Group of Serbian doctors calls for dismissal of National COVID-19 Response Team

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

More than 770 medics now support the petition titled “United Against COVID”, which was launched by an informal group of 350 physicians.

In an open letter sent to the Serbian government and other relevant institutions, the group is calling for the dismissal of the National COVID-19 response team and stresses that Serbia has been faced with a public health disaster.

The group is also calling for the setting up of a new crisis team, demanding that allegations of under-reported coronavirus figures be investigated, and that intimidation and politicization “threatening the dignity of medical professionals” be stopped.

The doctors further said they had decided to go public as they “see no other solution to the ongoing public health disaster in the country,” highlighting that they are obliged to do so “under the Hippocratic Oath and general ethical principles.”

“Due to the complete removal of the coronavirus countermeasures during the election campaign (party rallies, sports matches, tournaments, mass celebrations), the epidemiological situation has gotten out of control. This cannot be justified by professional motives,” it is said in the letter.

On Wednesday (22 July), Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar commented on the letter, saying it had nothing to with their profession but everything to do with politics. He argued that the signatories  were “people from parties.” 

Previously, the government’s Crisis Headquarters decided on 5 July that as of 17 July, public gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned both indoors and outdoors, according to a government press release.

Meanwhile, wearing protective masks will be mandatory outdoors in situations where the recommended distance with others cannot be maintained, according to a government press release.

These measures will apply to the entire country, including the municipalities where an emergency situation has not been declared.

The increase in COVID-19 cases in Belgrade and Novi Sad was “the result of the protests, without a shadow of doubt,” said Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.

On top of that, As of Monday (13 July), Serbian citizens can travel to the Czech Republic as of Monday (13 July) only for specific reasons, including employment, studies or family visits.

They will also have to present a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days, just like the Czech nationals coming back home from the two states.

Given that the epidemiological situation has worsened in Serbia, the Czech health ministry decided on 10 July to place Serbia, along with some non-EU Western Balkan states with similar epidemiological situations. 

“This is the criterion many states use when assessing risk levels in a given state. Slovenia has accepted a tighter criterion – 10 infected persons per 100,000 people pose a risk already. For most of the states that number is 16, and we have accepted it as well. In Serbia and Montenegro, it oscillates around 50 per 100,000. That is the reason why we have taken this step,” Czech Minister of Health Adam Vojtěch explained.

Last week, Serbia decided on Thursday (9 July) against introducing a curfew in Belgrade after the announcement had caused a string of protests, some violent, across the country, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has said.

It did, however, decide to ban public gathering of 10 or more people indoors and outdoors.

This comes after a group of opposition supporters stormed the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade on Tuesday (7 July) in protest against the “lengthy weekend curfew” planned for the capital from 10-13 July, which triggered clashes with the country’s riot police until Wednesday morning (8 July).

In an emergency televised address to the nation, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced on Tuesday that Belgrade would also have to ban all public gatherings of more than five people both indoors and outdoors as of Wednesday (8 July) given the “alarming” situation in the capital. “Belgrade is in a critical situation and the situation is serious in four other cities,” the president said, adding that hospitals in Belgrade “are nearly full”.

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A state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic was declared on 3 July, Belgrade mayor Zoran Radojičić announced.

Late on Friday (3 July), Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced that no more than 100 people would be able to assemble indoors in Belgrade, and no more than 500 outdoors, noting that fines would be handed out to those not wearing facemasks on public transport or in indoor spaces.

“The intensity of the virus is greatest in Belgrade. The activity was never this high, which is shown directly by test results in COVID-19 outpatient facilities,” epidemiologist Pedrag Kon told Pink TV.

Besides, in an open letter, opposition Party of Freedom and Justice president, Dragan Djilas, blamed Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Saturday  (4 July) for every COVID-19 infection in the last two months.

The letter noted the president’s words in early May, announcing that Serbia had “beaten the coronavirus” and added that 11 people had died of COVID-19 on 3 July, adding that Vučić was “to blame for each of those deaths” and for “intentionally creating an atmosphere of corona (Covid-19) being gone just so he could stage an illegitimate, fake and pointless election.”

