Bulgaria’s government has been accused of negligence for failing to prioritise over-65s and people with pre-existing health conditions in its Covid vaccine rollout, in a case that exposes the low uptake of jabs in one of the EU’s poorest member states.
The Open Society Foundations (OSF) charitable group said it was filing a formal complaint to the human-rights focused Council of Europe, alleging that Bulgaria’s government had put lives at risk, possibly leading to thousands of avoidable deaths.
The complaint is targeted at the policies of Bulgaria’s previous government led by Boyko Borisov, who was ousted in elections last April. After eight months of political stalemate, Kiril Petkov, co-founder of the We Continue the Change party, became prime minister last month at the head of a centrist-liberal-socialist coalition.
The OSF is urging the new government to implement an emergency action plan to vaccinate people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions, such as respiratory diseases or conditions that compromise their immune systems.
Only 36.9% of Bulgarians over 60 are fully vaccinated, the lowest in the EU where the average for this age group is 90.8% according to available data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The other outlier is Romania, where only 45.9% of over-60s are vaccinated.
The fact the two Balkan states, which joined the EU in 2007, have the lowest vaccination rates in the bloc has been attributed to superstition, misinformation and deep distrust of governments and institutions. In comparison, Hungary has vaccinated 81.4% of over-60s, Poland 76% and Latvia 75%. In western Europe vaccination rates for this age group are above 90% in many countries, with near or universal coverage in Denmark and Portugal.
According to the OSF, between January and May 2021, 8,813 people over 60 died from coronavirus in Bulgaria, more than 80% of Covid-related deaths. In May 2021, only one in five people over 65 had been vaccinated.
Despite the well-known risks to senior citizens and people with pre-existing health conditions, they were behind health workers, teachers and essential workers in the queue for vaccinations.
In February 2021, Bulgaria’s government opened access to jabs to the general population at a time when supplies were still scarce. Long queues formed outside vaccine centres, meaning older people and those with pre-existing conditions had to wait alongside healthier, younger groups.
“By rolling out the vaccine in such a negligent manner, the Bulgarian government put lives at risk, leading to possibly thousands of avoidable deaths,” Maïté De Rue, a senior legal officer at the OSF, said. “Even today, only about one-third of the Bulgarian population above 60 years old have been fully vaccinated, far less than most other Council of Europe countries.”
Bulgarian authorities, she said, had made “almost no effort” to inform people about the vaccine, and had failed to tackle disinformation or take every step to make jabs accessible.
The complaint has been lodged at the Council of Europe’s European committee of social rights, which is responsible for upholding the charter of fundamental rights. The OSF alleges Bulgaria has violated two articles of the charter: the right to health protection and the principle of non-discrimination.
Bulgaria’s health ministry has been contacted for comment.