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Res Publica announces: Tales from the Region #6

"New Waves, Old Policies"

Countries across the Balkans have taken a new hit by COVID-19 in recent months. Governments rushed to introduce a series of measures aiming to handle the spike in infections upon the end of the summer. Some countries have reintroduced curfews, others have introduced mandatory vaccine certificates, each country facing its own domestic challenges while trying to cope with the pandemic. Vaccine rates are not yet on a satisfactory level in most of the countries in the region, and given that colder months follow, people will be more inclined to gather in closed spaces. The school year has also started in most countries, in some with physical presence, which brings challenges by itself. All this is a cause for concern, since governments have been largely unable to respond in a swift, coordinated and transparent manner to the challenges imposed by the pandemic.

In "Tales from the Region #6" we cover the way governments across the Balkans continue to cope with the pandemic in these treacherous times. Hopefully, we can learn from each others’ experiences, both positive and negative. It’s the only way for us to start to see our way out of the pandemics’ firm grasp.

We start on Friday (October 1) with the first article.

The sixth edition of "Tales from the Region" is brought to you by Res Publica and ICS, in cooperation with our partners from Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Montenegro (PCNEN), Slovenia (DKIS), Albania (Exit) and Greece (Macropolis).

"Tales from the Region" is an initiative implemented by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement", led by ICS with the support of the British Embassy Skopje.

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Awaiting the magic wand that will end the pandemic

Ivor Fuka

Ivor Fuka 400x500At the hospital, we meet 53-year-old patient Aleksandar. He openly told the camera that they discovered large clots in his lungs and that now the doctors are not letting him out of bed in the respiratory department. Prior to this, he says, he had no health problems. Despite everything he has gone through and the long recovery that awaits him, he smilingly said he still will not get the vaccine.

"It is realistically possible to have a million citizens vaccinated by the end of March" - is what the Minister of Health Vili Beroš triumphantly said in the primetime news on Croatian Television on January 11 this year, encouraged by the manufacturers' promises of large shipments of vaccines against Covid-19. Realistically, if we are to be mean, it may have been possible, if someone else were in Beroš's position and if there was a more capable and consistent government in the place of the current government. Like this, it’s not happening. No dice! Namely, this expert prediction of the person at the helm of health care in Croatia did not come true. To put it mildly, if we are to be mean once again, because it is more appropriate to use a more precise formulation and say - it was a complete failure. Not only did we not reach a million citizens vaccinated by the end of March, we did not even get to 375,000. The anticipated million happened a whole month and a half later.

Ignoring facts and making bad predictions

However, our prophet, Mr. Beroš, continued with his calculations. Thus, a month and a half later, on February 22, he announced that we could vaccinate 50 percent of the population by June i.e., until the beginning of the tourist season. Here, uninformed readers should pay attention to why June is important. This is the month when the mass arrival of tourists begins in Croatia. In other words, it is the start of the tourist season, and the tourist season is the golden goose of the state budget, an inflow without which the state would collapse. And what happened? The season came and went, but we never got to 50% of the population vaccinated. Yet another wrong forecast by the Minister of Health. Statistics show that at the beginning of June, only 31.9 percent were vaccinated with the first dose. However, statistics show nothing about reaching 50 percent vaccinated population. This is so, because what was planned to happen at the beginning of June has not happened yet. Currently, 46.30 percent of the population in Croatia has been vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine.

We won’t go into too much detail, but let's just mention that Beroš didn't stumble with the predictions of the rate of vaccination on his own. His boss, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, also announced in April "a little more than 50 percent of vaccinated citizens", albeit by the end of June. The head of the Epidemiology Service of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, Bernard Kaić, also claimed that by June 1, 50 to 55 percent of the population in Croatia will be vaccinated. His superior, the director of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, Krunoslav Capak, who, together with Beroš, became the most recognizable face on TV after the onset of the pandemic, believed that 50 percent of citizens could be vaccinated by June 1st. Despite the wrong forecasts or perhaps because of them, the Croatian Institute of Public Health (HZJZ) published information on their websites in the beginning of that mythical June that 31.9 percent of citizens had received the vaccine by that time with the bizarre headline: "Excellent news: More than half a million people are fully vaccinated!” A well-meaning reader might certainly wonder what headline they would have used if the predictions had come true.