“You’re responsible for allowing tennis tournaments, concerts, night clubs to be open, for staging a rally in front of the Serbian parliament where you brought thousands of your followers,” Djilas wrote, adding that the president “consciously and intentionally” created the impression that there was no longer any danger so that the elections could take place.

Meanwhile, the Serbian embassy in Athens has received an official notice that Greece is closing its borders to Serbian citizens on Monday (6 July), the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed for BETA, although media reports state that Serbian tourists currently in Greece would be allowed to finish their stay.

This comes after Greece reopened its borders 1 on July and allowed Serbian citizens to enter the country, but only via Bulgaria and the Promachonas border crossing.

Serbian nationals were also expected to present a so-called “Passenger Locator Form”, filled in 48 hours before they reached the border, and accept random COVID-19 testing on arrival.

On Wednesday (1 July), Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić warned that a worse epidemiological situation was in store for the country next fall, explaining that at this point it’s “impossible to lock the country down,” as we “need to work to live.”

The spread of the virus would be under control during summer and the national economy could “flourish,” Vučić told Pink TV in an interview, adding that the current situation was “not tragic.”

However, the peak of the coronavirus pandemic that is being mentioned in Serbia these days “is not actually the peak,” said epidemiologist Branislav Tiodorović on Wednesday (1 July). “The real one”, he said, will be reached in five to six days because it is measured from the events that may have caused it, such as sporting events, birthdays, weddings and other parties.


As of Thursday (23 July), Serbia recorded 22,443 cases of coronavirus. Of these cases, 508 have died.

According to Rodoljub Šabić, a lawyer and Serbia’s former and first commissioner for information of public importance and Personal Data Protection, the availability of information on the government and Crisis Headquarters’ efforts to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic is worryingly and unacceptably low.


Tightening measures

As Serbia is experiencing an increase in cases, the national Crisis Team dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic decided to tighten measures.

Masks will be made compulsory on public transport and in all enclosed public places and people visiting shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, night clubs, beauty salons, gyms and similar place must always wear masks, the national Crisis Team dealing with the pandemic decided on Monday (22 June).

“Given the variations in the epidemiological situation across Serbia, the Crisis Team will gradually endorse measures in individual cities and they may be tightened any time if disrespected or proven ineffective,” the Crisis Team said in a release.

Citizens have also been advised to wear facemasks indoors, particularly in postal offices, banks, public institutions, retails, and shopping centres. 

More recently, psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin has said that the Serbian Crisis Headquarters dealing with the COVID-19 crisis had “concealed the truth”, adding that “this is immoral to the extreme” and a violation of professional ethics.

“It is clear that we were manipulated, as well as that whether [the authorities] will tighten measures this weekend and relax measures or completely cancel them in the following month, has a lot more to do with political interests than public health concerns,” Trebjesanin told the latest issue of the Vreme weekly published on 25 June.

Reopening borders

Travellers from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) and North Macedonia will be quarantined when entering Croatia as of midnight on 24 June the Croatian National Civil Protection Committee decided that day.

The decision applies to everyone travelling to Croatia from these states, regardless of citizenship, but will not apply to transit passengers.

Travellers will have to self-isolate at home or elsewhere for 14 days as of the day they enter Croatia, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic told a press conference, adding that “we have recorded an increase in the number of infections, most of them coming from the direction of Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.” 

Serbia opened its borders but its citizens are not allowed to enter Montenegro or travel to EU member Croatia.

When it comes to the citizens’ favourite destination, Greece, Serbs who travelled to Greece via Bulgaria had told N1 TV on Monday (15 June) that they had been turned back from the border and were told they could only enter as of 1 July.

This comes after Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic – after a meeting with his counterpart, Nikos Dendias – said Serbian citizens would be able to travel to Greece without tests and other restrictive measures as of 15 June. On Monday, the country’s foreign affairs ministry said it still had no information or official confirmation from Athens that Serbian nationals would not be allowed to enter Greece until 1 July.

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The COVID-19 crisis enters politics

Also, for Serbia’s upcoming elections set for 21 June, there are still no guidelines to ensure voters can cast their vote amid the coronavirus crisis.

The State Election Commission had not received any guidelines to ensure the safety of voters and prevent the spread of coronavirus at polling stations for the upcoming elections set for 21 June, Pavle Dimitrijevic, a representative of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) observation mission, who monitors the Commission’s work, has said.

