Alarm is growing in Bosnia over the escalating coronavirus crisis in Sarajevo Canton, which has recorded the highest rate of cases and deaths in the Western Balkans.
In the two weeks to March 14, the capital of the canton of Bosnia recorded 1,763 cases and 31.5 deaths per 100,000 population, according to data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Local media reported on Sunday that 90 funerals were held in just four days in Sarajevo.
The daily death toll is double the record 335 recorded in March of last year, an early peak in the pandemic.
“The death toll in Sarajevo in March was never – except perhaps during the [1992-1995] war – was higher, ”reported a local news site.
#Canton #Sarajevo is at the top when it comes to the number of # Covid19 deaths – per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days – while the remainder #BiH does a little better than only 5 #I states and 2 #WB States. pic.twitter.com/we3ChtXJ6k
– Go to Ćerimagić (@adicerimagic) March 14, 2021
The government has been under pressure to start immunizing its population of 3.3 million en masse, but 12 weeks after the European Union and neighboring Serbia started their immunization programs, the country has failed until now only received 50,000 vaccines – mostly donations.
More recently, on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to donate 30,000 vaccines after meeting with the three Bosnian presidents in Ankara.
Bosnia had ordered 2.1 million vaccines under the global COVAX program, but deliveries have been delayed and it is still unclear when the country will be able to obtain its first vaccines from distributors.
“ A self-proclaimed corona-free zone ”
On top of the crisis, there were few physical distancing measures in place for much of the year and a lax stance on masks.
Indoor spaces such as cafes and clubs were opened to capacity until recently, when it became apparent that cases and deaths were on the rise.
Vedran Zubic, a high school teacher in Sarajevo, told Al Jazeera he has known dozens of people infected in recent weeks and at least 10 people hospitalized due to COVID-19.
“People are lining up to organize a funeral,” Zubic said.
“When all [in Europe] was shutting down, we were a self-proclaimed “corona free zone”. People were coming [into the country], dozens of Jahorina mountain (ski) buses were arriving in the city, cafes and shopping centers were open. Only the schools were closed.
“During this time, the government could not buy vaccines … there was no action and people are not protecting themselves.”
Adi Cerimagic, analyst at the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative, told Al Jazeera: “When the Bosnian authorities, under public pressure amid a successful vaccination program in Serbia and a new pandemic wave , have decided to buy directly [from the distributors], it has been carried out slowly to their own detriment and so far we are seeing poor results.
He said officials should have been more prepared and more productive to secure and deploy vaccines.
“It was necessary to organize experts in this field that Bosnia has [across the country] who would provide professional support in choosing which producers to contact, and thus increase public confidence in the vaccines purchased. “
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told Al Jazeera that there was another factor behind the woes of the Sarajevo pandemic.
“A second reason seems to be a degree of obstructionism, in particular on the part of a handful of HDZ (Croatian Nationalist Party) cadres in key positions in the state and federation government apparatus.” , Mujanovic said. “Some speculate [they] use this situation to take advantage of concessions [out of] their desire for certain changes to the electoral law.
‘A total collapse’
Immunologist Jasenko Karamehic told the Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz on Tuesday that vaccines had to be bought quickly for at least two-thirds of the population, or one and a half million people, to gain herd immunity.
Smaller purchases of 20,000 or 100,000 vaccines could be counterproductive because there is no consistent vaccination, Karamehic said.
“The country needs to start doing its job so that we can get collective immunity because it’s not a quick process … it should have been done like Serbia and Croatia, before the new year,” said he declared.
“We would now have fewer people infected, less burden on hospitals and the health care system, a less devastated economy and fewer deaths. But we have an extreme death toll and someone should be held criminally responsible. “
Back in Sarajevo, the feeling of grief is fresh for Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura.
Her grandfather died on Friday after the whole family was infected.
For nine days, the family sought medical help for their grandfather; his condition deteriorated rapidly and he was unable to breathe properly.
But Buljusmic-Kustura said their appeals and appeals were ignored.
“It was like he was being deliberately ignored because he was an older person. No one tried to provide real medical assistance, ”Buljusmic-Kustura said, adding that some family members had seen medical staff treating other COVID patients without wearing PPE.
“There is a total collapse of the already fragile health system. The virus has been around for a year and during that time absolutely nothing has been done by the authorities or the government to ensure the safety of people, ”she said.
“The people of Bosnia are on their own and many are terrified… This is more than a tragedy, it is government and medical negligence.”