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.
Serbia is the first country in Europe and the seventh in the world in terms of the full vaccination coverage rate! However, judging by the government’s latest moves, the rates are stagnating. Conflicting statements and actions since the beginning of the epidemic, especially coming from the crisis headquarters, gave rise to suspicions among the people and made way for conspiracy theorists. It is uncertain whether the demand for vaccination will bounce back.
This past weekend, Macedonian as well as other Balkan languages and dialects could be heard at every turn in Belgrade. 22,000 citizens of neighboring countries have been vaccinated, which is probably the only such case in the world. How did this come about?
The Government of Serbia and the Ministry of Health took advantage of their ranking on the global list to promote their campaign called To Good Health (Uzdravlje)! In one video we can see a boxer putting on a mask even though he has defeated an opponent who personifies Covid-19. In another, in addition to new hospitals, one can see the recently erected controversial monument to the medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja near the former main railway station in Belgrade. as well as the new pedestrian scramble crossing in the center reminiscent of the one in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Either way, the message rings victorious. There is also a brief scene with President Aleksandar Vučić standing next to the new ventilator machines. His common practice, especially in the first phase of the crisis, was to personally hand over medical equipment to hospitals in Serbia.
To say that the latest campaign was off point would be an understatement, barring the fact that inoculations and recommendations on protection measures are mentioned, almost shyly. As the case may be, this country is doing extremely well in terms of the number of inoculations per capita - ranking tenth in the world.
The process of applying for vaccination started in the first half of January, and in a little over a week, the number reached 430,000. Three and a half months later, the number is close to one million fully vaccinated citizens and almost 2.4 million doses were administered.
The numbers given by the director of the Office for Information Technology and Electronic Administration, Mihailo Jovanović on March 15th showed that interest is waning. Namely, it turns out that only two hundred thousand more were waiting to be vaccinated, as a rough estimate.
Source: Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker
According to Bloomberg data (as of March 28), in Serbia in the last seven days an average of 12,231 citizens are vaccinated daily, and that number had previously reached almost 80,000. According to Our World in Data, the vaccination rate is at its lowest level since February 9 this year.
All this while half the world despairs without vaccines, hundreds of thousands of people are dying or are left with severe consequences from coronavirus infection, most of Europe is advancing at a snail’s pace and facing delays in vaccine deliveries. On March 6, when holding his dramatic press conference about countering mafia, Vučić took the opportunity and encouraged people to apply.
"I beg of you", he said several times, especially addressing the elderly population. He stated that Serbia ordered a total of 14.2 million vaccines, and that a million and a half doses are expected to arrive in April. A couple more million were ordered later. It was the first time that an official has hinted that something was awry, although there still hasn’t been any official indication that the vaccination campaign is amiss. On the other hand, the above-mentioned political campaign remains the norm, but from a different realm of reality.
For the most part, government officials speak about the course of inoculation with the highest of praise, also extending congratulations to themselves on the supposedly excellent response. Only recently, some officials, for example the Minister of Health Zlatibor Lončar, addressed the people with more seriousness - recommending vaccination. Speaking of him, among other things, he is known for his statements before the crisis that the corona virus is "much weaker than the seasonal flu" and that Serbia can develop the vaccine on its own.
Vučić also emphasized that the rates in poorer areas are generally very low, but he failed to mention the rate of availability of vaccines to people in rural areas and smaller towns. He even suggested that he might get vaccinated in Mala Žagubica or Merošina to set an example, although since the beginning of the year he said several times that he will get the vaccine, but that has not happened to date.
The change in the president's comportment was obvious at the conference, because he rarely spoke of the infection in previous months. He almost never wears a mask, except for the meeting with French President Emanuel Macron and the recent visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Then, on March 19, Vučić announced that the state will start promoting vaccination on April 1.
The beginning of the mass vaccination did not pass without glitches. There was no clear plan for high-priority groups and the situation was constantly changing. The demand was still strong, people were looking for connections to hook them up with a vaccine. At the Belgrade Fair, the largest vaccination point, citizens were admitted for several days without applying, which led to crowding, thus increasing the risk of infection. Eyewitnesses say that the practice was stopped on the same day when they saw dozens of buses arriving with employees of public services and companies.
Domestic media and media from the region reported that there were cases when residents of North Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to apply and get the vaccine in Serbia. Only a few days ago, citizens who have missed their appointment were able to schedule a new one online.
Instead of making videos to re-declare a fictional victory over Covid- 19, state and health institutions should have started informing the public about everything related to vaccines and should have enabled an open debate of medical experts, with the participation of interested citizens.
In the 21st century, almost everyone in the Balkans has access to the Internet and social media, or at least television and the tabloids. That means that they are also exposed to targeted misinformation. End result is that the people have their opinion on issues that usually only experts understand.
With this being the case, the people who have the greatest responsibility in the country could have encouraged information about possible reactions to the vaccine much sooner. They should have also provided information about when vaccination is recommended post-covid-19 disease and which pre-existing health conditions prevent you from getting vaccinated.
Marketing alone will not help, because there are a thousand times more fake news than videos with smiling patients. Insufficient information has been shared about the fact that it takes time to build immunity after getting vaccinated, which probably contributed to another absurdity - there are no empty beds in hospitals, and many of the hospitalized have already been vaccinated. An excellent argument for those who frighten people that vaccines are useless or, even worse, that they give you Covid.
By the way, the official daily number of newly infected persons has not been below 1,300 since the beginning of November, and in the last few weeks it went over 5,000, with the possibility to reach the peak of 7,999 that was recorded on December 1. Hospitals are overcrowded and some people with mild pneumonia are not admitted.
