Last month, as the European Union started carrying out coronavirus vaccines, one corner of the continent was left behind, feeling lonely and abandoned: the Balkans.
The Balkan countries had problems obtaining vaccines for Covid-19 from different firms and services.
The majority of countries on the southeastern periphery of Europe are still waiting for their first vaccines and do not have a timetable set for their national vaccination campaigns to begin.
It is already clear that Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, northern Macedonia and Serbia, home to approximately 20 million people, are well behind the 27 EU and UK countries in their attempts to achieve herd immunity by rapidly vaccinating large numbers of people.
Dragan Danilovski, a Northern Macedonian epidemiologist, contrasted the present vaccine situation in the Western Balkans to the disparities in the Titanic sinking.
“The rich have grabbed all available lifeboats and left the less fortunate behind,” Danilovski told TV 24.
Such sentiment has gained momentum in the Western Balkans as the world experiences the worst health crisis in a century – a phrase used to describe Balkan states that want to join the EU but are not yet part of it.
Pro-Russian politicians in an area nestled between the Western and Russian spheres of power are deliberately promoting it.
Speaking in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, 50-year-old Belma Djonko said, “I felt that my hopes for a normal life were dashed.” She explained the emotional impact of the news that the first doses of a vaccine produced by the U.S. corporation Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech were obtained by thousands of physicians, nurses and elderly people in the EU, while her war-ravaged country would continue to wait.
Covax, a global vaccine procurement agency set up by the World Health Organization and global charity organisations to counter rising gaps in the delivery of vaccines, is pinning its hopes on several Balkan countries.
Covax has won contracts for many successful Covid-19 vaccines, but only doses to vaccinate 20 percent of the population of a nation will be protected for now.
Bosnia has reserved vaccines through Covax, among other politically insecure post-communist Balkan states that have long wanted to join the EU but have consistently failed to fulfill the criteria for achieving that aim, and expects to obtain its first doses in April at the earliest.
That seems to be away for eternity.
“In the meantime, I have to continue depriving my 83-year-old father of the company and love of his grandchildren,”In the meantime, I must continue to deprive my 83-year-old father of the company and love his grandchildren.
Serbia is the only country so far to have received vaccinations in the Western Balkans. The supplies came from Pfizer-BioNTech and the Sputnik V vaccine, developed by Russia.
Serbia does not, however, have sufficient doses to launch mass vaccinations, as only 25,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shots and 2,400 Russian vaccine shots have arrived.
The Serbian vaccination campaign started on 24 December, three days before the EU, when Prime Minister Ana Brnabic was given a dose to raise public confidence in the vaccine, as a strong anti-vaccination movement is also struggling with several governments in the Balkans.
The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, has recently agreed on a package of EUR 70 million to help Balkan countries obtain access to vaccines, in addition to the EUR 500 million already paid to Covax by the bloc.
“Throughout the pandemic, the EU has shown that we treat the Western Balkan countries as privileged partners,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.
The head of the Executive Committee, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU would have more vaccines than its citizens need in 2021 and indicated that the bloc could share its extra supplies with the Western Balkans and African countries.
In the Balkans, however, the prevailing feeling is that the bloc has failed once again in the underdeveloped European region.
The EU has arrived at its ‘put up or shut up’ moment, in the words of Albanian political analyst Skender Minxhozi.
You’re either telling us that you care, or you don’t need to be surprised if any of us are following the Russian call.