Anyone can make a mistake, especially in times when humanity is faced with a hitherto unknown situation and a series of questions to which there are no clear answers, but… Until the moment when Capak, a day after Christmas of last year, went to the Zagreb airport, in pitch darkness and in the cold, to welcome the first dose of vaccine, and the institution he manages published a series of photos of that heroic welcoming cermony, including a photo in which, Capak, like some sort of rapper, is pointing his finger at the box of vaccines on which he is coolly sitting, the opinion of Croats about vaccination was already clear.

For over a decade, general practitioners have been struggling with an increasing number of parents who avoid bringing their children to prescribed mandatory immunizations. In some parts of the country, this has become so prevalent that epidemics have erupted, such as mumps. Just before the arrival of the vaccines in Croatia, several media outlets published public opinion polls from which it was evident that 50 to 60 percent of citizens do not want to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Croatian officials, however, seem to have missed this, and at the beginning of the year, Minister Beroš repeated the mantra that interest in vaccination is "really high" and that citizens recognized the importance of vaccines and "put their faith in science, expertise and medicine". Oops, it turns out they haven’t, after all.

Antivaxxers going door to door

The vaccination process has stalled, the stands are firmly taken, and society is extremely polarized. It seems like most of those who were going to get vaccinated have already done so. For example, in May, over 40,000 doses per day were applied, while in mid-October, when this text was written, it was an average of 4,000-5,000 doses per day. Bit by bit.

In the meantime, a series of protests have taken place in Zagreb and some other cities, with people claiming that epidemiological measures deprive them of their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, people who do not want to wear masks, people who believe the coronavirus is a fabrication of the pharmaceutical lobby, people who think there is a chip implanted in the vaccines… The most massive protest of this type is called the "Festival of Freedom". The last one lasted as long as four hours and was held on the central square of Zagreb. The gathered crowd was addressed by 16 speakers, mostly presenting various conspiracy theories and misinformation about the virus and vaccination. Among other things, one could hear that the vaccine was "genocidal and criminal", that it causes death and that it is based on murdered children.

Vo ocekuvanje na volsebnoto stapce za izlez od pandemijataSource: shutterstock.com (фото: Simunovic)

This month, antivaxxers also introduced a new form of protest. In the evenings, they gather in front of the apartments or houses of officials who manage the epidemiological crisis in Croatia. They stood in front of the Constitutional Court, in front of the apartment of Minister Beroš, and the other day they gathered in front of the home of Krunoslav Capak. The director of the HZJZ did not ignore them. He came out and talked to them and had insults hurled at him. After the protests, social media were mostly buzzing about Capak's neighbour, who, seeing the director of the Croatian Institute of Public Health arguing with the protesters, said briefly - "Kruno, why are you arguing with this uncivilized lot?"

The bizarreness seems to have no end. An unbelievable piece of news hit Croatia on Tuesday. A patient who was hospitalized for coronavirus escaped from the hospital and went to his mother's apartment, where he died the next day from consequences of the disease. And it's not the only such escape, there were dozens of them, but this one really had a tragic outcome. This week, the public was also shocked by RTL's report from the Covid hospital in Zagreb's Dubrava. The story begins with the information that 428 people died in Croatia last month as a result of Covid-19, including 23 people under the age of 55, and none of the 23 were vaccinated.

At the hospital, we meet 53-year-old patient Aleksandar. He openly told the camera that they discovered large clots in his lungs and that now the doctors are not letting him out of bed in the respiratory department. Prior to this, he says, he had no health problems. Despite everything he has gone through and the long recovery that awaits him, he smilingly said he still will not get the vaccine. On social media, among the comments on this case, we can find a large number of people who gloat over the fact that a vaccinated person died from the effects of Covid-19, posting corresponding emoticons and all. This shows insensitivity that is a whole new topic.

