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Coronavirus

COVID Chaos In Bulgaria: One Reporter Is Tired Of Asking “Why”

With much attention now focused on rising COVID-19 cases in the UK and Moscow's new lockdown, a hidden story is in Bulgaria, which claims both Europe's highest death rate and lowest vaccination rate. By now, this reporter knows the drill…

Photo of two women wearing COVID protective masks walking in the city center of Bulgaria's capital, Sofia

Walking in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Oct. 9

Carl-Johan Karlsson

SOFIA — I suspected, while Google translating the Bulgarian news Wednesday morning, that I might be the last person in Sofia with an internet connection to have found out about the new COVID rules.Following reports of 4,979 new COVID-19 cases and 214 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday, the Bulgarian government had announced that proof of vaccine or negative PCR tests will be required for access to restaurants, theaters, cinemas, gyms, clubs and shopping malls. Starting tomorrow.


I'd heard some chatter at the co-working place the night before, but after 18 months of coronavirus reporting, and pandemic living, both in my native Sweden and my former home in Paris, I wasn't up for another round on the topic.


The world's highest mortality rate

Perhaps, that same plague fatigue was what caused me — when deciding to set up shop in Bulgaria a month ago — to miss the detail that this is both Europe's least vaccinated country and the one with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate.

I had chosen Sofia (Europe's oldest city!) on the latest stop of my now 12-year hunt for a place to sort of settle down for its cheap rent, cobblestoned city center … and its excellent nationwide WiFi. What more could you ask?

Well, vaccinations, it turned out. So here I was facing the COVID story again, after months exploring France's extra strict lockdown measures, Sweden's famous flirt with herd immunity, the mask morality police and anti-vaxx ideologues everywhere.

Photo of people wearing COVID protective masks in Sofia, Bulgaria

Inside a tram in Sofia, Bulgaria

Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Pandemic fatigue

The world's pandemic press this week is focused on the UK, where again cases are skyrocketing, and Moscow's new lockdown. But here in a country of barely 7 million, where I didn't speak the language or know the history, what might I find? After just six weeks, I considered the social dispositions I had discerned, what political leanings I'd nosed out that might explain why 80% of the population still isn't vaccinated.

Where does a hungry reporter go?

I had, for example, observed with great interest that Sofians never jaywalk. Maybe that was the angle? The striking incongruence between social conformity and vaccine refusal? Or maybe the upcoming parliamentary elections held a clue to the bad COVID management.

To answer these questions, I went where any hungry reporter would go: the burger joint on the corner.

- "So new restrictions huh? You think they might lockdown?"

- "Dunno. The usual? No chili?"

- "Right, no chili … So you think more people will get vaccinated now?"

- "We'll see. That'll be four leva."

Having spent the past 18 months among the army of finger-wagging, number-crunching armchair social scientists (both in and out of print) I had suddenly lost my hunger to "explain" why Bulgarians were the world's bad boy of the moment on the COVID front. Consider this just one roving reporter's version of pandemic fatigue.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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