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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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Tear gas instead of vaccines

Biljana Žikić

Biljana-Zikik-200x250With only 48% of the population vaccinated, the impermissible missteps of the expert COVID-19 staff and with mass anti-vaccination protests, it is obvious that the vaccination campaign in Slovenia was extremely unsuccessful. Instead of persuading as many people as possible, the government, with its clumsy and unprofessional communication and untrustworthy communicators who have zero credibility with the people, incessant corruption scandals, constant repression, introduction of political rather than health protection measures and its authoritarian rule, has continuously lost both credibility and candidates for vaccination.

At the time this text was created, Ljubljana looked like a city from a Hollywood disaster movie. The city centre is virtually blocked, full of barricades and cordons, strong police presence, mounted police, special forces on high alert, with police dogs and in special vans; there is tear gas in the air, a helicopter can be heard flying over the centre for hours. There is a lot of smoke, the streets are wet from the water cannons that were used today to prevent the protest march of thousands of people. Many random passers-by returning from work, tourists, students, senior citizens, children in the parks near the city centre got the same experience as the protesters: full of tears and in shock, and although they had nothing to do with it, they had to flee from police repression. People who happened to be in the city centre and those who live there testified that the police used tear gas without any announcement, anywhere they got the chance.

They said, it looked like the deliberate destruction of Ljubljana, and that many experienced health difficulties after that. The day before the announced protest, the state leadership decided that the protest may not take place, so for the first time in the history of independent Slovenia, Article 9 of the Law on Duties and Powers of the Police was activated, which restricts movement in certain areas. Based on said article, Ljubljana was nearly transformed into a battlefield. However, the protests lasted for several hours, and those gathered demanded the epidemiological measures to be lifted and for the government to step down. Police detained 22 protesters, six policemen and two protesters suffered minor injuries, and the informal protest leader as well as leader of the political party Resni.ca Zoran Stevanovic, and musician and rapper Zlatan Čordić Zlatko, who spoke at the protest, were arrested.

A mere thirty kilometres from the capital - a completely different picture. While the protesters were suffocating in tear gas, a gala dinner of the highest officials of the European Union and the Slovenian state leadership took place in Brdo Castle near Kranj, as part of the meeting of representatives of the EU and Western Balkan countries. Boris Pahor, the President of Slovenia, decorated Chancellor Angela Merkel for exceptional merits, which is considered to be the greatest Slovenian decoration. Pahor said that Chancellor Merkel "inspires trust in people, gives them the feeling that everything will turn out well". This is exactly what President Pahor and the Slovenian government are lacking, and it is one of the reasons why Ljubljana has turned into a city of protests in the last two years, and the protests have reached their peak these days, both in the number of protesters and in the extremely aggressive response of the police.

The direct reason for the mass protests was the introduction of the PVT requirement (to show proof that you’ve recovered from the virus-are vaccinated-are tested) for anyone over the age of fifteen, to be allowed to go inside all closed spaces, so that those who do not meet the requirement are thus prevented from everyday life and a wide range of activities, from filling their gas tank to going to work. The requirement came into force on September 15 and it did indeed result in large crowds at vaccination points, but also a mass protest of thousands of people. "Protests on Wednesdays" were how the new protests were called and they were against the PVT requirement and against the government that introduced it. In essence, the protesters are opponents of compulsory vaccination, which was de facto introduced by the introduction of the PVT requirement.

However, these are not the only anti-government protests. Last Friday, disgruntled citizens gathered on the Republic Square for the 76th time. Although they all initially went out together to protest the government on Fridays, the faction that was closer to anti-vaccination views and conspiracy theories (disbelief in the virus, minimizing the seriousness of the virus and fear of or distrust in vaccines) went its own way and began its own protests. At first, only a few people attended these protests. Over the weekend, you could see up to fifty people at the Republic Square singing patriotic songs with flags and signs denying the existence of virus and blaming the world's elite and pharmacological companies for manipulation, greed, predation and "sheep shearing". In just a few months, those groups of anti-vaxxers have turned into tens of thousands of angry and determined individuals who take to the streets en masse every Wednesday, constituting one of the most massive demonstrations in the history of Slovenia.

Why did Katja have to die?

At the last gathering, the police estimated that there were about ten of them, and it is informally said that the number of protesters was as high as fifteen thousand. A 20-year-old girl died at the Clinical Centre in Ljubljana on the same day, and although the investigation is still ongoing, there is a reasonable doubt that the death was the result of the Janssen vaccine she got. The people at the protest were addressed by the father of the deceased girl, who said: "When you go to these vaccination centres, do they warn you against taking the Janssen vaccine if you are under 50 or 40 years of age? No. These are just numbers. They talk about percentages. My Katja was not a percentage. She was Katja. My Katja.” The tragic death of the 20-year-old resonated among the opponents of vaccination, who saw proof in this tragedy that vaccines are deadly and confirmation that the elites do not care about the individual. However, vaccination advocates have also called the government to account.

Solzavec namesto vakciniSource: shutterstock.com (фото: B7 Photography)

Opposition parties, as well as prominent intellectuals gathered around the Forum for Democracy, wrote a public letter titled “Why did Katja have to die?” demanding the resignation of the government. The fact that the Janssen vaccine, as a vector vaccine, can in rare cases cause deep vein thrombosis in younger women is not clearly presented to citizens and it is allowed for everyone over 18 to get that vaccine, although several EU countries either do not use this vaccine or limit it to older people. In Belgium, for example, this vaccine is not recommended for people under the age of 41, in France under 55, in Germany and Italy under 60, in Denmark it is not used, and Sweden has suspended it. In Slovenia, the government even encouraged choosing the Janssen vaccine. Considering that only this vaccine enables one-time immunization and that, according to the government's decision, it was valid from the day of vaccination, the majority logically opted for this vaccine. No one from the expert staff took responsibility, no one from the government offered their resignation. The only consequence of the tragic death of a twenty-year-old girl is the stopping of vaccination with this vaccine until all the circumstances of the death are clarified. Too late.

