SOFIA -- Health care in Bulgaria, already facing a crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic amid record high infections and record low EU vaccination rates, is facing further scrutiny after an ill woman in a wheelchair was refused admittance to a hospital in the northwest of the country, all of which was recorded on video, with her final moments captured and uploaded on social media.
People have protested outside the hospital in Vratsa, some 100 kilometers north of the capital, Sofia, amid calls for the firing of Health Minister Asena Serbezova, who has ordered an investigation, as has the local prosecutor's office.
The woman was reported to have been suffering from respiratory issues, but it was unclear whether she may have been infected with the coronavirus.
Bulgaria is struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, racking up some of the highest mortality data and lowest vaccination rates in the European Union. With nearly 7 million people, Bulgaria has registered almost 33,500 deaths linked to COVID-19, according to data tabulated by Johns Hopkins University, with less than 29 percent of the population vaccinated.
Among those calling the loudest for the sacking of Serbezova is the ultraright Revival party, whose leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has voiced doubts about the deadliness of COVID-19 and opposed lockdown measures, a message amplified by his party's followers and others on social media.
The 44-year-old woman from the nearby village of Pudria was driven to the Hristo Botev Hospital in Vratsa on February 1 by her boyfriend, who got behind the wheel after an ambulance did not show up for nearly an hour after he called an emergency hotline.
In the video that was circulated on social media but which has since been deleted, the woman can be seen sitting in a wheelchair with a minor, described as her child, standing next to her at the reception desk of the emergency ward.
In the video, the woman's boyfriend appears to argue with a nurse, who can be heard asking if the woman is drunk before demanding a health-care ID number and that a coronavirus test be administered to her.
The man tells her it would be better to prepare a death certificate, before leaving, apparently to search for the requested card.
After a 40-minute wait at the reception desk and receiving no medical care, the woman died, slumping over in her wheelchair as her child stands next to her.
According to relatives of the deceased, her condition had worsened dramatically hours earlier as she complained of breathing difficulties, a symptom often associated with COVID-19.
"I was struck by the horrible behavior at the reception desk. They should have admitted her and called a doctor," said Ivan Iliev, who witnessed the incident and, according to Bulgarian media, is the one who filmed and later uploaded the video to Facebook, before it was later taken down.
The nurse at the center of the scandal, Victoria Hristova, said on February 2 that she was only following hospital rules and appeared to deflect blame, saying the family had waited too long before bringing the woman to the hospital.
Petar Keremedchiev, the head of the hospital in Vratsa, announced on February 2 that Hristova would be fired, saying administering health care should always trump bureaucratic procedures.
"What I saw in the video is disgusting. I will take the toughest measures," Keremedchiev was quoted by Bulgarian media as saying.
Later, on February 2, a crowd appeared outside the emergency ward to protest the hospital's handling of the matter.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Serbezova on February 2 announced that the country's Medical Supervision Agency would look into the actions of the hospital and its medical staff.
In a statement, Serbezova said that it was "unacceptable for bureaucratic requirements to take away the chance to live in a situation where every second is valuable."
The local prosecutor's office has opened its own probe and on February 2 interviewed family members of the deceased woman.
In the Bulgarian parliament, meanwhile, Kostadinov, whose Revival party won 13 seats in the 240-member National Assembly during the country's November 2021 general elections, demanded Serbezova step down before slamming the state of the country's health-care system.
"To see a woman die in front of her child is inhuman, something ugly," he said.
"Bulgaria ranks first in mortality due to the degenerate health-care system that kills the Bulgarian people," Kostadinov added, failing to note many of those recent deaths have been linked to COVID-19, which he and his party have dismissed.
Reacting to the calls from Revival for Serbezova to resign, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said she had "reacted adequately," adding, "Such cases must be avoided."
At the same session of parliament on February 2, Georgi Mihailov of the Bulgarian Socialist Party said such political grandstanding would do nothing to improve Bulgaria's health-care system, admonishing Kostadinov for turning a "human tragedy" into a political issue.