COVID-19 pandemic: How are the Western Balkan countries dealing with the disease?

Employees at the Belgrade Airport, now closed for commercial flights; Photo: Tanjug / Zoran Žestić

More than 250.000 people in 120 countries in the world have so far been infected by COVID-19. Around 10.000 people have lost their lives, while 90.000 have been cured. So far, in Western Balkans countries, governments have been trying to prevent the spreading of the virus through varying degrees of drastic measures for their citizens.

More than 300 people in the region have tested positive for COVID-19, with two reported deaths, both in Albania.

All countries in the region declared a “high epidemic risk”. North Macedonia and Serbia have imposed the state of emergency and postponed all preparations for parliamentary elections in April, with political leaders in Skopje confirming they will delay the date of the election. New measures are introduced on a daily basis in an attempt to mitigate the virus’ spread.

COVID-19 measures triggered flight suspension across the region, partial border closures, local road lockdowns and temporarily school shutdowns. Countries banned large gatherings and imposed travel restrictions, which get stricter by the day.

The return of the large number of citizens, most of them students and temporary workers, from abroad, has caused concerns in some countries, notably in Serbia, due to apparent disrespect of quarantine measures by some of the returnees.

On 16 March, the World Health Organization criticized the countries regarding the measures taken and requested they should do more coronavirus testing.

“The most effective way to prevent the infections and to save lives is to cut the transmission chain. In order to do this, testing has to be carried out, followed by isolation. We have a simple message for all countries: testing, testing, testing”, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Al Jazeera reported.

The transparency is considered to be a major problem for the Balkan countries with regards to the quantities of medications and instruments in the health system to prevent the spread of the virus.

National emergency declared in Serbia and North Macedonia

Fifteen new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Serbia on Friday, bringing the total number of infection so far to 118, which is the highest number in the Western Balkans.

Since this morning, Serbia’s borders were closed for all travelling by road, railway and river, with the exception of trucks transporting goods to and from the country, President Aleksandar Vučić announced in a press conference.

He also added that all inter-cities bus traffic is to be cancelled beginning at noon.

“In the coming days, we are likely to make further decisions on the increasing of what some call curfew, and we call a ban on movement”, Vučić announced.

The President has announced the state of emergency on 15 March. It is the most drastic constitutional tool for dealing with crises, allowing for certain basic rights to be suspended. So far, the Government has suspended freedom of movement and gathering, with a total ban of movement from 8 PM to 5 AM, excluding some journalists and government officials.

While the number of COVID-19 infected in North Macedonia rose significantly on Friday morning (from 50 to 67), authorities say that, for now, at least, preventive measures have slowed down the spread of the virus.

President Stevo Pendarovski declared a 30-day state of national emergency on 18 March. However, according to Justice Minister Renata Deskoska, this does not mean banning free movement, curfew and closing stores.

Starting on Friday, all markets and pharmacies in North Macedonia will have to organise a team which will take care of the order and proper distancing of customers in stores.

Long fight ahead

Albania, the first country in the region significantly hit by the pandemic, has not declared the state of emergency, but nevertheless introduced a sweeping set of measures in order to achieve as much social distancing as possible. Prime Minister Edi Rama warned his citizens that a long struggle awaits.

“This, dear friends, is not going to be a short fight and it has nothing to do with a national-level wrestling game that we can end up wrapping up for a weekend or a week or two at home. No one knows, anywhere in the world, how long this war with the invisible enemy, which is closing at home, the peoples of the entire planet, captivating even the world’s largest economic and technological powers”, Rama said earlier this week.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 new cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the last 24 hours, which was the highest rise since March 5, when the first infection was recorded, Al Jazeera reported.

Earlier this week, Council of Ministers declared the state of natural disaster in accordance with the law, while the Presidency decided on the use of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On Thursday, setting up tents at border crossings began, which will serve as mandatory quarantine facilities in which everyone who enters the country will spend 14 days.

Presidency member Željko Komšić became the first highest state official in the Western Balkans to undertake self-isolation, after meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau last week.

In a highly decentralised country, each entity has its own authority when it comes to the crisis. Republika Srpska declared an emergency situation on Monday, with its Government committing to regular daily meetings dedicated to the enactment of measures necessary to combat the epidemic.

First political casualty of the pandemic: The government of Kosovo?

The total number of infections in Kosovo so far is 21. The Government of Albin Kurti, however, disagreed with the proposals that national emergency should also be declared in his country. Kurti also sacked his Interior Minister, nominated by the coalition partner Democratic League of Kosovo, for allegedly spreading fear over the crisis.

Both of the reasons have lead to the decision of LDK to prepare a motion of no confidence against their own government. According to Gazeta Express, the proposal for a national unity government with a limited task of combating the epidemic will be on the table.

The final country to report COVID-19 cases not only in the Western Balkans, but also in Europe, was Montenegro. A total of 13 have contracted the virus in the country, while 4,369 others are under medical supervision, Vijesti reported.

Boban Mugoša, the director of the Institute for Public Health, said the increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 indicates that the pandemic is spreading.

“This indicates that we did not respect what was recommended – to keep social distance, to take care of ourselves, but also of others. The only way to prevent the spread of this epidemic, that could potentially affect a lot of people in Montenegro, is to turn around, look ourselves in the eye and say I’ll stay home, keep myself safe, keep my family and community safe,” he said.

Protests against the Law on Freedom of Religion, which were taking place in Montenegro for the past two and a half months, were postponed since the government introduced measures limiting public gatherings.

While the virus reached the Western Balkans later than the rest of Europe, it is yet to be seen will the governments use the extra time and experience of other countries to withstand the inevitable spread of the disease that will take place in the following weeks.