Not enough beds and not enough doctors: a skyrocketing COVID-19 caseload is pushing hospitals in the Balkans to the cusp of collapse, in chaotic scenes reminding some medics of the region’s 1990s wars.
After nearly a year of keeping outbreaks more or less under control, the nightmare scenario that the Balkans feared from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is now starting to unfold.
In hard-hit Bosnia-Herzegovina, one doctor described the distress of having to juggle the care of multiple patients whose lives were hanging by a thread.
“The situation reminds me of the war, and I’m afraid it could get even worse during the winter,” the doctor, who requested anonymity, told reporters. “We can do the work of three [people], but not of five.”
The Western Balkans, one of Europe’s poorest corners, has for weeks been battling an explosive coronavirus spike, its death toll doubling in the past month alone to reach nearly 10,000.
The crisis is exposing gaps in healthcare systems that have long suffered from low funding and a brain-drain crisis, with an exodus of promising young doctors and nurses leaving to seek better wages and training abroad.
Even before the pandemic began, the Balkans had some of the lowest density rates of doctors in Europe, WHO data showed.
Hospitals are now facing further shortages as staff fall victim to the respiratory disease.
In Serbia, about 2,000 medical workers have been forced to self-isolate just as medical wards are seeing a huge inundation of patients filling beds in the capital, Belgrade.
“I never had such an experience in my professional career,” Rade Panic, the president of a Serbian doctors’ union, told regional TV channel N1 on Friday in a trembling voice.
“I didn’t have room for patients that we medically consider young, I didn’t have anywhere to transport them,” added the anaesthesiologist, who works in the “red zone” of a hospital treating the most serious COVID-19 cases.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro are all in Europe’s top 10 when it comes to highest per capita death rates on the continent.
Yet governments in the region have been reluctant to return to the drastic lockdowns imposed at the start of the pandemic, instead opting for lighter restrictions such as early closure of restaurants.
While Serbia is racing to build two brand new hospitals, Kosovo is considering adapting old hotels into makeshift wards, including the Grand Hotel in downtown Pristina.
Overflowing clinics in Pristina mean that some patients, such as 33-year-old Veprim Morina, are being turned away.
The doctor “told me to take my medication at home since the hospitals are full,” the fitness instructor told reporters.
Morina managed to hire a nurse to provide treatment at home — an option those who can afford it are opting for when possible.
Getting a hospital bed now requires having “connections,” he said. “You have to be very lucky to find a place.”
In neighboring North Macedonia, the government is marshaling private clinics and their staff to treat COVID-19 patients after public hospitals hit full capacity.
“We have been providing new beds, but it is harder and harder,” North Macedonian Minister of Health Venko Filipce said last week.
Outside clinics in the capital, Skopje, relatives of patients bring food and sometimes even medicine to their loved ones.
“Catastrophic. Unorganized. No one answers the phone for hours,” one man seeking information on his sick relative said. “They [medical staff] are fighting, giving their best, but they simply cannot do everything.”
Croatian doctors have also warned of staff and equipment shortages.
More than 2,100 patients are hospitalized and 3,000 would push the healthcare system to “collapse,” they said.
Experts have said politicians have struggled to strike a balance between controlling the virus and protecting fragile economies.
“We are too poor that all [lockdown measures] be repeated twice,” Croatian economist Ljubo Jurcic said.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, shops, restaurants and gyms all remain open, while Serbia recently cut hours for businesses, but has stopped short of an all-out closure.
While progress on vaccines is giving doctors hope, they fear the chaos that could unfold in the meantime.
“I don’t understand why the authorities don’t put in place more restrictive measures,” said Jasmina Smajic, a doctor in the Bosnian city of Tuzla. “Something must be done about this if we want to prevent catastrophic consequences.”
On the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo, enthusiastic slackers share their tips: Fill up a thermos with whiskey, do planks or stretches in the work pantry at regular intervals, drink liters of water to prompt lots of trips to the toilet on work time, and, once there, spend time on social media or playing games on your phone. “Not working hard is everyone’s basic right,” one commenter wrote. “With or without legal protection, everyone has the right to not work hard.” Young Chinese people are pushing back against an engrained culture of overwork, and embracing a philosophy of laziness known as “touching
‘STUNNED’: With help from an official at the US Department of Justice, Donald Trump reportedly planned to oust the acting attorney general in a bid to overturn the election Former US president Donald Trump was at his Florida resort on Saturday, beginning post-presidency life while US President Joe Biden settled into the White House, but in Washington and beyond, the chaos of the 45th president’s final days in office continued to throw out damaging aftershocks. In yet another earth-shaking report, the New York Times said that Trump plotted with an official at the US Department of Justice to fire the acting attorney general, then force Georgia Republicans to overturn his defeat in that state. Meanwhile, former acting US secretary of defense Christopher Miller made an extraordinary admission, telling Vanity Fair that
Boeing set a target of designing and certifying its jetliners to fly on 100 percent sustainable fuels by 2030, amid rising pressure on planemakers to take climate change seriously. Regulators allow a 50-50 blend of sustainable and conventional fuels, and Boeing on Friday said it would work with authorities to raise the limit. Rival Airbus is considering another tack: a futuristic lineup of hydrogen-powered aircraft that would reach the skies by 2035. The aircraft manufacturers face growing public clamor to cut emissions in the aviation industry, which added more than 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2019, according to
Mongolian Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh on Thursday resigned following a protest over a hospital’s treatment of a new mother who tested positive for COVID-19. Khurelsukh, whose Mongolian People’s Party holds a strong majority in the parliament known as the State Great Khural, stepped down after accusing Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party of orchestrating a political crisis. A small protest broke out in the capital, Ulan Bator, on Wednesday after TV footage appeared of a woman who had just given birth being escorted in slippers and a thin robe from the maternity ward to a special wing for COVID-19 patients