Albania must avoid at all costs the increases of patients with Covid-19 virus needing hospitalization, experts say, appealing to the population to keep physical distancing and wear masks indoors. The disease could overwhelm Albania’s weak health system.
“So far the health system has kept the burden of the disease without collapsing and this is commendable,” says Ilir Alimehmeti, a clinical epidemiologist from Tirana.
Officially, Albania has 500 beds for Covid-19 patients. Currently, in two Tirana hospitals — the Infectious Diseases and Shefqet Ndroqi Hospital — there are 120 patients.
Albania has a low number of hospital beds in relation to its population — three beds are available for every 1000 inhabitants.
Fear of the second wave
As of publication, there are 5,750 cases and 176 deaths in Albania
Citing official government sources, Alimehmeti says there is a 10% increase in new cases on a weekly basis.
Doctors and health experts fear that there will be a second wave, which may come in the fall and could be made deadlier by the spread of the seasonal flu, meanwhile the government is still finding ways to respond.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Albania ranks 74th in the world in terms of confirmed cases and 54th in terms of active cases per 100,000 inhabitants, which is far better than some other countries in the region, including Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia.
At the end of March, after the first confirmed cases, prime minister Edi Rama declared a “state of natural disaster” that ended June 23.
Nevertheless, due to the numbers of infected people spiking all over the region, on July 14 the government issued a decision mandating face masks in closed environments, while cafes and clubs have been closed since July 20.
During the lockdown, a number of human rights groups warned about various government decisions and warlike rhetoric as well as the manipulation and monopoly of information by the prime minister.
According to the data collected by the think tank OBC Transeuropa, some government decisions appeared for the first time on Rama’s Facebook page, and only later in the media. At the same time, the government became very hostile toward the media, fining Ora News TV for not social distancing in its primetime news programs for example. This was called disproportionate and politically motivated by civil society and others in the media, which led to its withdrawal a week later by the Inspectorate.
Ora News TV is a privately owned station that is often critical about the government and was seized by prosecutors on Monday, August 3. The government alleges that Ora News TV is part of the illegally acquired assets of its owner, Ylli Ndroqi, who says that the seizure is politically motivated. Prosecutors claim that Ndroqi is an international drug dealer.
Filling the capacity gap
The Minister of Health and Social Protection, Ogerta Manastirliu, in July announced that 300 doctors, nurses and technicians, would be added to the health system, in response to the medium-term COVID-19 strategy.
“We are preparing for the autumn and winter, which will certainly be difficult,” the minister said.
“We will strengthen assets in terms of human resources, epidemiologists and employees at the Local Health Care Units not only in Tirana, where there are doubled teams, but also in all regions.”
In general, for decades, the Albanian health sector has lacked medical staff. According to the most recent data, there is a gap of about 330 general practitioners and about 250 specialist doctors.
In order to overcome this gap, the government issued a decision calling some health workers back from retirement, but also hiring students and residents.
However, epidemiologists like Alimehmeti, are warning that the first wave has not yet passed.
“The current situation is the continuation of the first wave, which was repressed through the hermetic closings by the government, in March and May,” Alimehmeti says.
“This lockdown only served to gain time, in order to increase hospital, laboratory and awareness capacities, but the closing simply delayed the onset of the wave and did not eradicate it.”
While the government and health officials, as well as the population, are trying to fight the pandemic, the exodus of people, including medical workers, from the country toward the West, continues.
Lack of medical staff is, at the moment, an issue the government cannot tackle, while the official statistics show the number of available beds in hospitals, the public do not have enough information about the medical staff levels.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to deal with the economic consequences of the lockdown. The country opened its borders for international tourists.
On June 1, Albania opened a land border with Kosovo hoping to attract tourists, while the airport was opened on June 22 for international flights.
At the same time, the EU borders for Albanian citizens remain closed, while citizens of most Western countries are barred from travel to the country.
Albania at the moment is relying on tourists from the region to help its economy. Only from Kosovo, according to Albanian State Police statistics, 30,000 people entered the country last weekend.
Yet, the government in Albania issued a protocol to be followed in the tourist areas, establishing health points, and the rule that all people who go to the beach have to pass through temperature checks.
The protocol also orders that all the umbrellas at the beaches have to be, at least, 3.5m apart, and lifeguards are instructed to monitor the implementation of the measures.
In comparison to the other countries in the region, Albania has a lower number of COVID-19 cases. Doctors and the officials are asking citizens, as well as tourists, to follow the measures in order to keep the numbers low.K
Feature image: Elona Elezi.