“So far, the crisis team has issued no information or guidelines on safety of voters at polls,” Dimitrijevic has told BETA News Agency.

On Thursday (18 June), epidemiologist Dr Zoran Radovanovic said that elections, albeit imperative for the government, will pose a public health risk.

“Campaigns and elections are a textbook example of a situation that should be avoided. Were I a member of the Crisis Headquarters it would be my professional duty to not allow elections to be held,” Radovanovic told the Direktno.rs website in an interview, adding that those staying at home could be infected by their families coming back from the polling stations.

State Election Commission President Vladimir Dimitrijevic has earlier said that protective equipment – face masks and gloves, will be at the disposal of all polling boards. However, it is still unknown whether the protective equipment will be mandatory for the voters or whether some other prevention measures will be applied.

Although the parliamentary and local elections are scheduled for 21 June, it remains unclear how many voters will be allowed at polling stations at the same time and whether masks and gloves will be mandatory for board members and voters. Whether voters can use the same pen, as well as other details, also remains unknown. 

Besides, on 8 June, the opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia said that the high number of COVID-19 cases in Serbia from the previous three days shows that campaigning activities and the elections scheduled for 21 June pose a serious threat to the health of the citizens.

The Alliance believes that the Crisis Headquarters’ decisions to allow mass gatherings the very day that the number of those infected reached 96 and the number of patients on ventilators is on the rise were “extremely irresponsible and clearly politically-motivated.”

“The regime, with Aleksandar Vucic leading the way, will have to answer for political exploitation of the state of emergency, illegal and detrimental use of the state budget, manipulation of the number of infected and endangering the health of the nation,” the Alliance for Serbia said.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the Serbian government and other state bodies operated less transparently during the state of emergency, the Transparency Serbia programme director, Nemanja Nenadic, said on 8 June.

Speaking to reporters after a presentation of the report involving the government and other state authorities, Nenadic said that much of the relevant information was not available to the public, including the number of ventilators, the way ventilators and medical supplies had been procured and the actual needs of medical institutions.

“The public didn’t – and still doesn’t – have access to the drafts of government decrees, other acts passed during the state of emergency, or the rationales behind them. The conclusions which the government used as a basis for many important matters haven’t been published either, nor were the grounds for decisions to appoint and dismiss officials,” said Nenadic.

Life after emergency

All Serbian citizens without symptoms were able as of 1 June to take a rapid non-compulsory serology test to detect COVID-19 antibodies, the national crisis staff announced on 27 May. The test would only cost €10.

On 6 May, the Serbian parliament adopted a proposal to abolish the state of emergency introduced on 15 March. It also abolished the bill confirming the validity of the government’s decrees passed while the state of emergency was in effect.

“Serbia has a reason to be proud,” said Prime Minister Ana Brnabic during the debate in parliament, adding that many Serbian citizens should also be credited with the success in fighting the pandemic.

From 11 May, kindergartens opened their doors for children whose parents had to work and from 18 May, air traffic was given the ‘go-ahead’, as long as strict prevention measures and rules in other countries were respected. 

It was also decided that Serbia will open all its borders from 1 June, according to Belgrade daily Blic, which added that the decision was mostly motivated because of students from the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska and from Montenegro.

The day before (5 May), Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist and retired professor of the Belgrade School of Medicine, warned that a second wave could hit the country before summer if countermeasures were lifted too soon. On 13 April, epidemiologist Branislav Tiodorović said the life of Serbian citizens will return to ‘normal’ in June.

A few days later, on 12 May, the deputy director of the Institute of Public Health, Darija Kisic Tepavcevic said that easing lockdown measures could lead to a surge in cases. Yet, he also noted that the warm weather could lead to fewer transmissions.

However, on 25 May, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said it was too early for a “victory lap” but that the epidemic-related situation in Serbia was under control.

Meanwhile, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport reopened for commercial flights on 18 May after two months with passengers expected to wear masks, thoroughly wash hands and advised to arrive at least three hours before departure.

For Serbians coming back to the country, the Serbian government decided at its 14 May session that “Serbian citizens may enter the country and move without limitations with a negative PCR test for the coronavirus, not older than 72 hours. If a Serbian citizen enters Serbia without the test, they are obliged to spend 14 days in self-isolation.” 

