13. Aug 2020 - Daniela Koleva

First Act. Encountering Covid-19: Jamais vu or Déjà vu?

In the autumn of 1986, I got a box of apples from my uncle. Beautiful, sweet-smelling, delicious apples. When I called him to say thank you, he calmly said: “Ah, that’s the radiation. Indeed, this tree has never borne so much fruit, and so superb. But this year, thanks to the radiation…” – he meant the Chernobyl disaster. Like many others, he had not perceived the fallout from the meltdown at the nuclear power station in April 1986 as being dangerous. In the spring of 2020, I was reminded of that spring of many years ago. The imminent danger that was around us could not be seen or smelt and many refused to accept it. Rumours circulated – for example, that deaths were being falsely attributed to ‘Corona’ in order to conceal doctors’ mistakes. Conspiracy theories flourished – for example, that the virus was caused by the Chinese military, the CIA, pharmaceutical companies etc. Trust in authorities was shattered, or rather, a systemic mistrust was revealed. One that exists is every country where modernization happened top-down and where state institutions were its main agents.

However, the situation of 2020 also exhibited features of high modernity, such as competing expert systems (Giddens): while some medics stressed the unprecedented character of the pandemic, others found similarities with the bird flu, the swine flu, etc. People could choose whom to trust, which is exactly what they did, and for their own reasons: the head of the National Operative Headquarters (NOH), which was established to cope with the epidemic, was a military doctor and head of the Military Medical Academy – a surgeon who had saved the lives of many soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. Alas, he was not an epidemiologist. The leader of the other expert ‘camp’, a top epidemiologist with 30 years of research experience, argued that Covid-19 was not exceptional. While the authorities acted in a hit-and-miss manner, the discussions spilled over to social media, acquiring a more heated and less tolerant tone. Instances of solidarity and help abounded, but personal irresponsibility easily found its justifications too.


Second Act. (Mis-)managing Covid-19: Corona Populism

The Bulgarian government acted swiftly and decisively, imposing a lockdown on 13 March, with only a handful of Covid-19 cases. For over a month, Bulgaria coped really well, ranking second best in the EU after Latvia regarding deaths per million. The NOH held press conferences twice a day giving advice to the population (true, often in an admonishing tone). The weeks went on, the number of cases was kept low, the number of deaths too. The risk of infection seemed abstract, while the inconveniences of the lockdown were very tangible, in terms of both lost wages and confused everyday lives. Initially trustful, the public started to lose its temper. The NOH became a target of criticism, its head received anonymous death threats. Children and youngsters were tired of being stuck at home, teachers were tired of teaching online, parents were tired of the constant threat of losing their jobs. Some had already lost theirs and were concerned about finding new ones. Doctors were concerned about their patients, including those without Covid-19; businesses, especially small ones, were concerned about their survival.

With discontent and resentfulness simmering all around (catalyzed by absurd restrictions like the ban on entering parks), the populist Bulgarian government started to loosen up the lockdown measures, often in strange ways that hinted at lobbyist pressures. Thus, while schools, museums and theatres remained closed, restaurants and bars, gyms and shopping malls resumed operation. In response to demands from football fans, the ministers of both sport and health allowed 12,000 spectators into the stadium for the National Cup finals. School graduation balls that had been cancelled in May, now took place in the end of June and sometimes turned into centres of infection. The media faithfully chronicled the spread of the disease, with news of 200–300 new cases becoming the daily routine. With over 65 deaths per million in early August (compared to a dozen in April), the Covid-19 epidemic in Bulgaria is beyond control, and there is not much evidence of any attempts to contain it with health policy measures.


Third Act. Domesticating Covid-19: Getting Used to and Making Use of the Crisis

The failure of coping with the epidemic in practical terms was accompanied by its discursive appropriation by politicians, institutions, media and everyday conversation. The theme of the ‘Corona-crisis’ – as it is called here – has grown into a reified and monolithic crisis-of-all-crises, which has conflated heterogeneous phenomena and has brought about new visions of social necessities and cultural competences. For the past few weeks, more pressing concerns have trumped the health crisis, as the government opted to make use of it to launch a war on its political rivals. As I am writing this, anti-governmental protests have been going on for over a month. After initial reprimands for the risk of spreading the infection, the authorities have now sought other ways of discrediting the protests, and the Corona-theme has largely disappeared from the headlines.

Such uses of the Covid-19 crisis pose questions about both the potential and real threats to democracy, which have already been highlighted on this blog. While I fully agree with the colleagues, I would like to draw attention to the everyday experiences of the Covid-19 crisis by social actors (individuals, families, peer groups), and their responses – be they traditional or innovative – that are guided by solidarity, moral judgment or rational choice. For us social scientists and social historians, a new field of enquiry seems to be emerging – Corona studies. 

About the author

Daniela Koleva is Associate Professor at the St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria

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