COVID-19 in Western Balkans: Countries have seen the worst of the pandemic

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WESTERN BALKANS – While some Balkan countries believe the worst of the pandemic is over, and have begun easing restrictions related to COVID-19, others are seeing their infection rates creep back up, prompting fears of a second wave.

Some countries in the Western Balkans also hope they have seen the worst of the pandemic.

Montenegro and Croatia have either not registered any new cases of COVID-19 for days, or have marked only single-digit numbers, prompting a gradual easing of movement restrictions and safety measures.

Serbia cancelled most of its restrictive measures this month, including curfews, but registered the largest number of infected in the region.

Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama announced today that the whole Albania will emerge from COVID-19 restrictions as of 1 June. He said that this weekend will be the last regarding the ban on movement and the “red zones”.

According to Albanian Daily News, social distancing measures in public places including shops, cafes and other locations will remain in place. As of Monday, cars will be able to move freely throughout the country. Beaches will be open, but only hotels can set up sunbeds and tents on the sand, with a special authorization permit.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has also abolished or relaxed many COVID-19 related measures. A ban on public gatherings is still in force. But, with the inevitable physical distance rules, restaurants and hotels have been allowed to reopen their terraces, while shops, beauty parlours and public transport have resumed operating.

BiH: Federation PM and two other officials detained in ‘Respirators’ Affair

Caretaker Federation entity Prime Minister Fadil Novalić and two others were grilled for hours by police on Thursday awaiting transfer to the state prosecution office, as allegations swirl over the allegedly suspicious purchase of Chinese respirators to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Balkan Insight reported.

The BiH State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) questioned FBiH Prime Minister, Fadil Novalić, the former head of the FBiH Civil Protection Authority, Fahrudin Solak, and the owner of the company “Srebrena Malina”, Fikret Hodžić over the controversial government contract awarded to a company that runs a raspberry farm to procure respirators, which are not suited for treating COVID-19.

According to SIPA, all of them were interrogated on Thursday night and are waiting for the Court’s decision on the detention.

The case caused a sensation and triggered a number of questions about corruption when Srebrena Malina, a fruit processing company that never dealt with medical equipment before, was awarded a government contract to procure 100 respirators from China for 10.5 million BAM (around 5.3 million euros).

The problem became even bigger when experts found that the respirators “did not even meet the minimum characteristics necessary for the adequate treatment of patients in intensive care units, among which are COVID-19 patients”.

Hodžić is a television presenter and owner of the “Srebrena malina” (“Silver Raspberry”) company. His company received a license from the Agency for Medicine Control to import the respirators from China a month after he signed the agreement with Federation BiH Civil Protection Authority.

The BiH Prosecution office spokesperson, Boris Grubešić, stated on Friday morning that they are “working intensively on the case” but without giving further details. SIPA also did not comment on the case.

Social Democrats in North Macedonia accused of “playing with COVID-19 measures”

Ruling Social Democrats face accusations of prematurely scrapping COVID-19 movement restrictions to legitimize their push for early elections, whether the health situation in the country warrants this move or not.

The decision of the government of North Macedonia to scrap movement restrictions, starting Wednesday, and gradually reopen cafes on Thursday, has drawn criticism that the move is driven mainly by the ruling party’s quest for early elections rather than being based on realistic assessments of the health situation.

“Opinion polls say that more than 70 per cent of citizens are against swift elections in June. Health must be a priority for responsible politicians. People will recognize those who work in their interests, and those who work for their own personal and party interests,” opposition party VMRO-DPMNE warned in a press release.

66 days since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed, and two months into a state of emergency and movement restrictions, the government on Tuesday scrapped the provision for daily curfews and said it would gradually reopen cafes and restaurants.

This move came as the Social Democrats and their VMRO-DPMNE rivals remained in a state of deadlock over a date for the early elections.