The Kosovo Government’s failure to attain even a single dose of any vaccine against COVID-19 leaves the country on the precipice of another crisis, which could inflict further damage to its ailing healthcare system and economy.
In early January, outgoing Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and Minister of Health Armend Zemaj stated that vaccines against COVID-19 for 360,000 people would be secured through COVAX, a programme aiming for equitable access to vaccines run in part by the World Health Organisation.
Hoti and Zemaj also claimed that a deal would soon be finalised for more than 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, which would be purchased directly from the company.
However, it was soon being reported in the Kosovar media that no deal had been concluded between Pfizer and the Kosovo Government, and claims made by Zemaj and Hoti that vaccination would begin in February, with 20,000 people receiving shots daily, have now proved unfounded. As of March 1, 2021, Kosovo is the only country in the region yet to receive even a single dose of any vaccine against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, COVAX has since published a report stating that Kosovo will receive just 100,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, only 15 percent of which is likely to be available in the first quarter of the year. Head of the National Institute of Public Health Naser Ramadani has stated that Kosovo is still waiting for the first contingent, but has not specified a date for their arrival.
Zemaj and Hoti’s claims came only a few weeks before Kosovo’s snap elections held on February 14, and it has been suggested that claims over the purchase of vaccines were used for electoral ends. Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 was exacerbated during the election campaign, with the results of large-scale gatherings now being seen through the recent increase in the number of recorded infections.
Two weeks ago, the proportion of people being tested that were confirmed as positive for the novel coronavirus stood at around 8 percent, while in recent weeks this figure has doubled to around 16 percent. Over 1,000 more cases were recorded by the National Institute of Public Health between February 19-28 in comparison to the period between February 9-18.
Another influx of patients requiring treatment for COVID-19 could once again overload Kosovo’s hospitals and healthcare staff, and force the government to tighten measures. This is likely to deal another blow to the country’s economy, which has already suffered severely over the last 12 months – the World Bank estimated in October that Kosovo’s economy was set to contract by 8.8 percent in 2020.
However, another overwhelming influx of COVID-19 patients is not the only risk posed to Kosovo’s health care system – fighting the pandemic over the past year has also taken a toll on other services provided. At Kosovo’s largest hospital, the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo for example, the waiting list for receiving surgery has grown significantly.
In 2019, the waiting list for a stent operation at the cardiology clinic was almost non-existent, while currently around 600 patients are waiting in line for this simple procedure. Meanwhile, around 300 citizens are on the waiting list for surgery at the Urological department, roughly double the levels seen in 2019.
The failure of the Kosovo Government to secure vaccines is one of the main causes for the perilous current situation, which threatens both the economy and the health service. Vaccines would not bring to an end the pandemic, but at least healthcare staff and those more vulnerable, primarily the elderly and those with chronic diseases, would be safer.
Kosovo should not be in a situation where it is sitting waiting for vaccines from COVAX. In the approved budget for 2021, 40 million euros were allocated to purchasing vaccines and preparing conditions for a vaccination programme.
The current acting government, or the one set to be formed following the February 14 elections, need to be robust in their efforts to purchase the vaccines through this state budget and not rely on donations.
A clearer strategy, engaging all institutional and diplomatic capacities, could at least secure vaccines for the most vulnerable in society, while a continued failure to do so will see Kosovo face far-reaching consequences far beyond a rise in recorded infections.
Illustration: Jete Dobranja/Prishtina Insight.
The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
Bujar Vitija is the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Shneta, an online media dedicated to health issues.
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