Many public gatherings, even concerts, have been tolerated, and it is possible that the virus has spread drastically on ski resorts. On March 20, a protest was even organized on the Republic Square against protection measures aiming to curb the spread of coronavirus, where there were anti-maskers and conspirators of non-vaccination, but also propaganda against migrants and the introduction of same-sex unions. The demonstrations ended with a bizarre folk-dance around Stefan Nemanja.
It is not uncommon to hear rumors in everyday conversations that a vaccine causes sterility, and even stories resembling B-rated sort-of-science-fiction movies. In one of the predominant mantras, even the highest officials have been hinting at numbers needed for herd-immunity by adding up the numbers of those who are vaccinated and those who have recovered from the coronavirus. In layman’s terms, apples and oranges. As epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović explains, the length of protection after recovering from the illness is of limited duration. Furthermore, those who have already had Covid are also vaccinated.
It is possible that the infection rate is constantly high due to the penetration of the British strain and excessive relaxation due to the feeling that vaccination has made the situation safer. We have not yet reached 15 percent of the population, and we should also take into consideration the period that should pass after the booster shot to truly build immunity.
General skepticism is also influenced by the presence of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists on the most popular shows and in the tabloids, in addition to the fact that the state does not distance itself from them. It is not known that any doctor was punished for spreading misinformation. It does not help that the publication of suspicious official numbers of deaths, cases of infection and testing continues, in addition to the great distrust in the government due to holding or tolerating a series of nominally illegal gatherings and other actions opposing the measures.
One of the most popular persons in Serbia is Branimir Nestorović, a pulmonologist and university professor. He was a member of the crisis headquarters until he left the position at the end of October. He persistently relativizes the force of the pandemic, the reliability of tests and vaccines, for which the association of doctors “United against Covid” reported him to the Medical Chamber of Serbia. Some patients from his private practice say that he even discourages wearing masks.
The fortunate circumstance amid this low interest in vaccination is that a huge number of people are just confused or scared, and not resolutely against it, but the only way to know for sure is by sharing substantive health education.
Serbia has as many as four vaccines at its disposal, and according to that criterion, it lags only behind the United Arab Emirates and Hungary, which have five each. Residents of Serbia can choose between the Chinese Sinofarm, the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and the vaccines from AstraZeneca and Oxford, or Pfizer and BioNTech.
It turned out that direct negotiations with producers - and countries - are the reason for this favorable position. No vaccine has arrived from the COVAX program yet.
However, information on prices and the procurement procedure is absolutely non-disclosed, as was the case with the ventilator machines and other equipment and the construction of hospitals. By the way, the same goes for the monument mentioned in the beginning of this article. This raised suspicions that Russia, China, UK, USA, and maybe India will get some political and economic concessions, and thus exert greater influence in Serbia. From the example of the war over vaccines between the UK and the EU, as well as the disunity of the 27-member trade bloc on that issue, it is easy to see that vaccines are currently one of the most important geopolitical aces up one’s sleeve.
In that regard, the authorities in Serbia are publicly boasting about the negotiations with Russia, China and the UAE on starting the production of vaccines on Serbian territory, after the once famous Belgrade institute Torlak lost its prestigious status.
Furthermore, after the announcement that the EU will not include non-EU-approved vaccines on its so-called covid passports, Vučić stated that he will get the Chinese vaccine.
Events from the global scene are slowly spilling over into relations in the Western Balkans region. Serbia donated 4,680 Pfizer vaccines to North Macedonia, 2,000 doses of Sputnik V to Montenegro, and 10,000 vaccines produced by UK’s Astra Zeneca to the Federation of B&H. That same entity will also receive 15,000 doses of the Indian vaccine through the government in Belgrade. Serbia has sent out a separate batch of 2,000 Sputnik V vaccines to Republika Srpska.
Unfortunately, the donation sparked controversy in B&H, and to make matters worse, in FB&H, inoculation with the product from AstraZeneca was temporarily suspended. Serbia is vaccinating the population in Kosovo within its health system, while the government in Pristina has not yet received any vaccines. Shortly before he became prime minister again, the helm of Self-Determination and the winner of the most recent elections, Albin Kurti, hurried to declare that he would not accept a donation from Serbia, not even the American-German vaccines.
In the meantime, all employees of the BiH Constitutional Court and more than a hundred Macedonian journalists have been vaccinated in Serbia, and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce has provided the same to its associates from other Western Balkan countries. The Kosovo Chamber of Commerce declined the invitation.
Over the weekend, thousands of people from BiH, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia headed to Belgrade to take advantage of the great opportunity they do not have in their homeland. Is this about solidarity? The expiration date for Astra Zeneka vaccines is today (March 29). Hence, there is a danger that a large number of doses will fail if not used.
The Association "United against Covid" pointed out the possible risk of an increased number of infections as a result of the crowd of foreign nationals who came to be vaccinated. They suggested donating the remaining vaccines to countries in the region for exhausted healthcare workers to "catch their breath".
In any case, it will be good if vaccines are administered, especially to health workers and the elderly. The only question left is whether due to the clash between the EU and UK over AstraZeneca, which undoubtedly has a political component, its vaccines will expire? Will countries with less luck in procurement still decide to politely decline such a gift? Be it paradoxical or ironic, this would also put a strain on the relations between our republics and everyone would be at a loss.
This blog is published as part of the regional blogging initiative “Tales from the Region”, led by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies, in partnership with Macropolis (Greece), Lupiga (Croatia), Sbunker (Kosovo), Ne Davimo Beograd (Serbia), Analiziraj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Pcnen (Montenegro).
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