Europe's East-West divide on the coronavirus frontline

Ivana Nikolic May 22, 2020
Europe's East-West divide on the coronavirus frontline

It’s no secret that central-eastern Europe has been far less affected by the coronavirus pandemic than Western countries and especially the UK. As many of these states reopen their economies and Slovenia declares its epidemic officially over, what can we learn from their approach?

In this article series we aim to take a detailed look at the possible lessons.

The first instalment analyses the pandemic response of former-Yugoslavia countries, including Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo. I spoke with journalists from each of these countries to find out more.

Timing is everything

What these countries all have in common is the early implementation of containment measures.

“Due to the worsening epidemiological situation in the world, the Montenegrin Ministry of Health adopted the first set of preventive measures as early as 10 March”, says Gojko Raicevic, editor in chief of the Montenegrin online magazine IN4S. 

Officials in the whole region took the difficult situation in nearby Italy very seriously. Governments soon began closing borders and requesting quarantines for everyone traveling in from affected countries. 

Over the following days, a state of emergency was declared in all ex-Yugoslav states. Special flights were organised for citizens living abroad to return home.

Photo (c) Oliver Bunic

A shutdown of public life

“On 10 March, the Slovenian government imposed a temporary ban on public gatherings”, says Tina Lesnicar, journalist at the Slovenian daily newspapers Delo. 

Throughout the whole region, companies and public institutions, including kindergartens, schools and universities, were all closed. Schooling was conducted through national television networks and the internet. Public transportation was either completely suspended or available only to medical staff and other workers with special permits from their employers. 

In most ex-Yugoslavian countries, people over the age of 65 and minors under 18 were asked not to leave the house, except for occasional trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Many relied on family, neighbours or volunteers for their necessities. Some also used delivery services from restaurants, supermarkets and local farms.

For everyone else, self-isolation was either strongly advised or obligatory. Curfews were implemented between certain hours or for a few days in a row on public holidays. 

With the exception of essential workers and pet-walkers, anyone caught breaking curfew could be fined up to €2000.

Around Easter and Ramadan, there were some complaints about extended curfews preventing service attendance.

Photo (c) Oliver Bunic

Health comes first

Social distancing, medical masks and gloves, and enhanced disinfection were all mandatory from the beginning, along with other effective health measures.

“The government was hesitant, but the health ministry was determined and very responsive. Health Minister Vili Beros has become a national hero, thanks to the speed and quality of his measures”, says Edo Plovanic, the editor in chief at Muzika.hr, a Croatian online magazine.

Following the suggestion of Chinese experts, several large event venues in Serbia were turned into field hospitals for patients with mild covid-19 symptoms. This left enough room in hospitals for severe cases should their number rapidly increase. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

Communication 

“Daily press conferences contributed to peace and faith that there is someone who knows what they are doing. Although there was a COVID 19 site, where the data was updated daily, I must admit that I did not use it. I preferred to wait for 3 PM and the daily update from the experts”, says Milena Vujovic, editor and host at Serbian national broadcast network RTS. 

Throughout the whole region, expert teams and health ministries co-ordinated their efforts. People relied on a daily briefing which was available through national broadcast networks and online. Websites with regularly updated information quickly went up.

“Press conferences are held on Zoom and The Institute for Public Health also issues detailed information about patients affected with COVID 19”, explains Meri Jordanovska, assistant editor in chief and investigative journalist at A1on.mk and Makfax News Agency in Northern Macedonia. 

Photo (c) Oliver Bunic

Some obstacles

Early on, people were stockpiling food and other supplies. However, after the first shortage of medical masks and disinfectants, pharmacies and supermarkets were kept well-stocked as usual. 

It was initially very difficult to get respirators, masks and other medical supplies on the global market due to competition with larger countries. Eventually, though, most of ex-Yugoslavia was even able to send aid to nations in need.

“The otherwise sluggish and outdated bureaucracy was accelerated and everything moved online”, notices Edo Plovanic.

But it’s not all roses

Complex political issues made the situation quite surreal in some parts of the region.  

„Given that Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of three entities, each of them had their own measures and ways of acting. There was almost no joint, harmonised effort”, says Dalibor Mrdic, news producer and presenter at TV N1 in Bosnia. 

The situation is even more complex in Kosovo. The Serbian government considers the tiny Balkan state a part of Serbia and its independence is only recognised by a simple majority of states.

“Initially, the measures prescribed by Serbia were implemented. After a few days, those advised by Kosovo’s government were added”, says Ivan Vuckovic, a journalist at The Radio-Television of Kosovo (RTK2) and online magazine Kossev.  

The double set of rules was confusing for citizens to follow, but the situation now seems under control in spite of everything. However, the borders are still closed, which creates issues with getting medical supplies from Serbia. 

Photo (c) Oliver Bunic

The end of the pandemic?

At the moment, the spread of coronavirus in the region has slowed down significantly. Slovenia just announced the official end of their epidemic and many neighbouring countries have eased lock-down measures.

Many people are sceptical, however, that this really is the end of the pandemic in the region.

“It seems to me that it was easier to bring the state into an emergency regime, despite the lack of logistics, than it will be to return to regular functioning. It’s like shooting a low-budget film, in which money runs out in the middle of the story and someone writes “The End”. I’m afraid the end is still far away”, says Milena Vujovic. 

What can we learn?

The countries of former Yugoslavia have been facing many different, complex challenges for a long time. Even their responses to the pandemic have been politicised and misrepresented in the region’s media. 

However, they managed to present a mostly united front in the face of the pandemic, despite their decades of bloody conflict.

The West’s take away here is that coming together, with respect for our differences, virtues and flaws, could lead to better results for all. It might even save lives.

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