Western Balkan countries step up restrictions amid virus outbreak

Photo: EPA Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (C) meets with his Bosnian counterparts Milorad Dodik (R) and Sefik Dzaferovic (L) as Belgrade donates to Bosnia 5,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, 2 March 2021.

Struggling with surging COVID-19 infections, several Balkan countries said on Wednesday that they would step up restrictions in hopes of easing the pressure on their overburdened health systems, AP reported.

Doctors in Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo warned that infections have “exploded” in recent days and urged people to comply with pandemic regulations. Illustrating the rise in infections, long queues of people waiting to see doctors formed outside Covid-19 wards and outpatient clinics in the city.

On a positive note, the first AstraZeneca vaccine doses donated by neighboring Serbia, were administered in Sarajevo on Wednesday.

Bosnian authorities said that all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops in the Sarajevo canton will be shut during this weekend. More than 1,000 new infections and 37 deaths over the past 24 hours were reported on Wednesday.

“These are hard days, and once again we appeal to citizens to be maximally vigilant and to take care so they can help us to keep the health system stable,” said Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, head of the Sarajevo General Hospital.

In Serbia, PM Ana Brnabic said the government-appointed virus crisis body most likely will meet on Thursday to decide on tighter measures for the upcoming weekend. The country of 7 million has given more than 1,5 million people at least one dose from an array of vaccines including China's Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech, Russia's Sputnik V, and Astra-Zeneca, placing Serbia among countries with the highest vaccination rates in Europe. Nonetheless, Serbia is reporting more than 4,000 new infections daily and doctors have described the situation as alarming.

The government has launched a campaign to encourage people who have not yet been inoculated to do so. Experts have blamed the recent surge on flouting of the rules, and the fact that ski resorts remained open throughout the winter season.

Brnabic also criticized the holding in the past days of two concerts by a popular band at a Belgrade hall, saying authorities will ban all concerts in the future. Brnabic insisted that “we will demand that the organizers be punished.”

In neighboring Montenegro, health authorities said schools will shift to remote instruction, while daycare centers, bars and fitness centers will close as part additional measures imposed by the small nation of 620,000.

Montenegro has had among the highest infection and death rates in Europe with more than 80,000 infections and over 1,000 deaths. Authorities said on Wednesday that if the situation worsens they may ask the EU to send in medical staff to help. Montenegro's health officials said that so far, approximately 70% of hospital beds in the small Adriatic state are occupied because of the virus outbreak.

In North Macedonia, a nationwide, two-week curfew took effect on Wednesday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Authorities in the Balkan country of 2.1 million recorded last week a 60% increase in infections over the previous week. Most of the newly-admitted patients carry the the UK variant.

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