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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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“Rakija, garlic and lemon”: How fake news endangered human lives in Albania

Nertila Maho

Ivan Subotic 400x500The real problem were the unscientific and unfounded claims that began to circulate during the first months of the pandemic, on most of the websites. You could easily find “news” about how COVID-19 could be treated at home with raki (a typical Albanian alcoholic beverage). It was claimed that drinking it kept the coronavirus away.

When some of the world's biggest giants in a field of pharmaceuticals were competing against time and each other, to find a vaccine for COVID-19, in Lezha (a city in northern Albania) two men were selling doses of a "magic medicine" that was nothing else than a mix of hydrochloric acid and water. The selling price of the alleged medicine was 20 thousand lek (160 euros) and a significant number of people had fallen victim of this fraud. F. Frroku (57) and H. Frroku (30) old were arrested by the police in July 2020 after they claimed on Facebook that they had discovered the cure against COVID-19.

The despair or fear of losing loveds one from COVID-19 was pushing quite a few individuals to believe that a magic cure existed. Social media was serving as an information well, marketing tool and “online shop” to sell the so called “cure” by people with no medical background. Content control on social media is difficult so it’s on the public to do the research and identify reliable information and news and recognize the fake ones. Social networks were not alone in this overdose of false information that in some cases endangered the lives of citizens. The “clickbait” mania infected also the consolidated media with good reputation.

Websites filled with "fake news"

Albania confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 infection on March 9, 2020. But the global panic over the virus arrived long before. While still nothing was clear and treatment protocols were not consolidated around the world, countless articles on online media shared news about alleged cures. Vitamin C was highlighted as an element that boosted the immunity but in public this was interpreted as salvation for COVID-19. The chain effect of this was a rise in prices on fruits like oranges, lemons or tangerines. In the large supermarkets the supplies for these fruits disappeared immediately. Citizens ran to empty shops and pharmacies in search for vitamin C.

But, the real problem were the unscientific and unfounded claims that began to circulate during the first months of the pandemic, on many websites. You could easily find “news” about how COVID-19 could be treated at home with raki (a typical Albanian alcoholic beverage). It was claimed that drinking it kept the coronavirus away. A doctor was quoted on websites that if you applied body massages with two alcoholic beverages the coronavirus effects could be less aggressive. Laurel, lemon and garlic all “started to qualify” as miracle products in curing the dangerous virus.

Published one after another with the aim of more clicks, the fake news risked "undermining" the work of the public health institutions on raising the awareness of individuals to maintain distances and protect themselves from the virus instead of neglecting that by creating the idea that the medications were everywhere.

Fake news increased the number of sceptics

In Albanian media you could easily find hundreds of headlines about the theory that COVID-19 was created to eradicate certain groups of society, to increase the profits of pharmaceutical companies or to lead people to vaccines that were nothing but microchips.

The name of Bill Gates was often mentioned on these theories claiming that he wanted to control the world. The headlines on conspiracy theories were present even on national media, and raised the number of sceptics about the vaccination. A study by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group shows that the country who has the highest number of supporters of conspiracy theories in the Western Balkans is Albania. The number of people who are against vaccination is high and not only in Albania but everywhere in Western Balkans according to the same study.

Confusing information on medications increased sales on the black market

Prior to vaccine approval, treatment protocols in some countries included antiviral medications in the fight against COVID-19. Favipiravir was the first one used for treatment against SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan and later in Italy, Japan, Russia, and Turkey. Some of these countries offered this antiviral free of charge as part of COVID-19 infection treatment in hospitals.

Rakija luk i limon Kako laznite vesti zagrozija covecki zivoti vo AlbanijaSource: balkaninsight.com

The other medicine was Remdesivir, an intravenous drug. After reading information about these drugs, as successful therapies in Europe and US and consulting it with private doctors, people started to buy them on black market. You could find these medicines on informal ways at the range of 350-500 euros. Those who bought it were mostly part of the population that was afraid to go to public hospitals in the panic that the sick was being left without proper medical care. Confidence in these medications was further strengthened by the fact that the Ministry of Health itself stated in October that it would introduce Remdesivir treatment as therapy in public hospitals.

