Blood on their hands

Kosovo has the highest death COVID-19 death rate in the world for August. It is a result of political mismanagement and successive governments’ failure to protect public health and the lives of citizens.

Citizens pay for bad governance with their lives, and the people of Kosovo have been quietly paying this price for two decades now.

They have been paying with their lives through living in a country with some of the highest air pollution levels in Europe, which the European Environment Agency estimates causes over 3,300 premature deaths each year. 

They have been paying with their lives due to an inadequate health care system, often dying in hospitals for the most banal of reasons, including problems with the oxygen supply. 

They have been paying with their lives every time the state has given priority to a politician or their family members to receive treatment abroad, placing the names of those without any political affiliation at the bottom of the list to receive financial assistance.

These old problems, which emerged as a result of poor, corrupt and nepotistic governance, have become even weightier at a time when Kosovo is facing a deadly pandemic. The risk to citizens’ health and life posed by misgovernment is now even more direct, and the Kosovo Government’s inability to manage the situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak has been among the key factors in the loss of over 500 Kosovo citizens.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with an average age of 26, while 38 percent of the population is under the age of 20 and only eight percent is over the age of 65 in relation to the total population. 

These parameters should help provide Kosovo with one of the lowest death rates in the world. The data recorded so far show that the death rate from COVID-19 for persons under the age of 49 is no higher than 0.4 per cent. Meanwhile, 82 percent of citizens in Kosovo say that they are in good health, another fact which should result in fewer fatalities from COVID-19.

Nevertheless, Kosovo currently has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate. There are at least two analyses conducted during August that have confirmed this. The mortality rate of confirmed cases has reached 3.81 per cent, equivalent to the global average mortality rate among people between 60 and 70 years old.

Kosovo’s National Institute of Public Health has not published data on the age of victims of COVID-19. However, data from the Municipality of Prishtina show that the age group with the highest number of deaths is between 25 and 34 years old.

How can this high death rate be explained? There are two likely explanations: 

First, COVID-19 being combined with one of the most polluted environments in Europe, the malnutrition of the population and the failed health system, has led to a higher fatality rate. Second, inadequate government measures have yielded no significant effect in containing the spread of the virus since their reinstatement in early July.

So far, the Hoti government has been reluctant to address the aggravated public health situation, and the measures it has imposed have often bordered on the ridiculous.

According to official measures, a citizen who walks alone on the street is obliged to wear a mask, but he is not obliged to do the same if he enters a gym, where the risk of infection is among the highest. 

A citizen can be fined for not wearing a mask while walking on the pavement, but if he is near a cafe and sits at the many tables that are already placed on the pavement, then he is not obliged to wear a mask. According to epidemiologist Lul Raka, cafes and restaurants are the epicenter of COVID-19 infections in Kosovo.

Other measures are also nonsensical. While swimming pools are banned in Kosovo, citizens are allowed to visit the beaches of Albania, Turkey, Montenegro and other countries which allow Kosovars visa-free entrance. More than 810,000 Kosovo citizens are reported to have entered Albania in August alone.

The government has also shown a complete lack of responsibility over reopening schools. On August 24, it announced that classes would commence on September 1, while four days later, the Ministry of Education flip-flopped, announcing that school would now resume on September 14.

Since June, Kosovo’s National Institute of Public Health, NIPH, has made testing criteria more restrictive, no longer testing citizens that came into contact with those confirmed as infected. Throughout the summer, despite the surge in cases, only those with symptoms were eligible for a test at the public institution. 

Although the NIPH constantly advertises the emergency contact number for those who are concerned about being infected, this telephone line is frequently impossible to reach. All of these factors all but ensure that the number of recorded cases is almost certainly significantly lower than the actual number of cases in the country.

Furthermore, there is no transparency regarding the results of tests in private labs, which have been licensed to carry out PCR testing since the beginning of August. Despite these new capacities, the number of tests the NIPH has provided results for daily has remained at the same level, roughly between 400 and 500.

Meanwhile, when announcing the numbers of new cases, the NIPH has not indicated which were ascertained in private labs and which were discovered in the public institution’s own laboratory. It all begs the question of whether public institutions have reduced the number of tests it conducts in order to provide benefits to private labs.

As well as a lack of transparency over where testing is being carried out, there has been an additional injustice placed upon citizens. While politicians and their families are regularly being tested at the NIPH, citizens are obliged to carry out these tests in private institutions, for a price of between 20 and 65 euros.

Alongside the loss of citizen’s life, the inability of public institutions to properly manage the pandemic has had major negative effects on sport and the economy. Two football teams from Kosovo, FC Drita and FC Prishtina have been eliminated from international competitions after COVID-19 tests carried out abroad produced different results compared to the tests carried out by the NIPH.

Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 cases has made many Western European countries impose a mandatory two-week quarantine for those returning from Kosovo. 

According to one study, 40 percent of recent cases recorded in Germany involved infections contracted abroad, while Kosovo is at the top of the list of countries in which German citizens were infected. Kosovo has exported more cases of the virus to Germany than Turkey, despite the Turkish diaspora in Germany being ten times larger than that of Kosovo.

Back in Kosovo, the government’s inability to manage the pandemic situation, its lack of remorse over the lost lives and its lack of legitimacy after ousting the government that emerged from the last parliamentary elections, have proved fatal for citizen’s health. 

The situation is only likely to deteriorate with the autumn, when, in addition to COVID-19, we will also face seasonal viruses and an increased level of pollution.

There is no magic solution to the numerous crises triggered by this pandemic. However, a government that shows sensitivity to public health, that manages to implement the decisions it takes, that does not come up with contradictory decisions within the same day, and earns the trust of its people would be a great help to Kosovo in these uncertain times.

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

29 August 2020 - 14:39

Agron Demi

29/08/2020 - 14:39

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.