These past few weeks have been a time of “firsts.”
The first time a political party has won 50% of the votes in elections. The first time women deputies have secured more than one-third of the Assembly seats (with the majority winning their seats without relying on the gender quota). The first time women make up two out of three deputy PMs. The first time a minister is from the Egyptian community.
For a country that to date has had governments largely reshuffling amongst parties and male politicians building political careers based on personal interest, these firsts represent a novelty in Kosovo’s democracy — a diverse composition promising to deliver a platform of justice and equity.
However, as the novelty over such records becomes yesterday’s news, there is another first recorded this past month — the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One year on from its first recorded cases, to say that Kosovo has failed to manage the pandemic efficiently, or manage it at all, is no overstatement. Since February’s election campaign, daily reported cases have risen from an average of around 300 per day, to almost 800 per day, while measures intended to limit the spread of the virus have not been strengthened, but relaxed. The recent surge is suspected to have been largely driven by political parties themselves during election campaigning with hundreds in cramped rooms and complete disregard for safety measures.
The pandemic year seems to have been anything else but one of urgency.
On the day the Assembly was constituted and the new government voted, 16 people were reported to have died from COVID-19 — the total number of deaths now stands at more than 1,800. Meanwhile, leading up to the Assembly’s constitutive session, the many deputies who were also part of the campaigns believed to have contributed to the surge, were greeting one another by hand-shaking or even embracing.
By this point, though, after an initial splurge of restrictive measures, the pandemic year seems to have been anything else but one of urgency. The pandemic and its consequent effects — be it jobs lost or income insecurities, an exhausted and unsupported health system, or even the lives lost — have largely taken a back seat to other issues seen as being more politically urgent.
That the pandemic was not considered urgent became clear almost at its outset in Kosovo — the government was brought down while thousands of Kosovars were in a strict lockdown, adding an additional layer of insecurity to the fear and worry already in place. That the pandemic was not considered urgent throughout the rest of the past year was evident as measures were introduced or removed erratically depending on potential political benefit and not as a management response.
It was not considered urgent as breakthrough vaccines were being approved and ordered by governments elsewhere yet the one here failed to secure contracts outside of the COVAX scheme, barely even entering the race to secure vaccines that has been largely won by rich countries hoarding their supplies; it was not considered urgent as COVID-19 patients have been forced to purchase medical treatment themselves or to rely on family members to assist in taking care of them within public hospitals.
The pandemic was not considered urgent during the election campaigning of political parties who promised to make the pandemic an urgent priority while without a hint of shame gathered hundreds in closed environments, without masks or any social distancing. And the pandemic has not been considered urgent by many pundits in media debates, where some downplay its urgency by relying on the argument that Kosovo either way has a young population so the risks to human life are not great.
Consequently, they have been belittling the potential grave experience of any COVID-19 infected person, of those with existing health conditions for whom COVID-19 can still prove fatal regardless of age, and demeaning the lives of older people as an inconsequential consideration.
Even VV, which received plenty of praise for its handling of the first days of the pandemic, has subsequently contributed its fair share to undermining the pandemic’s urgency. In the build up to its last days in government back in May 2020, when the numbers of reported new cases and deaths had actually been maintained at a relatively low level, they kicked off the rapid reopening that would only be augmented by its successor.
In addition, one of the first things VV did once again in its opposition role was hold a rally with thousands of people, kicking off the unofficial campaign to reelection. For its supporters, this might be a “small price to pay” in the quest for returning to power, but it also helped to set the course for things to come.
Waiting for the urgent plan
While the management of the pandemic particularly deteriorated during the time of its successor in government, VV now has the opportunity to show what they will do second time around.
The first signs indicate the lack of urgency remains.
On the first full day of the new government, outgoing and incoming ministers shook hands or hugged in the process of ceremonially transferring power, repeating the similar scenes witnessed amongst deputies in the Assembly the previous day.
Both instances were reported by the media or commented on by political parties as moments demonstrating good statesmanship and civility. That this was particularly used to emphasize how political divides can be bridged to ensure smooth transition of power just confirms the extent to which polarization has become ingrained, that a handing over of portfolios is perceived as an anomaly rather than an expectation.
On this day, the Infectious Clinic in Prishtina had already reached full capacity, and many of the other clinics that are being used to treat COVID-19 patients were similarly on the brink.
Placing emphasis on cordiality might seem trivial or even be shrugged off in a country where politics continues to be discussed primarily along the lines of positions rather than policies. But in a country that has been behaving as if it were exempt from the pandemic, and in a country that remains the only one in Europe without vaccines in a process that has lacked any transparency, the least that they can do is lead by example in the current absence of longer term weapons to fight the pandemic.
In a time of urgency, it is surprising that the “urgent plan” has not been prepared already, or at least thought of.
And particularly as there is yet a concrete plan to be presented.
In his first speech as prime minister addressing the Assembly, as well as in the government’s first so-called ceremonial cabinet meeting, Kurti did open by acknowledging that Kosovo is in a “health crisis” and the pandemic is the “main challenge.” He went on to promise, already in power as prime minister, a plan to place COVID-19 under control by “decreasing the case numbers” and leading toward the “elimination of deaths,” as well as the vaccination of 60% of the population by the end of the year.
