For more than a month Serbia has been making headlines as an example of a country succeeding with its coronavirus vaccination campaign.
With more than a million of its 7-million population now in receipt of at least one COVID jab, it is way ahead of many other countries in the European Union.
Benefitting from vaccine diplomacy, Serbians have the choice of four different vaccines: China's Sinopharm, Russia's Sputnik V, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca. It is expected the Moderna vaccine will soon be available as a fifth choice.
But despite this apparent success, the country is struggling with high rates of COVID-19 infection. When its vaccination programme began, around 1,000 to 1,500 new infections were being recorded daily. Now, more than a month after the start of mass vaccination, that number stands at more than 4,000.
The country has had to take drastic measures. Last weekend, from noon on Saturday to 6 am on Monday, only pharmacies, food shops and gas stations were open. A meeting of the ‘Crisis Staff of the Government of Serbia for the Suppression of Coronavirus’ was supposed to be held last Tuesday to discuss a tightening of measures, but it instead took place today (March 12).
It was decided the same measures would be in place this weekend, taking effect on Friday. A decision on further measures will be made on Monday, officials said.
The decision is expected to be formally endorsed by the government later on Friday.
Infectologist Dragan Delic believes delaying the session is a bad decision: "It is delayed again for a few days without a decision on stricter epidemic measures. Each day without anti-epidemic measures is a day lost and the virus will not forgive us."
Restrictive measures have been in effect in Serbia before this weekend, such as shortening coffee shop and restaurant opening hours, maintaining social distancing, the mandatory wearing of protective masks indoors and banning gatherings of more than five people.
Nevertheless, events have been organised, drawing thousands of people in the midst of the outbreak.
A ceremonial unveiling of a monument to the founder of the Serbian medieval state, Stefan Nemanja, was organised in Belgrade, attended by several thousand people and top state officials.
Thousands also turned out for an event in Novi Sad to bid farewell to one of the Western Balkans' most famous singers and songwriters Djordje Balasevic.
Meanwhile, the winter season in the Serbian mountains was very successful, with few people on the ski slopes caring much for protective measures. Skiers were packed close together while waiting for the ski lifts. The newly opened panoramic lift attracted large crowds on the Zlatibor mountain.
Furthermore, dozens of illegal parties bringing together large crowds were raided by the police. One, which drew major attention from the public, took place in Belgrade in mid-February, with 700 people gathered in a nightclub, and another 50 outside waiting to come in. This was not an isolated case of restrictions being violated.
"We all saw in mid-February that both the restaurant and coffee shop owners and the citizens suddenly 'relaxed' and we had mass illegal parties,” the head of Belgrade's Communal Police, Ivan Divac, told Euronews.
He said more than 20 restaurants were closed down on the weekend ahead of the public holiday Sretenje, on 13 and 14 February, with “two of the largest mass parties in the last year, one with over 700 and the other with over 400 people”.
“It is not realistic, in a city the size of Belgrade, where there are nearly 2 million people, to have everyone respecting the measures, but our increased activity has contributed to having fewer people at these illegal parties and having fewer such parties in general than if we did not control them,” he added.
Fines are stipulated for violations and the control is carried out by the police, sanitary inspectors and the Secretariat for Inspection Affairs. They claim to be worn out because they work 24 hours a day and need more staff to be able to carry out proper inspections.
The communal police in Belgrade has 320 staff divided into four shifts, which they say is less than the required minimum.
"We don't have enough staff, but the good news is that 95 new people are being trained to start working in the next two or three months when they finish training,” said Divac.
Cultural events such as theatre plays are permitted subject to certain restrictions. Several concerts were arranged at the 20,000 capacity Kombank Arena in Belgrade in March, with a maximum allowed attendance of 500 people.
Two concerts by the Sarajevo band Crvena Jabuka were held, but people did not adhere to the sanitary measures in place.
Kombank Arena issued a press release saying that measures included making hand sanitisers available, asking for masks to be worn and constantly reminding people that they had to respect the rules. They say they had done everything by the book.
But the remaining concerts and events scheduled for the coming period have been cancelled or postponed. Due to the two concerts already held, Kombank Arena will be fined.
Different fines are levied for different types of infractions in Serbia. For example, a restaurant owner whose business had been impacted by the outbreak will think hard about breaking the rules, while the organisers of the illegal parties might consider these fines relatively lenient.
Those breaking the rules are now going to be threatened with harsher penalties, which is “good news” according to Divac.
"We have good cooperation with the prosecutors, where criminal charges are filed against those organising the parties, entailing adequate penalties,” he said.
“Criminal responsibility can entail a sentence of up to three years in prison, so it’s a deterrent against anyone thinking about organising an illegal party if they know they can go to prison.”
The country’s ‘Crisis Staff’ is made up of a medical section and a political one - which has caused issues.
The medical side has advocated for a lockdown to protect life and wants the measures that were in place last weekend on 6 and 7 March to be adopted for at least a week.
But the political side is against such strict measures, due to fears of further harming the country’s economy.
However, there are those who believe that economic reasons must not prevail over medical ones, such as infectologist Delic.
"Basically, doctors should not think about that, it is a very slippery slope, very dangerous ground and it is unethical and immoral for doctors and healthcare professionals to reflect on the so-called balance between the so-called economy, which is not an economy - it is only part of the service industry and of the disease.
“For me as a doctor, this is unacceptable and a doctor should not accept something like that. And that's the consequence of this wretched Crisis Staff. It is completely unnatural, I believe, to have medical experts and scientists sitting together with politicians in the same body. There is no compromise in medicine, you cannot make compromises with disease and death."
While the country awaits stricter anti-epidemic measures, vaccination and vaccine procurement continue.
Another 28,080 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Belgrade on Monday. Authorities hope that, with the increase in the number of vaccinated citizens, the virus will begin to decline. A few days ago, President Aleksandar Vucic said that Serbia has agreed to purchase close to 15 million vaccines in total, sufficient to immunise the entire population. So far more than 2.6 million doses have arrived in Serbia and more than 1.6 million people have been vaccinated with the first dose.
"While all of this is promising, I believe that the number of registered citizens for vaccination is insufficient. I think that, in order to gain collective immunity, up to 3 million Serbian citizens must be vaccinated, not counting those who have already acquired natural immunity. So, 80 or 85 per cent of the population must be protected either by a vaccine or naturally and we are far from it," Delic said.
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