Prof. Mihail Konstantinov: Experts say most of us will go through Covid-19

Mortality rate has settled down in Europe, the virus has obviously gotten weaker, plus we know more about how to treat it

This virus is pretty unique in its behaviour, perhaps because it was man-made to a certain extent. Or at least that is what some Nobel Prize laureates believe. We, the optimists, got it wrong. Not that extreme pessimist turned out to be right either. Now we are learning to live with the virus. Thankfully, it has gotten less vicious. The big unknown is what will happen in the autumn and the winter, when regular seasonal viruses arrive.

Prof. Konstantinov, what happened, how come we suddenly went from A-students to failing the test when it comes to the novel coronavirus pandemic?

This is not completely accurate. True, we started out very well, and now things are trending in the opposite direction. To use a football analogy, we led Europe 10 to 1 at halftime in the Covid-19 match and now the score is 10 to 3 in our favour. It is clear why things took a turn for the worse with us. We went back to acting irresponsibly. We had other countries’ experience to learn from, and yet all we did was merely acknowledge it with a dose of skeptical interest. Now we will have to do things the hard way. By the way, many experts say most of us will have gone through Covid-19 by the time all is said and done.

Statistically speaking, where do we stand compared to other European countries and is there cause for panic?

As I mentioned, we jumped out to an early lead, in the good sense, on Covid-19 parameters across the board. We are still 8-10 times better than the big western countries in terms of number of deaths per capita, which is the only relatively reliable indicator of the damage being done by the virus. And no, there is no cause for panic. But we should make room for responsible behaviour. From what I can tell, we are not going to do either as a nation.

What are mathematical models showing – are we going to see a second wave or perhaps we are already experience it?

It is fairer to say that we are experiencing a steady process, with mortality in Europe having settled down – several hundred people are dying a day, whereas some time ago we hit a peak of 5,000! The virus has obviously gotten weaker, plus we know more about how to treat it. The big unknown is what will happen in the autumn and the winter, when regular seasonal viruses arrive. The other unknown are the long-term effects for survivors. In the US, however, the storm is only now picking up speed and I already worry about how the upcoming presidential elections there will be even held on 3 November. The US is still only 7th or 8th in terms of deaths per capita among the big countries.

Is there an end to the pandemic in sight then? A while ago you mentioned that we may be done with it by the end of August or early autumn. What went wrong?

That is what the mathematical models showed at the time, but that is not how things panned out in reality. It became clear that this virus is pretty unique in its behaviour. Perhaps because it was man-made to a certain extent. Or at least that is what some Nobel Prize laureates believe and I, for one, am inclined to believe them. And so we, the optimists, got it wrong. Not that extreme pessimist turned out to be right. Now we are learning to live with the virus. Thankfully, it has gotten less vicious.  

How accurate is the data published in the Bulgarian Integrated Information Portal and do you know how many people have gotten tested a second time?

The aggregate data provided by this national Covid-19 platform is as accurate as the incoming data, which is filed by hundreds of organisations and thousands of authorised operators in Bulgaria via an electronic signature. Mistakes happen, such as delay of data that is then piled onto the next batch. But these are minor mistakes. Some major European countries went wild, sometimes reporting 1,500 “resurrected” in a day. For a long time, other European countries reported over 95% mortality rate, using one specific formula. After coming out with such chilling numbers, those countries got scared and stopped reporting on that indicator altogether. They have yet to resume doing it. The data from our portal is fed into all reliable Covid-19 portals and websites around the world. Here is the moment to note that if the total number of administered tests is 1,000, for example, an average of about 800 are normally given to different people. In other words, 20% of the tests are kits used for second- and third-time testing, etc. And so, if 40 people are confirmed to have tested positive out of 1,000 administered tests on a particular day, the percentage of new cases is not calculated as 40 out of 1,000, which would be 4%, but as 40 out of 800, which is 5%. But the samples are not representative and so the estimations are inflated.

Did the situation on the public health front served as catalyst for public discontent spilling over into protests?

It was not a catalyst, but an underlying reason. The catalyst were some inadequate actions of the government that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. From a purely psychological aspect, this is pretty obvious. After months of social isolation and increased stress, people are at the end of their patience and rightfully so. Look no further than the US and some European countries. The shock of the pandemic, the obvious climate anomalies, and a subconscious expectation that the global post-war system for distribution of resources is about to come crashing down have become the three components of a perfect storm. By resources I do not mean hydrocarbons and ores and minerals, but rather air, soil and water. This storm is just the beginning. I fear that it will not only change our world, but completely transform it. Many people may not survive it. From a macro-perspective, it is pretty irrelevant who gets to survive and who does not. Nature could not care less about us, even as we try to be almighty.      

What will be the potential implications of snap elections in terms of the voting process, considering that the regularly scheduled ones are in a few months? As you know, voting via electronic machines is part of the plan.

Not only is it planned, but the existing Election Code lays out this type of voting as the only available for polling places with over 300 voters on their electoral rolls. These sites represent about 9,000 out of a total of 12,000 across the country. But there are a lot of things left to be figured out. Firstly, one machine allows for a maximum of 200 people to vote a day. The problem is that some polling places see between 700 and 800 people voting. Secondly, the machines supposed to be used are operated with touchscreens, which is incompatible with the post-COVID-19 reality. Amid a raging global pandemic, which will have the number of positive cases to God knows what level by election date, what is going to happen if the first voter to touch the screen turns out to have coronavirus?  

What risks does holding elections during a pandemic hide?

The risks are clear – infecting a lot of people through a super-spread event followed by a spike in deaths. Textbook scenario. We saw this transpire with the first round of local elections in France on 15 March this year. A week later, the number of infected jumped and about ten more days later that was reflected in the mortality statistics. The number of deaths vaulted from 500 to 1,400 a day and stayed at that rate for days. One can easily find this data on the internet. Realising its foolishness, the French political elite scrambled to fix their mistake and cancelled the second round.

Is it possible that we see electronic voting then?

There is a tendency in Bulgaria for electronic voting to be interpreted exclusively as online voting. Using electronic machines at polling places is also electronic voting. So it is better if we speak in terms of machine and remote voting instead or voting in a supervised or unsupervised environment. In other words, are there members of the electoral administration present when you cast your ballot? For its part, remote voting can be done through internet portals or mail-in ballots. Naturally, this type of procedure eliminates the secrecy of the vote. So if we want to introduce it, we will need to amend our constitution first. The secrecy of the ballot has its purpose, it safeguards the independence of the voter. But the secrecy of the vote can exist only in the polling place, where a curtain separates you from the members of the electoral administration observing the process. There is no element of secrecy with remote voting.    

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Prof. Mihail Konstantinov was born on 5 March 1948 in Sofia. In 1986 he earned a PhD in mathematics from the Institute for Mathematics and Mechanics with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He has authored nearly 600 scientific works, including dozens of books. He served as a deputy rector of the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy from 1999 until 2003. He also sat on the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) during a number of general, European Parliament, presidential and local elections from 1991 until 2011. He chaired the CEC during general, European Parliament and local elections held between 2003 and 2009.

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