As the virus spreads in Eastern Europe, leaders are slow to act

As the virus spreads in Eastern Europe, leaders are slow to act

Belgrade – In the main hospital in the Romanian capital, the mortuary has run out of space for the dead in recent days, and doctors in Bulgaria have stopped routine surgeries so they can increase the number of COVID-19 patients. In the Serbian capital, the cemetery now works an extra day during the week in order to bury all the bodies that arrive.

For two months now, a stubborn wave of virus infections has ruthlessly engulfed many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are much lower than anywhere else on the continent. While medical workers have called for strict restrictions or even lockdowns, leaders have let the virus spread unimpeded for weeks.

“I don’t believe in measures. I don’t believe in the same measures that existed before vaccines, so why do we have vaccines then?” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said last month while the Balkan country suffered some of the worst daily death toll from the pandemic.


A World Health Organization official announced earlier this month that Europe is once again at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. While many western European countries are seeing a rise in infections, it is the countries to the east that are causing the deaths. Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkan countries recorded some of the highest per capita death rates in the world in the first week of November, according to the World Health Organization.

Experts say faltering vaccination campaigns and underfunded and mismanaged health systems have paved the way for the latest outbreaks, which have accelerated as leaders falter. Some act now – but many doctors say it has taken too long and is still not enough.

Many governments in the region are facing elections soon, which has undoubtedly made them reluctant to force people to get vaccinated or impose unpopular lockdowns even in ex-communist countries that previously implemented mandatory vaccinations without hesitation or where leaders rushed to impose lockdowns earlier . epidemic.


But politicians’ failure to respond quickly to the medical community’s calls has likely undermined already weak trust in institutions in countries where corruption is rampant. And misinformation about vaccines has also found fertile ground amid broader distrust of the authority.

This has left countries floundering during the recent boom with little protection. As countries around the world struggle to resist vaccines, many Central and Eastern European countries have particularly low rates for places where supply is not an issue. Bulgaria and Romania, both in the European Union, fully inoculated about 23% and 35% of their populations, respectively. Bosnia and Herzegovina has only 21% complete immunizations.

Referring to Romania’s slow response, doctor and health statistician Octavian Gorma described his country as a “scriptural example” of “the tragic consequences of the political appropriation of the response to the pandemic”.


Finally, leaders introduced a curfew this month, requiring people without a COVID permit — which shows evidence of vaccination, recover from illness or a negative test — to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and since then infections have fallen slightly But hospitals are still overcrowded.

In the main building in Bucharest, corpses of those who died of COVID-19 have lined up in the hallway in recent days because there was no room in the mortuary. Part of the waiting room has been converted into an emergency department, with a plastic cover raised.

In Serbia, some hospitals are so overwhelmed that they only deal with virus patients – leaving doctors to sue Brnabic, whose government faces elections in April.

“Since Brnabic said she did not believe in the procedures, about 900 people have died,” Slavica Plavcic, a pulmonologist, told N1 television on October 21.

The prime minister dismissed those criticisms, saying Thursday she was proud of her government’s response.


Meanwhile, authorities at the Belgrade cemetery say it now has an average of 65 burials a day, compared to 35-40 before the pandemic. Gravediggers now bury people on Sundays – which they usually didn’t – to bear the burden.

In neighboring Hungary, there are few mitigating measures in place. Like the government of Serbia, the government of Hungary says it prefers to rely on vaccines. With nearly 60% of people fully vaccinated, the country is in a better position than most of the region’s population – but this still leaves a large section of the population unprotected.

The Hungarian government earlier this month ordered the wearing of masks on public transport and allowed private sector employers to mandate vaccinations for their employees.

But Gyula Kinksis, head of the Hungarian Chamber of Physicians, said it was “too little, too late” and recommended making masks mandatory in all indoor spaces.

In a recent radio interview, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose populist party will run in elections next spring, said mandatory vaccinations “would be outside the bounds of what Hungarians would accept,” even while acknowledging that new restrictions could only slow, not stop, the spread of the virus.


Hospitals in Bulgaria, which has a low vaccination rate, have had to temporarily suspend all non-emergency surgeries so that more doctors can treat the influx of COVID-19 patients.

“Politicians are now thinking only of elections, but inevitably there will be a closure, but in tragic circumstances,” Ivan Martynov, a cardiologist at the main emergency hospital in Sofia, told national radio. Parliamentary elections are held on Sunday.

The rising infections appear to have been somewhat of a wake-up call in Croatia, which has seen unusually large numbers of people waiting for vaccinations in recent days.

On Wednesday, authorities said more than 15,000 people had received their first dose the previous day – a big jump after vaccinations were halted in the Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people.

Neighboring Croatia and Slovenia have also introduced COVID permits in recent weeks.

But medical organizations in Slovenia have warned that the Alpine health system is still on the verge of collapse. They urgently appealed to people to do their best to avoid seeking urgent care in the coming months.


“There are traffic accidents, accidents at work, other injuries,” said Bojana Baovic, head of the Medical Chamber of Slovenia. “This is an alarming situation that we can deal with with maximum solidarity.”


Associated Press writer Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Karel Janicek contributed in Prague.


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