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Covid-19 as an occupational hazard: the case of Bulgaria

Bulgaria—and most East and Central European countries—have not had the devastating COVID-19 numbers that Western Europe has exhibited and unlike the US, for example, have managed to significantly bring down the number of infections. However, far from a major success on part of the country’s leadership, the pandemic revealed in even starker relief the near-complete absence of any labor protections.

This article is published in collaboration with the regional portal Bilten.

As of June 4th, 2020, when COVID-19 clocked in at 2582 infected and 147 deaths, the Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov announced the lifting of all coronavirus restrictions. Except for the “social measures”, added the PM.

By this he means the so-called “60/40” scheme, an attempt by the state to save jobs by absorbing 60% of businesses’ labour costs on furloughed employees. The government earmarked half a billion euros for this purpose. But instead of saving the pompously promised 200,000 jobs, the measure reached only around 84,000 people while in May the number of the unemployed is twice as great.

The unemployed claimed a total of 33 million euros in unemployment while the 60/40 measure has spent only 5% of its overall budget, totaling 26 million euros. This begs the question if the more effective measure would have been transferring the entire half a billion euros directly to the unemployment and social welfare funds instead of hoping that the money reaches the workers via their cash-strapped employers.

Even though the “60/40” scheme is meant to support businesses, calling it “social measure” has a grain of truth to it because neoliberalism can exist unproblematically with public support for the capitalist class in crisis. A veritable “socialism for the rich”.

Another emergency “social measure” that is here to stay is the reduction of VAT for restaurants and hotels but not for essential goods. Meanwhile, the only pandemic relief for the unemployed workers which the government came up with was 750 EUR interest-free loans for three months and a one-off child benefit of 200 EUR. The conditions for getting this help are very restrictive. The loans, dispensed by private commercial banks, have a mere 50% approval rate.

Unemployment, coupled with little state support, leaves few options but emigration and many opt for this, despite the border closures. Reportage about Eastern Europeans providing much needed “essential” pandemic labour for the asparagus and strawberry farms in Western Europe abounds

Bulgarian agribusiness, however, is on its way to outdo its Western European counterparts in making this awful, dangerous and ridiculously low-paid work more exploitative still. Thus, at the beginning of June another pandemic relief measure was passed that forces benefits claimants to work for private agribusiness firms as a condition to receive benefits. This is an “emergency” update of the Bulgarian workfare system which expects people on welfare to work for 14 days per month, 4 hours a day for the “public good”, i.e. on road maintenance projects. The law now redefines private agribusiness as a sphere of vital public interest.

This means that agribusiness get to exploit farm laborers for 30 euros a month (the amount of the typical welfare benefit), which is between five and ten times as low as than the minimum wage they would have earned had they signed a standard part- or full-time labour contract. The minimum wage of 360 euros is two-and-a-half times lower than the living wage calculated by trade unions. On top of that, this type of farm work does not count towards their retirement. Bulgaria’s welfare system not only does not relieve poverty, it cements it.

With these “social measures” firmly in place amid the premature lifting of restrictions, the PM suggested that mask-wearing in public space will be left at the discretion of “the more fearful among us”, effectively saying that it will be a matter of personal responsibility from now on. A day after the announcement, the number of infected crept up to 2627 after steadily rising since the end of May.

These announcements came in a day after the passing of a 77-year-old doctor from Covid-19 in the declining industrial city of Vidin. In a weird repetition of events, the government announced the first round of restrictions-easing right after the first doctor’s death in early May. The victim felt morally compelled to return to work at his severely understaffed and underfunded hospital because there was no-one else left to treat coronavirus patients.

His death brings the death toll among healthcare professionals in the country to three. While it does not sound a lot overall, it means the virtual collapse of the covid-response in Vidin. This comes on top of the paroxysm triggered by the 30 doctors in Vidin who threatened resignation from the local hospital over lack of PPE and payment, commensurate to the risk. Who can blame them?

And Vidin is not the only place reporting acute shortage of medical professionals.

The hospital in the southern town of Pazardzhik issued an urgent appeal for doctors to volunteer in its COVID-ward after half of the intensive care medical staff contracted the virus. Doctors and nurses constitute 20% of all infected in the region.

