In pandemic times: what can we learn from some of the worst health crises in Bulgaria's history?

The history video portal MyCentury has produced three new educational films with rare archive footage about past health crises in Bulgaria.

Did you know that Bulgaria had a very successful vaccination campaign against TB in the 1950s? Have you heard that over 2 million Bulgarians were tested for HIV in the late 1980s? Did you know that only two EU countries produce the BCG vaccine and one of them is Bulgaria? 

The films were shown for the first time on 20th September 2021 at the Bulgarian News Agency, BTA. Taking part in this special press conference were Dr Tonka Varleva, who represented Bulgaria in the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, the deputy editor of the “Prosveta” publishing house, Georgi Sharabov, and the journalist Velislav Radev, one of the authors of the three films and the founder of MyCentury.

There was live-streaming on Facebook for those who could not attend in person, and you can still see that on this Link

The films ask if there are lessons to be learnt today, in Covid times, from how the authorities dealt with three health crises in Bulgaria’s past.

The films were made as part of the project “E-lessons from history for a post-COVID-19 Bulgaria”, with the support of the Financial Mechanism of the EEA. They can be seen on the platforms:, Prosveta Publishing House and others. See some extracts of the films here.



With these three six-minute long films, MyCentury says it would like to open debate about the issues of public health in Bulgaria, so that ultimately these subjects find their place in the school curriculum, according to the films’ producers, journalists Velislav Radev and Janet Barrie.

The unique archive footage in these films from past vaccination campaigns, which has been preserved in the vaults of Bulgaria’s National Film Archive, leads to some interesting comparisons, which could be useful now when dealing with the pandemic, and in building confidence in expert opinions, especially among young people.

The films look at three subjects: vaccination against tuberculosis in the 1950s; the arrival of HIV in Bulgaria in the 1980s and the early campaigns against the virus; and the role of health mediators in handling health crises among marginalised groups like the Roma. They were filmed in the Montana district of Kosharnik, and in Sofia, including in laboratories “clean zones”, and hospital wards with restricted access. There are pictures of the production of the BCG vaccine today, which Bulgaria currently exports to 140 countries.

Can we compare today’s COVID times and the vaccination campaigns of the 1950s, as shown in the films? “The measures and campaigns at the time achieved their aims and targets. However, the question remains how a society with virtually no civil rights succeeds in this. Today we ought to balance civil rights with the need to put society’s interests first”, explains Velislav Radev. “The successful results of the past are still possible today, but they would require a large, coordinated campaign with clear messages. And this seems to be what people admit is lacking today: humane and convincing messages”.

The films are mainly aimed at schoolchildren and students, but the authors hope to attract a wider audience as well: “we can always learn from the past and this would help us find solutions for the present”.

The online portal MyCentury, produced by Velislav Radev and Janet Barrie has already been active for 10 years. Their aim is to present history through eyewitness video testimony. Some of their short videos appear in the new digital schoolbooks for history and civic education issued by Bulgaria’s largest educational publisher Prosveta. These include testimony from the niece of Dimitar Peshev about the fate of her uncle and the decisions made to save Bulgaria’s Jewish population; the memories of the conductor Alipi Naydenov about crossing the “Iron Curtain” with a youth orchestra; personal tales of Pomak and ethnic Turks about the so called “revival process” of the communist authorities, and many others. At them moment Velislav and Janet are looking at researching and recording the stories of East Germans who tried to cross Bulgaria’s borders with Turkey and Greece to freedom, mostly with tragic consequences. They are looking for funding for this project, as most of the documents on these cases are kept in the Stasi Records Archives in Germany.

Iva Toncheva, journalist and communication expert, participated in the preparation of the project and the promotion of the films. Part of the MyCentury team.

MyCentury is also looking for funding to grow the platform with dozens more new video-testimonies, a unique “living archive” of the nation, and a precious educational resource.

Additional information

Velislav Radev

Journalist with a long-standing career at the BBC World Service. He has worked for the Bulgarian Service of the BBC, the Moscow Bureau of BBC News, he was Deputy Editor of the Russian Service of the BBC. In 2017 he registered the Society MyCentury and is currently working towards its portal’s use as an educational tool for teaching history in Bulgarian schools.

Janet Barrie

Journalist and communications expert. She has worked for many years for the BBC as a radio and TV journalist, Berlin and Brussels correspondent, she has reported for the BBC from about 30 countries. Over the last few years she has manly dealt in communications, media relations and training. Part of the MyCentury team.

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The project “E-lessons from history for a post-COVID-19 Bulgaria” was made possible with the financial support of €10,000, granted by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway via the Financial Mechanism of the EEA. The responsibility for the content of the films lies solely with MyCentury and in no way does it reflect the official opinion of the EEA or of the Operator of the Fund Active Citizens Bulgaria. The main aim of the project “E-lessons from history for a post-COVID-19 Bulgaria” is to influence civic initiatives in dealing with epidemic and other medical emergencies.