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Bulgarians cooperate to contain the virus, but still believe in COVID plots.

Have you heard that COVID-19 has been designed by Americans to hurt China? Or by China to hurt America? Or how about sinister forces rebooting the world economy and politics? Surely you have heard this story: There is no virus at all, and we are part of a grand experiment.

I bet you have heard all that. Conspiracy theorists never sleep.

In that respect, the Balkans never fail to meet expectations. My long experience with war and peace has taught me that Southeastern Europeans trounce others with the juiciest conspiracies one could imagine. How about bombers airdropping poisonous snakes, small enough to invade through water pipes? Or a machine, installed on a mountain peak to change the weather? Press the button and rain starts falling.

It was easy to predict that a global pandemic would spark a conspiracy renaissance. In the first week of April, Bulgarian polling agencies Trend and BBSS Gallup International decided to measure it. Their findings were similar: Bulgarians tend to subscribe to coronavirus conspiracies.

According to Trend, 53 percent of Bulgarians believe COVID-19 is a biological weapon; 46 percent see it as “artificially created for Big Pharma to profit;” and 39 percent think a vaccine exists but is hidden in order to maximize the profit.

BBSS Gallup International (a separate entity from Gallup Inc.) compared the Bulgarian polling data with those of 27 other countries. It turns out Bulgarians are among those who think the virus threat is overestimated – 72 percent versus an international average of 49 percent. And Bulgaria leads the countries that think “somebody is behind the outbreak,” followed by Armenia and North Macedonia. On the other pole are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany, the UK, and the U.S., where big majorities consider the coronavirus simply a natural process.

What makes the Bulgarian case particularly interesting is that perhaps due to an early lockdown and proper measures, the country has ranked relatively well vis-à-vis the pandemic: 825 confirmed cases and 40 fatalities as of 16 April, while neighboring and similarly populated Serbia had 5,318 and 103 respectively.

The same polls show a high approval of the anti-epidemic measures, close to the European average. Military surgeon Ventsislav Mutafchiysky, head of Bulgaria’s emergency effort against the coronavirus, leads the personal ratings by a big margin. A vast majority (Mutafchiysky put it, perhaps optimistically, at 99.9 percent) complied with the measures, at least in the first month of the emergency.

Admittedly, the measures have not been too strict: For example, Bulgarians can move about relatively freely in cities, provided they do not stay in groups or enter parks; obligatory wearing of masks was introduced only on 12 April. Serbia’s measures, though imposed a bit later, are much more stringent: for example, 60 hours of full embargo on movement over the weekend.

Gallup International’s Bulgarian director, Parvan Simeonov, isn’t concerned about the discrepancy between a high conspiracy grade and wide support for the measures: “This is the healthy skepticism of the Balkan person.” According to Simeonov, society is mobilized, perhaps by the adrenaline of threat. More noteworthy, he says, is that Bulgarians are taming the outbreak so far, which contradicts their traditional pessimism about themselves.

Perhaps he has a point. Bulgarians – like others in the Balkans – have experienced recent crises. They might be better prepared than Westerners, who have almost no living memory of hard times.

As for conspiracy theories, there might be another explanation. Bulgarians could be falling victim to their anti-COVID success. Preventing a larger outbreak, they may think that there is no corona at all, just a mean plot to make them worse off. How else would a Bulgarian achievement be possible?

They do not believe in the virus because do not believe in themselves. When that is the case one can believe anything – even a conspiratorial fairy tale.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.