It was added that, during self-isolation, citizens may perform the test in one of the reference laboratories in the country and, if the test is negative, end self-isolation.

When it comes to the country’s parliamentary elections, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said on 4 May these would be held on 21 June. Elections were originally scheduled for 26 April, but were postponed because of the pandemic and the state of emergency.

The Serbian government decided on 20 April to ease part of the social distancing measures imposed to combat the pandemic, allowing the elderly out of their homes three times a week and re-opening green markets.

City transportation in Novi Sad and Kragujevac resumed on 4 May without air conditioning, while Cafes and restaurants reopened on 4 May. Business that were allowed to reopen had to respect social distancing constraints, ensure premises were disinfected and impose the use of facemasks and gloves.     

Parliament, too, started to lift measures and held its first session since the state of emergency on 28 April, during which MPs actually confirmed the government decision to introduce the state of emergency, decrees co-signed by the president, which the Serbian government has issued in the meantime.

“Everyone will have to respect decisions made by the emergency task force, including MPs. All of them will pass through entrance screening, and receive masks and medical gloves. We have taken all measures necessary to protect journalists, cameramen, MPs and the parliament’s staff,” Gojkovic told journalists on 27 April in the parliament building.

Meanwhile, a crowd of almost 16,000 people attended a Serbian football cup semi-final match on 10 June in Belgrade between Partizan and Red Star, both from the Serbian capital, which AFP reported to be the largest gathering in Europe since the COVID-19 outbreak. Although fans were allowed to enter stadiums as of 1 June as the government started to loosen lockdown rules, it appears that little regard was given to health guidelines. 


For more on the country’s state of emergency, read on:


Serbia gradually opens its borders

On 21 May, the Serbian government said it will open borders and allow free entry for all, without the coronavirus test and special permission of the commission.

On 25 May, Hungary has opened its borders to Serbian citizens. The use of all nine border crossings to enter Hungary is now permitted without PCR tests and the mandatory 14-day quarantine, the RTS public service reported.

However, opening the borders with Montenegro was not as easy.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said he would open the country to countries that had met the epidemiological criteria defined by the Public Health Institute.

This would include countries reporting 25 coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Albania, and Greece.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic described Podgorica’s decision as “senseless”, adding that for the time being Belgrade will not submit a letter of protest and that Serbian borders will remain open to Montenegrin nationals.

“None of the epidemiologists in Serbia commented on the decision, only politicians did. That is reason enough for Montenegro to be right. The decision has nothing to do with politics,” Montenegrin Ambassador to Serbia, Tarzan Milošević, he told the BETA News Agency on 29 May.


More on opening the borders:


For more information on the elections, read here:


State of emergency, difficult times for the media 

The media sector, notably in its coverage of the crisis, has not had it easy.

From 11 to 20 April, journalists were banned from attending news conferences about the coronavirus and had to send questions via email. Vojvodina’s health secretary Zoran Gojkovic said on 20 April that this was done with the safety of reporters in mind, not because of their questions.

Before the ban was lifted, the Journalists’ Association of Serbia (UNS) had urged the government to reconsider it, arguing that such conferences allow journalists to ask questions to the experts directly and to get information otherwise impossible to obtain.

On 2 April, Nova.rs journalist and member of Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina steering committee, Ana Lalic, was released from custody after being detained overnight for an article on the current coronavirus crisis in the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina, in Novi Sad.


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EU and Western Balkan leaders reaffirm ties in veiled response to China, Russia

EU leaders confirmed their “unequivocal support for the European perspective” to their Western Balkans counterparts during a video-summit on Wednesday (6 May). However, the final declaration doesn’t make reference to a tangible time frame for the region’s accession to the bloc.

EU, Chinese or Russian aid? 

During the international conference “The World After Coronavirus”, which took place on 29 May, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said Serbia would not turn against its allies who provided aid during the pandemic. He also said that while he expects Serbia to bounce back quickly, he is expecting assistance and solidarity from Germany, China, the US and Russia.

Most recently, European Integration Minister and National IPA Coordinator Jadranka Joksimovic said on 4 June that Serbia will apply for funding from the EU Solidarity Fund to receive additional grants. The fund would “protect health workers, secure better conditions for treating patients and offer aid to ‘vulnerable groups,'” the minister said.

