Balkan healthcare overwhelmed by virus surge

A medical worker disinfects an ambulance in Belgrade.

Not enough beds and not enough doctors: a skyrocketing coronavirus caseload is pushing hospitals in the Balkans to the cusp of collapse, in chaotic scenes reminding some medics of the region's 1990s wars, AFP reported. In the Western Balkans, one of Europe's poorest corners, the crisis is exposing gaps in healthcare systems that have long suffered from low funding and a brain drain crisis, with an exodus of promising young doctors and nurses leaving to seek better wages and training abroad.

Even before the pandemic began, the Balkans had some of the lowest density rates of doctors in Europe, according to World Health Organization data. Hospitals are now facing further shortages as staff fall victim to the respiratory disease.

In hard-hit Bosnia, one doctor described the distress of having to juggle the care of multiple patients whose lives were hanging by a thread. "The situation reminds me of the war, and I'm afraid it could get even worse during the winter," the doctor, who requested anonymity, told AFP. "We can do the work of three (people), but not of five", he added.

In Serbia, some 2,000 medical workers have been forced to self-isolate just as medical wards are seeing a huge inundation of patients filling beds in the capital Belgrade. "I never had such an experience in my professional career", Rade Panic, the president of a Serbian doctors' union, told regional TV channel N1 on Friday in a trembling voice. "I didn't have room for patients that we medically consider young, I didn't have anywhere to transport them", the anaesthesiologist added. He works in the "red zone" of a hospital treating the most serious Covid-19 cases.

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