How Serbia became the world's latest Covid hotspot

Sydney ends coronavirus lockdown after 106 days

By: AFP      Published: 10:09 AM, 12 Oct, 2021
How Serbia became the world's latest Covid hotspot
A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a billboard in Belgrade amid the Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic. Serbia has been averaging more than 6,500 cases a day over the past two weeks.–AFP

Packed bars, few masks and almost no restrictions -- in Serbia it seems the pandemic is over. But it's a cruel illusion, as the Balkan country currently tops the global charts for infection rates.

Despite having a variety of jabs available, the country's vaccination drive stalled after just over 40 percent of its seven-million population were inoculated.

Serbia has been averaging more than 6,500 cases a day over the past two weeks, according to AFP data, an infection rate of almost 93.5 per 100,000 people -- by far the highest in the world.

Although wearing a mask indoors and social distancing are mandatory, there is little or no enforcement. Following the rules is down to individual choice.

"I'm not bothered about the virus, I had it last year, it wasn't a big deal," 20-year economy student Marko told AFP while sitting in a crowded Belgrade bar.

Doctors have urged the government to impose strict measures, such as limiting the opening hours of non-essential businesses and introducing a vaccine pass that would limit social activities of those who are yet to receive the jab.

- 'Pure survival mode' -

After juggling the idea for weeks, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic finally dismissed it, claiming there was no way to impose discipline.

"Passes are impossible to control, just as it's impossible to control wearing masks indoors," Brnabic said during a recent televised press conference.

"We have a cure for this... and that is vaccination."

Serbia's leading epidemiologist Predrag Kon -- a member of a government-appointed pandemic task force -- was incredulous at the refusal to bring in tighter measures.

"I can't comprehend what I just listened to," he said after a crisis meeting of the task force, accusing decision-makers of "obstruction".

Rade Panic, who leads a doctor's union, links the government's reluctance to enforce tough measures to elections due next spring and the widespread influence of vaccine sceptics.

"The anti-vaxxers created a problem, but the government does not want to tackle it because of the elections," Panic told AFP.

"The message is that we are all on our own... We are in pure survival mode."

AFP asked the government for an interview but received no reply.

- 'It's a battlefield' -

On top of issues of enforcement, Serbia has also struggled to get young people inoculated. According to the prime minister, only 22 percent of those aged between 18 and 30 have been jabbed so far.

Health passes have helped encourage young people to roll up their sleeves in countries including France, but Brnabic believes Serbian youngsters are different.

"Once they hear of someone forging the pass to get into a bar or a nightclub, it would become cool and all young people would try to prove that they could do it," she said.

Panic, who works as an anaesthesiologist in a Covid hospital, said doctors were "overwhelmed" and labelled Brnabic "a dilettante".

"It's a battlefield out there, both for the dying patients and the exhausted doctors," he said.

- Hotbed for misinformation -

Serbia initially got off to a strong start with vaccines -- securing enough jabs from both East and West to invite foreigners to come to receive the vaccine.

It announced it would become the first European country to produce Chinese-made Sinopharm jab and has also been given approval to start manufacturing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Serbia was also one of the first countries in the world to offer the booster shot to the general public.

But the country has long been a hotbed of misinformation about vaccination, fuelled by a lack of trust in the government and other institutions as a result of frequent corruption scandals and a general lack of transparency.

A handful of rogue doctors fanned the suspicions, some of whom have since garnered hundreds of thousands of followers on social networks and have been given space in national media.

"The state must not only motivate citizens but also do everything to stop lies and manipulation," tweeted Srdjan Lukic, a Serbian pulmonologist who now works in Slovenia. "Serbia has failed miserably there."

Sydney ends coronavirus lockdown after 106 days

Elated Sydneysiders celebrated the end of almost four months of coronavirus lockdown on Monday, putting behind them a period of "blood, sweat and no beers" in Australia's largest city.

Sydney's more than five million residents were subjected to a 106-day lockdown, designed to limit the march of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

With new infections now falling -- New South Wales state recorded 496 cases on Monday -- and more than 70 percent of over-16s fully vaccinated, the city is dusting off the cobwebs.

From midnight pubs, restaurants and cafes began throwing open their doors to anyone who could prove they were vaccinated.

They included 32-year-old Garth Diemer and his team of high-spirited construction workers who were making the most of a rain day.

"We knew the pubs were going to be open about 10 am 'cause it's Freedom Day, so I thought I'd take the blokes down for a couple of schooners," he told AFP.

"I'll tell you what, mate, it is bloody beautiful just to have a beer right in the middle of the heart of Sydney, at the Circular Quay and have a beer with your mates. I'm over this lockdown."

Cafe-goer Peter Morgan, 35, was also relishing his newly regained freedoms.

"Even though it's like freezing outside, it's so good," he said.

"The first thing I'm going to do is see my parents. Actually no, not see my parents. I'm going to go to Lakemba to get a Lebanese mixed plate and then go see my parents."

Across the city, shaggy-haired customers lined up outside hairdressers to get eyebrow-raising home cuts and dye jobs repaired.

"I couldn't wait to be in here to get the hair done," said Brett Toelle, a salon customer in Surry Hills whose last trim was 15 weeks ago. "That's the longest time I've ever been without a haircut."

For many, the end of lockdown was a chance to get into the shops.

At midnight, hundreds of people poured into a discount Kmart store in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, with social media images showing long queues inside.

For others, it was a chance to put their business back on track.

"It's a great vibe this morning," said Hannah Simmons, owner of Gordon's Cafe in the beachside suburb of Clovelly whose business survived the lockdown by offering takeaway.

"The outside seating will be a little bit dreary but that's OK. We are really excited to be back there and open."

Since June, shops, schools, salons and offices have been closed for non-essential workers and there have been unprecedented restrictions on personal freedom.

There were bans on everything from travelling more than five kilometres (three miles) from home, visiting family, playing squash, browsing in supermarkets to attending funerals.

- 'You've earned it' -

For most of the pandemic, Australia successfully suppressed infections through border closures, lockdowns and aggressive testing and tracing.

But the Delta variant put paid to any dream of "Covid-zero", at least in the largest cities of Melbourne and Sydney which are now pivoting to "living with Covid".

"It's a big day for our state," said New South Wales' recently appointed conservative premier Dominic Perrottet.

After "100 days of blood, sweat and no beers," he said, "you've earned it."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the day as one to celebrate things once taken for granted: "Being with family and friends, getting a haircut, grabbing a meal together, going to the pub and having a beer with your mates."

There will still be limits on mass gatherings and international borders and schools will not fully reopen for a few weeks yet.

But otherwise daily life is beginning to look more like normal, with crowds again gathering at bus stops and the hum of traffic growing a little louder.

Despite the celebratory mood, there are lingering concerns that reopening will bring a surge in infections.

The Australian Medical Association warned that reopening must be gradual "otherwise New South Wales may still see hospitals become completely overwhelmed despite high vaccination rates."