to the belief that the government is incompetent and lacks expertise, while health system capacity is almost constantly nearly exceeding its limit.

The main and possibly only aim of the government and the NOH has been to end the pandemic to evade a potentially disastrous economic crisis alongside a crisis in the public health sector. Hence, the official political statements and public communication has been pretty much straightforward creating a simple message that vaccination is imperative. However, the heightened distrust in government institutions due to problems in many other public sectors erodes the general compliance with the restrictions and the guidance of the government.

Since independent media is relatively scarce, creating distrust amongst Bulgarians in what they see in official means of communication. The lack of trust in government and, subsequently, in any official medium of communication, postulates a search for potential truths and alternative explanations for the status quo. Normally, when publicly available information is insufficient, it is natural for disinformation to fuel the gaps of the mass media. Conspiracies take hold when the public is loaded with fear for its own safety and health while the government is being perceived rather as an enemy than a protector or a friend.

Featured image: Conspiracies / Amanda Sonesson
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