With only 48% of the population vaccinated, inadmissible mistakes of the Covid-19 expert staff and the mass anti-vaccination protests, it is obvious that the vaccination campaign in Slovenia was extremely unsuccessful. Instead of persuading as many people as possible, the government, with its clumsy and unprofessional communication and untrustworthy communicators who have zero credibility with the citizens, incessant corruption scandals, constant repression, introduction of political rather than health protection measures and its authoritarian rule, has continuously lost both credibility and candidates for vaccination. According to public opinion polls, currently less than 20% of Slovenians trust the government.

Health crisis followed by a political one

In Slovenia, the health crisis is closely intertwined with the political one. The virus outbreak in the country coincided with the arrival of Janez Janša to power. From the beginning, his management of the epidemic was based on taking care of himself and his staff and using the epidemic to strengthen the authoritarian rule. At the very onset of the epidemic, when people seriously feared for their lives and lost their jobs and all security, the government first raised salaries for its own members, which was followed by corruption scandals with the procurement of masks, unjustified and arbitrary epidemiological measures that favoured representatives of the government, and discriminated against many or all citizens, the constant attacking of journalists of independent news outlets, primarily the public broadcaster, and attempts to subordinate it to the authorities as well as the financial exhaustion of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), which continues today. The Constitutional Court has often reacted and annulled governmental decisions, a fact that speaks about the government’s management of the epidemic. Among other things, Slovenia had the longest curfew and the longest school lockdown in the region, as well as other forms of state repression that generated distrust and anger among citizens.

Characteristic and dominant social models and narratives are cited as one of the reasons for the poor response to vaccination. Clinical psychologist Aleksander Zadel says that the pronounced individualism, which has been predominant in Slovenian society for the last thirty years, has destroyed social coexistence and connection, adding: "That is why, if there is no serious external enemy or there is no natural disaster or cruel fate of an individual, people look out for themselves in our country. The invisible virus is clearly not yet recognized as a serious threat to society. "

Public and reputable non-health institutions that could animate the public and clearly and loudly call for vaccination are very rare. Trade unions and other workers' associations made no efforts to boost the vaccination process, although many workers were exposed to Covid-19 due to the nature of their work.

The virus isn’t considered as a serious threat

Another factor proved to be important in the extremely low percentage of vaccinated people in relation to Western European countries. Kristina Radomirović Maček, a doctoral student of ethnology and cultural anthropology in Ljubljana who studies conspiracy theories, says that the ideology of opponents of vaccination is especially developed in Slovenia. "This corresponds to the local way of thinking, because the fear that man has become far too estranged from nature and that we are entering a technological dystopia is especially characteristic of Slovenia. New conspiracy theories fit the already existing perception of the world, discourses and tensions that are established in the culture that exists in a given space," Radomirovic Maček said and added that national epidemiological teams should also have in their ranks psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, science communicators and others who would help communicate with those who are sceptical or who are afraid of vaccination.

However, the epidemic was run from the beginning even without an epidemiologist. This is confirmed by Dr. Ivan Eržen, former director of the National Institute of Public Health, who had to leave his position immediately after Janša came to power because he publicly expressed doubt in the point of measures such as mandatory disinfection of building hallways and movement restricted to municipalities. He says that the incompetence of the authorities is one of the main culprits for the low immunization of the population, because the entire epidemiological profession has been disregarded and the management of the epidemic is left to people who do not have the necessary knowledge and experience. This certainly caused the vast majority of the population to lose elementary trust in public institutions, health care, science and the media.

It is certainly too late now for education and communication, and mass vaccination, which would curb the epidemic, and "normal" life seem completely unattainable at this point. Talking about vaccines started to look like debating tastes (and there is no accounting for taste), about personal and private traits and decisions, about intimate matters about which it is indecent to inquire. Freedom of choice is promoted, while forgetting that vaccination only makes sense if it covers most of the population and that the views of 99% of experts in Slovenia that vaccination is the only way out of the epidemic still carries more weight than the layman’s attitude of many "online researchers" even if they are faculty professors. All this seems very pessimistic, especially when we think of future epidemics and climate catastrophes which, as experts warn us, will surely be more and more, and where without a joint effort, we’ll be alone as individuals, utterly powerless.

Fortunately, the epidemic is currently stagnant, as they say from the Jožef Stefan Institute, which monitors and forecasts epidemiological trends, but that can quickly change, as it is expected, considering that autumn and winter months are ahead. On average, about 20% of those tested turn out to be positive every day, and in the last 14 days, an average of 14,584 cases of infection per 100,000 inhabitants were registered. Currently, about 0.9 percent of the population are infected i.e., every 110th inhabitant.

What the upcoming winter season will bring, when Covid-19 spreads the fastest, and what next year will bring with the parliamentary, local and presidential elections, as well as what will happen with the roaring mass dissatisfaction of the people, remains to be seen. For now, it is certain that, at least for a while longer, we will have to learn to live not only with Covid-19, but also with tear gas.

 

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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Saturday, 04 December 2021

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