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[COVID-19] Challenges, responses and solidarity in Sofia


May 19, 2021

As COVID-19 tore across Europe and the world it struck at the heart of our societies, taking lives and revealing in a harsher, more uncompromising light the extent of social, economic and environmental disparities within our communities. The pandemic spread indiscriminately. Yet, it is clear that factors such as income level, housing type, neighbourhood, and other socioeconomic variables would (once again..) determine starkly different levels of exposure or risk. Individuals, families and communities have not suffered the effects of the pandemic in the same way. But what does this really mean? How have people coped with the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 mitigation policies? What lessons can we draw from this period?

The seven URBiNAT cities – Sofia, Nantes, Porto, Brussels, Siena, Høje-Taastrup and Nova Gorica – shared their views on the repercussions, challenges, responses and alternatives that emerged with the pandemic. In this series of seven posts, we share the main measures implemented by local municipalities, and some stories to inspire alternative and cooperative ways to live together (in) the city.

Click HERE for the other articles in this series.

The full version will be available in URBiNAT’s deliverable related to the compilation and analysis of human rights and gender issues to be released in 2021. Available in the RESOURCES section of the website.

Sofia (Bulgaria)

Vanesa Krasteva, Veneta Zlatinova, Beata Tsoneva and Lilia Geogieva, from the Municipality of Sofia, shared with us some of the measures that were taken to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the URBiNAT intervention area.  We also discussed public and private solidarity initiatives and hopes and ideas for the future.

Between March and May 2020, the main lockdown measures were the closing of public parks, including sports facilities and playgrounds. Schools and kindergarten were also closed forcing parents to balance work and parenting at home. Large shopping centres, restaurants, bars, and sport halls were also closed.

People over 65 years old required special protection. For this section of the population supermarkets, stores and pharmacies reserved two hours every morning. These became known as green shopping corridors. However, opinion on the efficacy of this measure is divided. From November 2020, additional measures included restrictions on private gatherings, and cancellation or postponing of public hearings on the territory of the Municipality of Sofia. 

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“Together we are Hope”, from the campaign “Mission Hope”. Source: Website of the Nadezhda district - https://bit.ly/2PrT7L9

The Department of Architecture and Urban Planning (NAG) further developed its web portal and created NAG.Mobile, as well as several new electronic services to be provided to citizens, and Sofiaplan organizes online presentations of the concepts for the building of the central mineral bath. A Stakeholders Advisory Board was created, allowing for remote participatory actions to be taken.

But challenging times can also be inspiring times, and URBiNAT is committed to mapping inspiring solidarity.  

Private and municipal initiatives for mutual assistance and donations include the employees of the Municipality of Sofia, of the Emergency Aid and Prevention Directorate at the Municipality of Sofia, and of the Sofia Inspectorate – Nadezhda district, the mayor of Nadezhda district, Dimitar Dimov, who donated food products purchased with his personal funds to socially disadvantaged families, the www.pomogni.net platform, which is aimed at elderly people or at those placed under quarantine who do not have to leave their homes, or the www.dobroto.bg site, which presents the work of various foundations and associations.

The restrictive measures came with a variety of additional challenges. For example, despite the good internet speed and coverage in Bulgaria, vulnerable sections of the population or larger families needed access to equipment and internet to comply with work and/or school from home. URBiNAT public events had to be cancelled, because the harsh winter weather prevents any outdoor activity while the pandemic prohibited indoor events.

The Municipality tried to cope with these challenges in different ways. In the Nadezhda Park and the North Park (URBiNAT intervention area), a joint action between the police, civilian and district patrols controls crowding and ensures that the population can circulate normally.

The district administration created a campaign, “Mission Hope”, to help socially disadvantaged people in need of food. The funds raised were used to buy essential foodstuffs. Partners in the URBiNAT area worked together with the retail chain “Fantastico” to provide hot lunches to vulnerable populations. They also created special sections in the municipality’s electronic portals, providing up-to-date information and assistance related to COVID-19.

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Distribution of basic foodstuffs to vulnerable residents of the Nadezhda district. Source: Website of the Nadezhda district - https://bit.ly/39cmxUF

And much of these extraordinary actions would not be possible without all citizens who independently donate food and goods to municipalities, hospitals, the elderly and various vulnerable groups.

Looking to the future, there is the need to maintain the organization and coordination of the digital work process. The advantages of online communication tools will be used more and more. Live streaming is increasingly used by the Municipality of Sofia to present ideas, initiatives and projects and additional online services are being developed. 

Most importantly, we must work to preserve the physical and mental health of people, and to continue supporting vulnerable groups who are unable to work or have lost their jobs due to the anti-epidemic measures. One thing that the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is that there are people who are able to devote their time and resources, and that together we can give hope and reach out to more people.

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Rules and instructions for accessing the parks in times of COVID-19 pandemics. Source: Website of the Municipality of Sofia - https://bit.ly/3f96ieU

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Distribution of basic foodstuffs to vulnerable residents of the Nadezhda district. Source: Website of the Nadezhda district - https://bit.ly/39cmxUF

This blogpost was elaborated by Rita Campos (CES-UC), based on the interview of  Vanesa Krasteva, Veneta Zlatinova, Beata Tsoneva and Lilia Geogieva (Municipality of Sofia) conducted in the frame of task 1.5 (inclusion of cross-cutting dimensions human rights and gender) and its corresponding deliverable D1.8 (compilation and analysis of human rights and gender issues) to be released in 2021.

Comments welcome!

Do you live or work in Sofia? We would love to hear from you!

Did you feel the challenges described above? What lessons did you learn? What would you like to add to this picture?

Do you live or work in another city? We would love to hear from you also! How would you describe the challenges and opportunities that emerged with the pandemic in your city? Were/Are they similar to those in Sofia?

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