Accused of underestimating the threat from COVID-19, Serbia’s leaders are now pinning the blame on returning Serbs, claiming many knew they were infected.
By Milica Stojanovic
In April 2019, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic visited the village of Zabari in eastern Serbia, an area dramatically depopulated by waves of emigration from Serbia over the past three decades.
Vucic urged those Serbs who had left to return “to their ancestral homes and build a future here,” promising special incentives to bring them back and help tackle the demographic crisis afflicting Serbia and much of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
Fast forward 12 months, and thousands of Serbian gasterbeiters from across Europe are returning to Serbia, many of them left jobless or furloughed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic lockdown it has triggered. But they face a very different welcome.
“Some of them have come out of quarantine, some of them knew they were infected” but came to Serbia to be treated “for free,” Vucic told a news conference on March 21. “So don’t ask yourselves why we have a larger number of infected people.”
Just how many Serbian citizens have returned to the country since the start of the crisis is hard to tell. Vucic says some 317,000 came back between March 5 and 21.
They find themselves scapegoated by a government that critics accuse of dangerously downplaying the seriousness of the initial outbreak and significantly trailing other countries in testing. With the number of confirmed cases now rising rapidly, authorities are pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.
“We can’t do without the ‘Others’, those who are different from us, who are guilty,” said sociologist Ratko Bozovic. They, he said, are perceived as having “flown away, so that, patriotically speaking, they are not as close to us as we are to ourselves.”
“It is an unprecedented scandal what’s being said about these poor people, who for sure aren’t returning from some rosy situation where they came from.”
Concern over low rate of testing
Hundreds of thousands of Serbs have left since the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and through years of difficult transition. Tens of thousands seek work abroad every year. In Germany alone, the Federal Statistics Office says there were 231,230 Serbian residents living in the country as of December 2018.
On February 26, with the novel coronavirus spreading to Italy but yet to be registered in Serbia, Vucic held a press conference flanked with prominent doctors and the heads of Serbia’s public health bodies. The tone was jovial, with pulmonologist Branimir Nestorovic telling journalists COVID-19 was “the funniest virus”, that it was “nearing its end” and that Serbian women should feel free “to go shopping in Italy” and take advantage of the likely discounts, at which Vucic laughed.
A little over a month later, Serbia had 1,171 confirmed cases and 31 deaths. But only 5,008 people had been tested for the virus as of March 31, compared to over 22,000 in fellow former Yugoslav Slovenia, where there were just over 800 confirmed cases and 15 deaths by the same date. Experts say the low rate of testing in Serbia suggests the virus is far more widespread than originally feared.
Speaking on March 25, Vucic, however, said he and the government led by his Progressive Party had made “only one big mistake”.
“That is letting all Serbian citizens enter the territory of Serbia,” he said, claiming that, had they not been allowed in, “we would not have even half the problem, not even a quarter of the problem.”
“We have shown how big Serbia is and how big a heart it has and we will pay a high price for that,” he said. “Since only when times are hard is Serbia good for everyone.”
The rhetoric was replicated by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, handpicked for the job by Vucic in 2017, who told a news conference on March 18 that more than 65,000 had returned to Serbia over the previous four days, including many whom she accused of concealing the fact they were infected.
“We really have concrete data that, even in the last 48 hours, there are our citizens from abroad who are returning to Serbia and who have been confirmed, in the countries where they reside, as having been infected with the coronavirus and they basically lower their fever with medicines and leave those countries,” Brnabic told reporters.
Patriotism, she said, would mean “staying in those countries where they found themselves”, but “they usually have to pay for health treatment there, while the service they receive here is usually free of charge.”
Psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin said that what the government was saying amounted to the “worst possible stigmatisation of people.”
“You have a stigmatisation that not only discriminates and isolates them, but really encourages people to forbid them from being in that place at all,” he told BIRN.
Lockdown, curfew, police tracking
Those returning face being quarantined for 28 days. Serbia is under lockdown, with a curfew imposed between the hours of 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. on working days and 3 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekends. Vucic declared a state of emergency on March 15 and 40 border crossings were closed, creating huge queues of cars up to 30 kilometres long waiting to enter.
Those repatriated by the state were placed in state-organised quarantine, in tents, former migrant camps or student dormitories. Police track whether those supposed to be self-isolation are adhering to the rules, with almost 700 prosecuted as of March 29.
Pro-government media have reinforced the government message. On March 20, the tabloid Informer declared on its front page that 200,000 gastarbeiters had entered Serbia and “at least 6,000 of them have the coronavirus.”
Bozovic, the sociologist, said politicians were only creating more fear and panic.
“Every word here has to be weighed,” he said.
“Politicians need to be reasonable, not to intimidate those who are otherwise intimidated, not to scare away those who are already frightened. There is enough fear already and there’s no need to spread it further into our souls and our lives.”