BELGRADE – The discussion entitled “Post-pandemic dilemmas: Are we safer or more vulnerable?” held on 23 March, organized by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), was an opportunity to discuss the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s readiness to respond to a possible next pandemic, as well as the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health.
The research results on pandemic management in Serbia and the Western Balkans, conducted by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, were presented by Srđan Hercigonja, senior researcher and program manager.
During the first panel, as the most critical post-pandemic conclusions, Srđan Hercigonja singled out the complete dominance of politics over the profession in the process of managing the pandemic, lack of transparency when it comes to the vaccine procurement, medical equipment, data manipulation on the numbers of infected and deceased, but also the way of communication – from the spread of panic to completely ignoring the pandemic.
Hercigonja also mentioned that the pandemic affected Serbia in a period of strengthening authoritarian tendencies and was used to continue with the state capture.
When asked about the trust in the health system after the pandemic, a senior BCSP researcher said that we need to discuss the experts’ outflow.
“We are not safer now and are unprepared for a (new) pandemic. No one talks about it anymore. The reform of global health governance is urgent and requires a multilateral approach, and we are living in a new cold war era”, Hercigonja stressed.
Dr. Radina Vučetić, the author of the book “Invisible Enemy: Variola Vera 1972”, looked back on the Variola epidemic.
She pointed out that Yugoslavia was seriously preparing for the quarantine disease emergency by opening laboratories, making a detailed plan for dealing with the crisis, providing transportation for the infected, and creating a list of epidemiologists and instructions for doctors and technicians. Professor Vučetić emphasized that there is no such plan today because we have neither the state nor the society.
“The state used to invest in experts and trained staff that we no longer have today. There was absolute professional dominance at the time, and doctors made statements exclusively. There was no mistrust in the health care system, and no panic spread. After Variola, they started the discussions immediately, and serious questions were asked in the assembly, even though there was a one-party system”, said Vučetić.
Professor Vučetić predicts that the biggest 21st-century problems will be related to viruses and pandemics. She followed up on the fact that during the invasion of Ukraine, Russia mentioned the fear of bioterrorism since the USSR had a developed system for developing biological and chemical weapons and a network of secret laboratories.
“This is something we must deal with globally. Whether it’s just nature, through the virus mutation or bioterrorism – we are doomed,” she said.
Psychologist Draga Šapić spoke about the level of psychological distress, uncertainty, and mental health during the pandemic.
“All this led to confusion among people, they were overwhelmed by different information, and the increased fear was visible when restrictive measures were announced. How to communicate with citizens is more important than what is communicated. We should insist on positive messages, not on intimidation and punishment. The way of communication should be adapted to a society’s social and cultural characteristics,” said Draga Šapić.
She concluded that the pandemic has shown hw adaptable people are.
“We are a resilient species but also a species that easily forget and easily gets used to good things. We would be more mentally prepared if a pandemic were to occur soon. Solidarity is important and should be applied at the national level as well. We need to nurture solidarity among people”, Šapić told.