Serbia received aid from China, Russia and the EU, reacting differently to each.

After the EU announced a support package of €410 million for the Balkans on 31 March, with the European Commission’s neighbourhood and enlargement chief, Olivér Várhelyi, promising he had made €15 million available to Serbia for emergencies.

However, President Aleksandar Vučić has been critical of EU aid, which attracted criticism from the opposition.

In response to the criticism, the president said on 23 April that the European Commission did not offer Serbia financial aid but favourable loans intended for countries with balance of payments difficulties, which, according to him, Serbia does not have.

Earlier the same day, the Party of Freedom and Justice condemned Serbian authorities for declining European Commission aid worth hundreds of millions of euros and accused the government of borrowing from “sheikhs” because nobody oversees the spending of that money, which is not the case with EU funds.

On 29 April, the Commission announced  that it would be pumping another €3.3 billion to “address the immediate health and resulting humanitarian needs of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as help with the social and economic recovery.”

In an op-ed published on 7 May in US News and World Report, Vucic wrote that Serbia was grateful to all countries that helped with the pandemic, adding that the country had favoured a pro-Western foreign policy even though it had accepted aid from China and other countries.

Although he noted the EU’s abrupt implementation of “obstacles to the export of certain medical equipment to non-EU countries” in mid-March when China offered assistance, he wrote that the EU had been Serbia’s single biggest donor.

Serbia’s EU Integration Minister, Jadranka Joksimovic, however, said on 10 May that EU support had been lasting and not momentary, particularly as it has been supporting Serbia’s healthcare system, police, public administration, local self-government, economy and infrastructure for years.

China and Russia have also offered support to Serbia.

When it comes to China, Agricultural Minister Branislav Nedimovic signed a donation agreement on 8 April with representatives of the Chinese Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). The agreement foresaw the construction of two state-of-the-art laboratories for COVID-19 testing, which could process a total of 3,000 tests per day, which, at the time, was three times more than the country’s capacities. 

Russia, on the other hand, supplied Serbia with military teams to disinfect 121,500 square meters in 34 facilities and 38,500 square meters of streets and squares, Major General Mikhail Chernyshov, heading the teams’ deployed to Serbia, said on Tuesday (7 April).

Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin thanked Moscow for deploying experts to Serbia, stressing that the aid had arrived in the time it was most needed.

On 14 May, Vucic thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for being a “sincere friend” and confirming “the excellent strategic relations between Serbia and Russia” by caring for Serbia and sending medical aid.

On 19 May, Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić highlighted the importance of regional cooperation during the pandemic.


For more on the region’s geopolitics and the coronavirus, check here:

About China:

The EU:


 

Western Balkans summit encourages 'European perspective' but omits enlargement

A virtual meeting of EU and Western Balkan leaders to discuss the future of the region on Wednesday (6 May) will produce a final declaration that is set to omit the word “enlargement” altogether, instead focusing on EU support during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of continued adherence to European value and reforms.

Job loss, economic packages and possible GDP growth 

As of May, about 200,000 people have lost their jobs since the state of emergency was declared, which corresponds to about 8% of the people employed in February and includes informal and self-employed workers.

Women were said to be most at risk. Not only were 86% of workers “on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight” women but in 70% of households, more chores and the expanded care of family members had also become the responsibilities of women.

To weather the COVID-19 storm the government enacted measures.

On 13 April, a set of economic measures worth RSD608.3 billion (€5.1 billion), which corresponds to 11% of Serbia’s GDP for 2020, took effect.

The measures consisted of direct aid to employees, as well as tax cuts and payments of  €100 as direct aid to all adults, said Finance Minister Siniša Mali on 11 April. As of 7 May, about 1 million workers from 232,000 companies who had requested a state-financed minimum salary would receive such support, the minister said.

Mali also announced on 15 April the adoption of two decrees pertaining to the implementation of the loan guarantee scheme with commercial banks worth €2 billion and RSD2.6 billion in support of farmsteads, to be implemented as of 20 April.

Serbia expects to see GDP growth in 2020, the minister told a press conference on 6 May. “We have relaunched the national economy sooner than we expected, and we can hope for better results,” Mali said, adding that the public debt, too, was under control.


For more on the various economic measures, read here:

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