In Haskovo, two anesthesiologists broke all records for working 33 consecutive days and night shifts at the local ICU. They were the only people on duty there. In these long 5 weeks of non-stop work, they only saw their families a couple of times from afar.

In Sliven, the entire gastrological-ward of a private, non-corona hospital had to close for disinfection after 8 doctors and nurses contracted the disease. From the 24 current COVID-sufferers in Sliven, 10 are doctors.

All in all, 11 percent of the confirmed covid-cases in Bulgaria are doctors, according to the Ministry of Health. One-third of the emergency doctors and paramedics in Sofia had contracted it because of inadequate PPE supplies. Hospitals issued repeated pleas on social media for donations and help with the PPE, while the government maintained there are no problems with the supplies.

Meanwhile, the “poaching” of medical staff from Bulgaria to Western Europe had not abated even during lockdown.

And despite the gaping shortages of medical staff, the nurse Maya Ilieva, who recently founded the first nursing trade union, was fired from her job for the second time in the past year. Ilieva has been leading the nurses’ protests against the commercialization of healthcare and for better working conditions. Her latest employer openly states her labour activism as a reason for firing her, and invoked Ilieva’s “conflictual character”.

Instead of breaking with the market-model in healthcare which would be the more intuitive solution given the near total breakdown of the system that the 20-years of marketization has engendered, new reforms proposals envisage deepening of the market in healthcare. For example, instead of raising salaries and other sensible measures that can keep in Bulgaria the out-migrating specialists, the new legislation will allow nurses and midwives to found private practices or register themselves as self-employed and supplement their incomes through independent provision of services on the open market or in the public hospital’s “market”.

In addition to hospitals, factories also emerge as disease hotspots. At the end of April, an outbreak in a power plant and at a garment factory in Pleven made the headlines.

One-fourth of the workforce at that particular garments department contracted the virus. This resulted in a minor spike of infections in the town. The factory closed operations for 2 weeks, making it the first to do so since the beginning of the outbreak.

The factory owner predictably blamed the outbreak on a worker. He falsely claimed that her husband is an international freight driver. The owner further accused the worker of acting irresponsibly by not seeking medical help early enough. He added that she was “commercially oriented”, suggesting she engaged in prostitution and her “lax morals” are to blame for her exposure to the infection rather than the unprotected work at the factory. In his defense, the boss said he bought 1000 thermometers, as if every worker needs an individual kit and as if this would help with the asymptomatic cases.

The daughter of the “zero patient” wrote a teary public statement, explaining that her mother sought help (the GP prescribed homeopathy and dismissed the possibility of corona at first) and that her father is a local bus driver who has not left the country recently. The factory owner apologized and “generously” welcomed the mother back to work when she recovered.

Shortly after the government announced the relaxation of measures, a factory making toys for Ferrero Rocher in а south Bulgarian town became the epicenter of an outbreak with 52 workers (mostly women) falling sick with coronavirus. The mayor (!) blamed the outbreak on the workers by saying that they secretly took antifebrile medication to trick the temperature controls at the factory. He added this is just a rumor but nevertheless passed it on, giving it the patina of official statement. The public indignation that flared up at these “irresponsible workers” for triggering a second wave conveniently omits the real culprits: those who kept open a nonessential production facility during the pandemic. But mostly the brand which often determines the pace of work in the local factories via last-minute orders, race to the bottom competition and impossible targets. Subcontractor factories in Bulgaria are notorious for the private despotism obtaining on their premises and for the meagre wages they offer. This particular work regime makes sick leave a luxury because if workers skip work they risk taking home even less than the minimum salary.

This is the main issue: pandemic exploitation results in an exposure with direct and indirect impacts: infection and wear-and-tear that yields the underlying comorbidities making frontline workers more susceptible to the disease and its adverse outcome more likely.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian government has left frontline workers to their own devices, fretting over profitability and trying desperately to save the tourist season instead. Social class impacts the consequences of every disease but the current pandemic has put this truism in the sharpest possible relief. Some occupations are not merely the background against which the COVID-emergency unfolds, but its very epicentre.

By Jana Tsoneva

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).