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Concern grows in Balkans at rising COVID-19 cases

PROMACHONAS, Greece: A public health worker collects a swab sample from a woman to test for the novel coronavirus at the Greek-Bulgarian border crossing on July 10, 2020. – AFP

BELGRADE: The numbers may still be modest, but the Balkans, one of the poorest regions in Europe with the most fragile medical infrastructure, is bracing against a surge in coronavirus infections. Several European countries have imposed restrictions, such as a two-week quarantine on travelers from Bulgaria and Romania, or a negative coronavirus test result on arrival.

In Serbia, the situation is worse than in April, epidemiologist Predrag Kon said on the national broadcaster RTS, particularly in Belgrade where the health system is at saturation point. Kon, part of the national team tackling the coronavirus pandemic, announced a record 18 deaths on Friday. Protesters are demonstrating on the streets every night against what they say is the administration’s mishandling of the crisis.

In neighboring Kosovo, there is also growing concern. Blerim Syla, the head of the health sector unions warned that Kosovo could become the Wuhan of the Balkans-a reference to the Chinese region hit hardest by the virus. And if that happened, he said, Kosovo’s health system, already under tremendous pressure, would collapse. Many people in Kosovo choose to seek treatment in neighboring countries. In EU member Croatia, microbiologist Goran Lauc, part of a scientific team advising the government, says the situation is “not bad”, but notes that cases are rising as the tourist season gets underway.

Fragile health services
So far, the Balkans has escaped the coronavirus pandemic relatively unscathed with nearly 3,500 deaths. The eight deaths recorded Friday in Kosovo and hundreds of new cases in Bosnia and Romania in recent days are not yet enough to set alarm bells ringing in the international community. But Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Romania have all registered record numbers over the past week, both in terms of the daily tally of deaths and new cases.

According to a July 10 AFP tally, these countries accounted for 15 percent of new cases detected that day across Europe although they account for only seven percent of Europe’s population. The health services in these countries are not equipped to deal with a surge like that one that overwhelmed parts of western Europe in spring. While Italy has 4.1 doctors for every 1,000 inhabitants, Albania has only 1.2 according to World Health Organization figures-the lowest coverage in Europe.

In Bosnia, the figure stands at 2.0, and in Romania 2.2. Union leader Blerim Syla says that Kosovo lacks 5,500 health professionals. On the streets of Belgrade, one demonstrator, Petar Djuric, became the face of the growing anger, shouting before the cameras that his father had died because there was no respirator to save him. In Albania, which has so far recorded nearly 100 deaths, the authorities insist the situation is still under control. But the director of the infectious diseases hospital in Tirana, Najada Como, told citizens they had to understand that “the solution isn’t through hospital treatment, where we are doing the impossible to care for the seriously ill”.

Pushing against lockdowns
But anger at the ruling classes and the region’s chronic political instability are not helping matters. Fragile administrations are tackling the crisis in Kosovo and in North Macedonia, which has the highest death rate in the region with 176 deaths per million inhabitants. North Macedonians go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new government. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic is meanwhile paying the price for having declared they had beaten the coronavirus days before the June 21 parliamentary elections his party won.

Having announced a return to lockdown at the beginning of last week, he was forced to back down in the face of angry and sometimes violent street protests. For many observers, the Balkans came out of lockdown too swiftly. In Serbia, bars and nightclubs reopened for a while as if the danger had passed. Some people even continued to shake hands.

In mainly Orthodox Macedonia meanwhile, the faithful went back to the Easter tradition of sharing a communion spoon. And on Sunday, Bulgaria’s health ministry gave the all-clear for nightclubs and discos to reopen just three days after having shut them down following a surge in cases. “The lack of respect for social distancing rules has to a great extent enabled the transmission of the virus, which is manifesting itself more aggressively,” said epidemiologist Eugena Tomini of Albania’s Institute for Public Health. – AFP

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