Illustration: Jete Dobranja for PI.

A manual: how to lose the battle with COVID-19

The policies of the Hoti Government geared towards fighting coronavirus are systematically failing to protect citizens from both an economic and public health standpoint, with Monday’s restrictions revealing a careless disregard for residents in dire financial circumstances.

“COVID-19 is leaving, summer is coming” — this was the message of hope that came from infectious disease specialist Doctor Valbon Krasniqi back on 24 May, a time when the number of people testing positive for coronavirus in Kosovo had dropped to the single digits. 

Perhaps it was the belief that Kosovo had won the battle against COVID-19 which led the governing coalition that was voted in on 3 June to name Armend Zemaj as Minister of Health, a politician with no experience to speak of in either crisis management or public health.

But even though summer arrived, the virus did not go anywhere. 

A few days before the Kurti Government left office, almost all of the restrictions that had been in place since 13 March were scrapped. On 3 June, the night that the new government led by Avdullah Hoti was instated, the National Institute of Public Health announced a rapid decline in people testing positive for coronavirus, with a total of 1,142 cases of coronavirus recorded since March, 30 of whom died and 871 that had recovered. It was proof that Kosovo had done well keeping the virus at bay.

However, the situation has changed drastically since: 40 days later, there have now been 5,118 cases recorded, 2,640 of them currently active, and 108 people have died.

This state of affairs led the government to put a number of measures in place on Monday, deciding to prohibit certain forms of economic activity and restrict movement in several municipalities through curfews to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The economic standstill between mid-March and June caused as of yet incalculable harm. This period marks the lowest economic growth in the country since the first months after the Kosovo war, hitting Kosovo’s state budget and increasing its number of jobseekers by the thousands.

As if this was not enough, Kosovo also witnessed serious political upheaval when the Kosovo Assembly passed a no confidence motion against the newly-instated government of Albin Kurti. In turn, this delayed the passing of legislation that would help Kosovo to cope financially with the public health emergency and the resultant economic damage.

To this day, the Kosovo Assembly has not approved a budget review process that could lead to the reallocation of the state’s resources to assist the sectors in Kosovo worst hit by the consequences of the pandemic.

While the March-June lockdown inevitably caused Kosovo financial damage, so will opening up everything in full with careless disregard for people’s safety. To compare, Sweden is among the only countries in Europe that did not take any preemptive measures to contain the virus when it first broke out in Europe. Today, the country is feeling the economic consequences of its decision, as well as experiencing a significantly higher death rate than its Nordic neighbours.

The Hoti Government has hesitated to reinstate stricter measures to protect the population, and has so far been unable to approve the Draft Law on Pandemic Protection, despite recommendations from the Constitutional Court to pass a law that would provide guidance on strategy for citizens and institutions when facing a pandemic. 

The failure to increase testing capacities in Kosovo – a promise made in Hoti’s governing programme – means that Kosovo has joined the ranks of countries that are losing the battle with this pandemic.

In comparison, Kosovo’s southern neighbour, North Macedonia, which has almost the same population as Kosovo, has tested twice as many people than our country. Since the situation began to worsen, both Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined European countries like Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Hungary who have banned citizens of Kosovo from entering their territory without documentary evidence that they do not have coronavirus. 

Although more tests were promised, the procedures for testing have become more and more bureaucratic. An ordinary person is only able to take a test if they have numerous and visible symptoms, while politicians and their family members have been able to take tests with ease and without having any symptoms.

On Monday, during a session at the Kosovo Assembly, Minister of Health Armend Zemaj publicly asked opposition Vetevendosje MPs to not “hesitate and do the tests” as it is visible that the “virus is in their eyes.” 

This unorthodox claim sounds more like an attack on his political rivals than a sincere demand to take the tests, and sounds even more bizarre coming from the mouth of the health minister considering that dozens of citizens a day are being turned away from testing facilities due to shortages. Does this signal that Kosovo’s politicians are capable of receiving testing without waiting in line like the rest of us?

Considering the evidence of inequality in access to testing seen so far, it is worrying to consider what would happen if institutions were in the position to decide who is entitled access to ventilators and emergency care if a real shortage in equipment is witnessed. Testing up until now has proven that when state resources are lacking, those who are given priority are not those most in need, but those in power.

Meanwhile, Kosovo’s public institutions have not managed to present any durable economic solutions for the people financially affected by the pandemic. Instead, it has shut down several different sectors, including kindergartens and sporting, cultural and recreational businesses, with Kosovo residents now obliged to wear masks in public spaces. 

A single-use mask bought in a pharmacy costs 50 cents on average. According to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics, 18% of Kosovo’s population is living on the poverty line, surviving on less than 1.85 euros per day, while 5.1% of the population live in extreme poverty, on an average of 1.31 euros per day. In numbers, there are around 217,000 people who live on this amount.

From the seats of the Kosovo Assembly, where the average salary is 2,000 euros per month, they are making it mandatory for citizens that live on less than 1.31 euros per day to wear masks that cost at least 0.50 euros. A warning to fine citizens if they are not wearing masks – while failing to provide this essential protective equipment for free – is not the smartest plan if their aim is to protect people from the spread of the coronavirus.

There is no clear strategy for countries to follow when it comes to fighting COVID-19. But with Kosovo on the verge of collapse from both an economic and public health standpoint, the country’s representatives must get over their political squabbling and approve the decisions and laws that would show that Kosovo’s politicians are working in solidarity with business owners, with each other, and, most importantly, those who rely on the government to protect them because they cannot afford to protect themselves.

Illustration: Jete Dobranja for PI.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

14 July 2020 - 12:57

Agron Demi

14/07/2020 - 12:57

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Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.