In the first ceremonial meeting, Kurti also asked for an urgent plan. But in a time of urgency, it is surprising that the “urgent plan” has not been prepared already, or at least thought of.
This is, after all, a political party whose defining legacy of its last 52-day governance, was its swift — and for some exaggerated — reaction to the onset of the pandemic. A political party that at least since February 14 has been aware of a landslide win. Something? Anything?
On his first day as health minister for the second time around, Arben Vitia’s first action was to reinstate the Ministry’s general secretary, who was sacked by the previous health minister. On his second day as health minister, he stated that there was nothing yet on new restrictive measures, adding that they are in contact with relevant institutions and that “it is my first day in the office and realistically it is not that there is something regarding this issue.” Nothing.
This is not a case of nitpicking, for embarking on a leading position clearly also includes having an understanding and overview of the state in which one receives it from their predecessor. But a political party carrying unprecedented political capital also carries the responsibility and opportunity to lead and to deliver. Therefore, offering something, anything, other than “this is my first day in office” would represent the bare minimum to show that the urgency of the pandemic is truly being understood and tackled as the emergency that it is.
Into a new era?
As VV understands well, first days in office are largely about symbolism.
The new government’s first days also coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the NATO bombing campaign and the war.
New Prime Minister Kurti spent it on three visits. The first to Prekaz, where the Jashari family massacre took place in March 1998, the second to the grave of the late President Ibrahim Rugova, and the third to the grave of political activist Adem Demaçi. In his words, all important in terms of looking to the past, to “national uprisings that granted Kosovo its freedom,” to knowing “where we came from” and “remembering the contribution of all” — to “surely move forward in the way citizens voted for us on February 14.”
All three visits were presented as homages, public acts of demonstrating respect or special honor. And if commemorations and homages are chosen as the symbolic acts of inaugurating a new government, then such acts require a careful consideration of the messages and meanings being conveyed.
A visit to the hospitals could have served as a minimal show of gratitude toward overwhelmed health professionals.
If the goal was to remember the contributions of all, then shouldn’t the national narrative of the past move toward one of larger inclusivity and remembrance — one where everyone can recognize themselves? In tying the past with the current, then shouldn’t homage be paid also to the struggles and triumphs of the living?
A visit to Heroinat, the statute in memory of the women violated or raped during the war, or to the women of Krusha, who after losing almost all the men of the village on March 25, 1999 rebuilt the local rural economy, could speak of a new leadership. Perhaps a visit to the memorial of the Green Market Massacre in Mitrovica, which only last year sparked a big public debate after it was revealed that a Roma girl had initially been missed out from the names of the victims.
One that chooses to recognize that while war is an individual just as much as a collective experience, building a national narrative over it means including recognition for those who have been systematically excluded, lessened or attempted to be erased from the narrative of the past and ensuring they are included in the present.
Inaugurating the new government with visits could have also served as a moment to align it with the image of the new institutions, where diversity and inclusion are being celebrated as firsts. And in the current state of the pandemic, a visit to the hospitals could have served as a minimal show of gratitude toward overwhelmed health professionals, empathy toward worried patients and family members, and a clear message to the public that tackling the pandemic is a matter of urgency for this government.
In these elections, VV presented itself as the choice in a “referendum.” This choice of word was politically savvy, adding to citizens’ ballots the weight of whether their vote would contribute to the promised change for the country.
But the problem with referendums is that they refer to voting on a single political issue. And this time around, VV’s mantra of “out with the corrupt, in with the clean” as a referendum, won them unprecedented support compared to any other political party.
But a referendum by itself doesn’t end with the act of making the choice. A referendum is, and must be, followed by transitions of sorts. Because even though VV has promised to drastically change the country, such a mission does not begin from scratch.
Transitions are harder than referendums, and VV as the “beacon of hope and change” will be judged precisely on those. But how they conduct themselves now in power, particularly with virtually a straight majority, will serve as the test to the extent their election is a page-turner in Kosovar politics.
Now is the time to move beyond the firsts, and for VV to show what they can do in power the second time around.
Which brings the last first — the first time a Kosovar political party in power is largely expected to govern on a progressive platform, by intervening not only where there is inequality, but addressing inequity as the source of the problem. This means, acknowledging how inequalities are intertwined and how the pandemic in particular has not just exposed them but highlighted that attention to address them is required from the government.
It includes the fact that the vast majority of the population lack resources to purchase COVID-19 treatment; that the informal participation of men, and particularly women, in the labor market leaves them extremely vulnerable to all pandemic-related repercussions; that single mothers face particularly challenging realities of holding onto a job and providing care to their children; that domestic-based violence toward LGBTI individuals has increased throughout the past year, not just during times of lockdown; that access to basic pandemic protection supplies, particularly in minority communities, is largely unattainable, with their cost equaling many families’ daily income for survival. To name just a few.
Now is the time to move beyond the firsts, and for VV to show what they can do in power the second time around, and potentially for more than just 52 days. That means delivering on their statements that it is time to “roll up our sleeves” and deliver on what they have been elected for. It means governing for every citizen of Kosovo.
And it means treating the pandemic with the urgency that it demands.
Feature image: K2.0.