(Photo Credit: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR)
The coronavirus crisis has overwhelmed the health systems and finances of Western Balkan states. It has ignited domestic tensions and revealed political currents that could jeopardise the future of democracy in the region.
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — all are feeling the strain. With lower wealth and growth rates than their Western European counterparts, they lack the funds, medical assets and crisis-management systems to effectively counter the crisis.
The reported number of COVID-19 cases in the region ranges from several hundreds in Montenegro and Albania to more than 1,000 in North Macedonia and more than 5,000 in Serbia, the country hardest hit by the virus.
Yet the true scale of the crisis in the region is difficult to estimate for political and practical reasons.
For one thing, there is little transparency. Fearing panic-induced instability, Western Balkan governments that have long failed to tackle perceptions of political opacity are withholding information on the capacity of health services and numbers of ventilators.
A shortage of testing kits also makes it hard to gauge the full extent of infections, with Western Balkan states at a critical disadvantage compared with their EU neighbours in tackling the “silent enemy”.
Serbia, with a population of around seven million, has almost 3,400 testing kits per million people, according to Worldometer data. Croatia and Slovenia have around 4,900 and 18,000, respectively, with populations of around four million and two million.