Attendees of the Exit festival dance in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, on July 11, 2021. (Nenad MIHAJLOVIC / AFP).

With packed bars, just a few masks, and hardly any restrictions, Serbia seems to have left the pandemic of coronavirus. But nothing is further from reality in this Balkan country that is currently at the forefront of COVID-19 infections in the world.

This country of seven million inhabitants averages more than 6,500 cases a day in the last two weeks, according to AFP data, which means an infection rate of almost 93.5 people per 100,000 inhabitants, by far the highest in the world.

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The availability and variety of vaccines is high, but only 40% of the population has the complete guideline.

And although the mask and social distancing are required indoors in public places, the rule is hardly enforced, with what its follow-up depends on the will of each one.

“I am not worried about the virus. I had it last year and it wasn’t a big deal. “Marko, a 20-year-old economics student, told AFP in a packed bar in Belgrade.

Attendees of the Exit festival dance in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, on July 11, 2021. (Nenad MIHAJLOVIC / AFP).

Medical professionals urged the government to impose stricter measures, such as limiting the opening hours of non-essential shops or introducing a health certificate that limits the social interaction of those not vaccinated.

“Survival mode”

But after weeks weighing the idea, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic dismissed it, arguing that there was no way to effectively impose it.

“The health pass is impossible to control, just as it is impossible to control the use of masks indoors”Brnabic said in a recent televised appearance.

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“We have a remedy for this (…) and it is vaccination”he added.

Renowned Serbian epidemiologist Predrag Kon, a member of a government-appointed think tank, was incredulous at those words.

“I can’t understand what I just heard”he said at a group crisis meeting, accusing the leaders of “obstruction.”

Passengers wearing masks travel by tram in Belgrade on October 11, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic.  (OLIVER BUNIC / AFP).
Passengers wearing masks travel by tram in Belgrade on October 11, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (OLIVER BUNIC / AFP).

Rade Panic, who runs a medical union, links the government’s reluctance to toughen measures to next spring’s elections and the widespread influence of skeptics about vaccines.

“The anti-vaccines created a problem. But the government does not want to address it for the elections ”, dijo Panic a AFP.

“The message is that we are alone (…) We are in pure survival mode”, he claimed.

AFP asked the government for an interview, but received no response.

“It is a battlefield”

Besides being lax in applying its rules, Serbia also fails to get young people to get vaccinated. According to the government, only 22% of citizens between the ages of 18 and 30 have done so.

Brnabic believes that young Serbs are different from those in other countries such as France, where the health certificate prompted vaccination.

“When they hear of someone falsifying the certificate to enter a bar or a disco, that will become fashionable and all the young people will try to show that they can do it,” he said.

Panic, who works as an anesthesiologist in a hospital dedicated to covid, assures that the doctors are “overwhelmed” and called the leader a “dilettante”.

“Out there is a battlefield, both for dying patients and exhausted doctors,” he said.

People wearing protective masks travel by bus in Belgrade on October 11, 2021. OLIVER BUNIC / AFP).
People wearing protective masks travel by bus in Belgrade on October 11, 2021. OLIVER BUNIC / AFP).

Cradle of misinformation

Initially, Serbia it vigorously deployed its vaccination program, securing millions of doses from Western countries such as Russia and China, to the point that it even invited foreigners to get the injection.

It is the first European country to obtain permits to produce the Chinese Sinopharm and the Russian Sputnik V.

It was also among the first in the world to offer a booster dose to the general public.

But this Balkan state has been the cradle of numerous false reports about vaccination, fueled by a lack of trust towards the government and institutions after years of corruption scandals and a lack of transparency.

Even a handful of controversial doctors have publicized these suspicions and have gained thousands of followers on social networks and space in national media.

“The state must not only motivate citizens, it must also do everything possible to stop lies and manipulation,” tweeted Srdjan Lukic, a Serbian pulmonologist now working in Slovenia.

“Serbia has failed miserably here”, added.

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