The ones who couldn’t afford this price started to buy and use simple antibiotics (for example azithromycin) even when there was no need. The confusing claims given by different sources of information made people with mild COVID-19 symptoms to start using different drugs without consulting a doctor. Albanian doctors working abroad, emphasized that it was not necessary for COVID-19 to be treated with severe antibiotics and that there were alternative ways of treatment depending on the situation.

Was the government part of the fake news machinery?

The way the pandemic crisis was managed has divided the public. The government sees it as a success and the prime minister has emphasized this many times but is this success real? First, we must say that at the time when the country was in quarantine (March-May 2020), Albania suffered losses almost in every sector of economy. So, when the next wave of COVID-19 erupted in September-November, the government chose not to sacrifice the economy and keep it open under some limitations. Obviously, what was sacrificed was human lives. Officially, Albania today (July 9, 2021) reports a total of 2456 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. But is this the real death toll from the virus?

In a report by Healthdata.org, Albania was the fourth country in the world for the deaths related to Covid-19 as share of population, after Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria. The Institute of Statistics, an official source on its publication about the population reports a high death toll which could indicate that the government is not being honest with COVID-19 deaths reported officially by the Ministry of Health.

According to INSTAT from April 2020 to March 2021, Albania recorded about 9,300 additional deaths compared to the same period of the previous year, when the virus was not present (during this period, the official number given for COVID related deaths was 2423).

During this twelve month period, about 31 thousand people lost their lives, a rise of more than 42.7% from the previous year (April 2019 – March 2020) when a total of 21.8 thousand people lost their life. Another case where the government did not provide the media with accurate information was the one related to COVID-19 tests. The Prime Minister stated on March 18 that the tests performed by Albania were in higher numbers than in all countries in the region. Quite the opposite was revealed by the media who compared the official data of some countries. It turned out Rama's claim was false.

The media needs a truth vaccine

Media has its sins on the way it covered the pandemic situation. Most of them joined forces at the beginning and managed to deliver information and advice to the public in order to raise awareness about virus risk and protection measures. But on the other hand, they did not escape the lure of “clickbait”. An analysis that covered the reporting during the pandemic published by two well-known academics mentioned that Albanian media made steps backwards as related to professional standards on news reporting. 

In general, the COVID-19 news reporting mainly focused only on official statements. There was no deeper research to verify whether these statements and figures served by the government and its managing institutions about the pandemic were true or not. There were no significant investigations despite the fact that the terrain was ideal for this kind of investigative journalism.

There was no balance and diversity of sources on the news, but mainly government bodies and officials and barely any independent voices. Online portals had a superficial reporting practice and the presence of experts on their platforms was lacklustre and was more of a “fast food journalism”. In addition to the difficult conditions in which the journalists found themselves economically, the pandemic made difficult even the field reporting. Press conferences were moved to social media and the presence of journalists deliberately eliminated so it was impossible to ask questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a test for society, systems, economies and the media in all its segments. The balance sheet of more than a year showed that the media remain fragile and could have done its mission better.

What now?

After the COVID-19’s storm, it’s time for reflection.

Traditional media has to step up and learn from its mistakes. It needs to go to the roots of its mission and put public interest first. It has to give priority to first-hand information sources when it comes to news and reporting and dispel unreliable ones. This will make it easier for the audience to filter out the truth from the “fakes”.

The government on the other hand, needs to learn the lesson that everything sooner or later comes to light. Being honest in cases of emergency is always a better option than to try to conceal them. Less transparent and accountable government leads to more panicked and sceptical citizens.

Regarding news portals, it’s about time that media supervising authorities be more vigilant. The portals that have as their sole purpose the volume of “clicks” through fake news should be held accountable for the damage they cause.

Social media? Well, they are what they are! They can’t be controlled, so what needs to be done is raising awareness on the risks you encounter if everything you read on social media, you presume to be true.

 

The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by the Macedonian Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Don’t Le Belgrade D(r)own), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Albania (Monitor.al) 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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Saturday, 27 November 2021

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