Surge of coronavirus cases in the Balkans raises concerns

Belgrade, 10 July.

The Balkans, one of the poorest regions in Europe with the most fragile medical infrastructure, is bracing against a surge in coronavirus infections, AFP reported.

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 neighbouring 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. 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 neighbouring countries.

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".

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.

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% 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 WHO 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.

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.

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