Last month, an elementary school in Krapinske Toplice, in the north of Croatia, came under some sort of siege, which lasted for days. It culminated when approximately thirty antimaskers broke into a school where the son of one of them is attending eighth grade. They are convinced that the mandatory protective mask for entering the school is a violation of the child's freedom, so they forcibly got the child in the classroom without a mask. Along the way, they insulted school employees, and the police intervened. The siege lasted for days. "Elementary education is guaranteed by our constitution. No law or constitution prohibits the freedom of breathing. The terror against our children ends now", said the disgruntled parent. Whether he was vaccinated, we can only guess.

Most deaths since World War II

In fact, it’s pretty amazing how many people think Covid-19 doesn’t exist and, it seems, they can’t be persuaded otherwise. Not even by the data recently presented to us by epidemiologist Branko Kolarić, a member of the government's scientific council.

"There haven’t been this many deaths in Croatia since the Second World War. Last year, the Central Bureau of Statistics published accurate data. There were 57,000 deaths. Therefore, the increase in mortality compared to previous years is more than evident", Kolarić says, repeating for the umpteenth time that if 70 or 80 percent of the population were vaccinated, we could now live normally, without strict epidemiological measures.

The public discourse is not helped by the speeches of some politicians, for example the President of the Republic of Croatia Zoran Milanović, who since the beginning of the pandemic made a series of inappropriate or reckless statements, as if he aims to ‘shoot from the hip or lead with his chin’. The Croatian president often sounded like he himself attended the "Freedom Festival", so on one occasion he said that the "pandemic will disappear as soon as we stop talking about it", another time he said that we have to get used to it and that it is not "some big disease, it is more like dental caries“. During the first surge, he insisted on shaking hands and ridiculed alternative ways of greeting people, and after getting vaccinated he started telling all those vaccinated to take off their masks because they didn’t need it if they were vaccinated. Fortunately, Zoran Milanović is not managing the crisis.

But what has been done by those who truly manage? Almost nothing or very little. Despite all the warnings, even when they realized that the vaccination process has almost come to a halt, the Government acted as if the situation was over and done with simply because they had procured a large number of vaccines. The campaign they conducted to convince citizens of the necessity of vaccination was completely meaningless and invisible to the public, as if a couple of uninventive phrases would be enough to change someone’s opinion. Unlike those responsible, the media in Croatia have taken on this role, but the media cannot and should not be doing the work of those who manage the crisis.

Lack of courage

Initially, they had a chance to be taken seriously, until they were compromised by a series of politically motivated decisions to interpret epidemiological measures depending on circumstances, according to unjustified needs. And now Minister Beroš is whining that the high numbers of new infections and deaths we have witnessed in recent weeks are the result of the fact that too few citizens have been vaccinated. As if such an epilogue was not clearly predictable a few months ago or even when the media published polls on the attitude of Croats towards vaccination. Not to mention that the Ministry of Health itself should have conducted systematic research on the issue in the months and months of waiting for the vaccine, as well as later, to be able to devise an effective strategy. But that would, obviously, be too much to ask for.

Authorities show unusual respect for antivaxxers. Covid certificates were introduced in Croatia a while ago, but they are applied minimally, mainly for larger indoor concerts, admission to some sports matches or weddings. The farthest they have gone is the introduction of mandatory certificates or negative tests since the beginning of this month for healthcare workers and social workers, and this decision has caused a wave of dissatisfaction. This government does not seem to have the courage to take more serious action in that regard. At least for now.

Wider application, it seems, is out of the question. After several media outlets reported these days that Croatia could introduce mandatory Covid certificates for food and drink establishments, shopping centres and some social activities as of November 1, government spokesman Marko Milić was quick to send a statement denying it. "This was not discussed in the Government and the Civil Protection Headquarters of the Republic of Croatia, which are responsible for enacting measures," he said. Remarking that the number of new cases in the last two days is the highest in the last six months, he concluded that "additional efforts are needed to speed up the vaccination process and encourage everyone who is still hesitant to get vaccinated, because this is the only way out of this pandemic." What kind of efforts and what kind of magic wand the government has is absolutely unknown to us.

 

The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Albania (Exit), Slovenia (DKIS) and Greece (Macropolis), within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.

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