Lately | Serbia

Counting the sick and dead of Sandžak

By - 02.07.2020

Authorities deny there is a crisis, but citizens are dying.

When the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić came to Novi Pazar on April 10, he brought with him 10 clinical and three transport respirators, 22,000 surgical and 3,000 epidemiological masks, gloves and 250 coveralls. On that occasion, the president asked the local population to be disciplined, declaring that “the next two weeks” would be exceptionally difficult, adding that the citizens will remember the good use “of this equipment delivery for the next 10, 20 years.”

A little more than two months later, the population of Novi Pazar but also that of other municipalities in Sandžak, the border area between Serbia and Montenegro, are counting their dead and sick. Alone. Doctors claim they don’t have sufficient staff or basic equipment to help patients.

State representatives are saying the situation is under control “as much as possible,” and that the state of affairs in Novi Pazar and Sandžak isn’t as difficult as in other places.

However, only the inhabitants of Sandžak know what’s actually happening.

A system crash

The local Sto plus radio writes that up to 35 people are buried daily. Before the pandemic started, the average was two or three funerals per day.

One report cites local residents who live near a cemetery and are counting the dead. According to the report, 10 people were buried on June 26, and six others a day before, seven people on June 28, and 10 again on June 29.

Many with symptoms have remained in their homes, where they are treating themselves because there is no other way.

Nobody knows the exact numbers of COVID-19 positive citizens in Sandžak, partly due to the stigma surrounding this sickness and in part because hospitals and local health centers, including exhausted health workers, aren’t able to track all cases.

Many with symptoms have remained in their homes, where they are treating themselves because there is no other way. One of them is Dženeta Agović, a nurse at the Health Center in Tutin, the only medical institution in this small town. She confirms that many people, especially in the beginning, didn’t come to the COVID-19 first aid station, although they had symptoms.

“Daily, we’ve had 30-40 patients who come to the COVID-19 first aid station. They all had issues and symptoms. This is a small community and people primarily resisted checking in at the COVID-19 first aid station, because they feared they would be recognized as somebody infected with the virus,” Agović said.

However, the number of infected people was growing by the day.

“I think that 30 people are discovered daily now,” Agović concluded on the basis of the field data she has access to.

In a conversation with N1 television, Mithat Eminović, the head of the hygenic-epidemiologic department of Tutin’s health center, specified that 850 patients underwent lung X-ray procedures from June 1 until June 29, adding that there were between 15 and 60 patients daily before that.

Eminović said that the system still functioned until the state of emergency was declared, from March 15 to May 6, and that the loosening of the previously adopted measures was unacceptable.

Eminović reminds us that Tutin was one of only three municipalities in Serbia that had not recorded a single active COVID-19 case until April 17.

The state of emergency was abolished at the same time when the election campaign started, as well as roughly when the June 21 elections were held. The abolishment was accompanied by the May bank lines for “Vučić’s 100 euro,” as many in Serbia lined up for the government’s measure that included a payment to all adult citizens, as part of the economic measures package to mitigate the pandemic’s consequences.

According to Dženeta Agović, these are only some of a multitude of reasons that have brought about the current situation in Tutin and the whole of Sandžak, an area with approximately 200,000 citizens. This region is located on the border with Montenegro, and constitutes one of the poorest ones in Serbia.

“I think it all started with those 100 euros. There were huge crowds then,” Agović added. “Some say it’s also related to the Eid celebrations. Nobody could have imagined that the situation could be this tough.”

She says that the catastrophe could have been felt in the air at the beginning of June, when employees at the health center witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of patients.

“These are patients who have had symptoms of the virus, and I’m not sure whether the tests showed they are positive,” Agović said, who herself did the test and it showed she was negative.

“I’ve met many people who were negative twice, and then the PCR in Novi Pazar, or however that was organized, showed that they were actually positive. Probably everybody wants to believe they aren’t positive so they cut themselves some slack although they were infected and walked around freely like that.”

Refugee camps

Just like many in Serbia, Agović is also very skeptical toward public data. BIRN has recently published an article showing that official data has demonstrated that COVID-19 has killed and sickened many more people than the authorities are admitting.

“I don’t trust the official data at all, if I can’t trust the tests. I tested negative twice, although I was literally giving up the ghost. I’m now in therapy,” Agović says during our online call. Due to the excruciating conditions, she is treating herself at home, as are many others in Sandžak.

Dženeta Agović emphasized that people are often not even being tested because, just like in her case, tests are showing they are negative, while the PCR test isn’t easy to get.

In the meantime, due to a lack of staff, the medical workers are continuing to do their job, although some are infected and showing mild symptoms.

“There’s no staff. The equipment has only arrived through lobbying with UNHCR. Employees are putting their back into this work. My colleague, who works in the X-ray department, says he’s dead, that he can’t take it anymore,” Agović says in a concerned tone of voice.

“I think this COVID-19 is yet to show its true face and all the flaws of the health system, and how important it is to invest in healthcare even when it isn’t lacking. I don’t know what could help us right now,” she concluded.

"Bearing in mind the alarming situation in Tutin and Novi Pazar, we have taken numerous measures to protect both the migrants and the center's staff."

Enisa Zukorlić, an employee at the Tutin camp

Bad conditions, a lack of adequate equipment and a sufficient number of medical staff are only some of the basic reasons that caused the catastrophe in Tutin, where there is also a migrant camp, and hence a great danger for the virus to spread further.

Enisa Zukorlić, an employee of the camp that has 88 people residing there, says there are still no recorded cases.

“Bearing in mind the alarming situation in Tutin and Novi Pazar, we have taken numerous measures to protect both the migrants and the center’s staff,” Zukorlić says, adding that they are automatically accommodating all newcomers in a 14-day quarantine. 

“If they have any symptoms at all, an antibody test is done. Unfortunately, this is the only thing we can do because the PCR test can only be performed in Novi Pazar and Belgrade. In order to leave the center, they need to get a two-day permit and be equipped with masks and gloves. 

“We are disinfecting the center with products containing chlorine, as well as the hands of all people before they have meals,” Zukorlić said, explaining the measures taken in Tutin’s camp.

In the meantime, the diaspora, citizens of Serbia and even those from Bosnia and Herzegovina, have self-organized to collect both financial aid, and help by delivering hospital equipment. 

Belgrade’s Ne davimo Beograd initiative has invited citizens to join the call to help citizens of Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin, which was started by activist Aida Ćorović. 

The call to help claims that the health system is close to collapsing in these cities, while the sick aren’t provided with the proper care, hospitals are packed, medical staff are working under risk and with no adequate protection.

“This is why we’re calling on all those who can to help the people of Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin, to contact us. At this moment, this is what we need the most: Protective masks, gloves, sheets, caps, shoe covers, disposable coats, visors, protective glasses, sheets, disinfection products, as well as vitamin C and alpha D3 ampuls, and Longacef.”

For now, the state has reacted by visiting the hot spots and denying the scope of the catastrophe. On Tuesday, June 30, the Serbian health minister Zlatibor Lončar and prime minister Ana Brnabić visited Sandžak too, where they denied claims that the number of deaths was concerning.

“Only eight to nine citizens have died,” the health minister said, while touring the General Hospital of Novi Pazar.

Some of the medical staff that would have met the delegation, turned their backs in protest or refused to shake hands with the officials.K

Feature image: Enes Đulović.