Jumping out of a Conflict and into the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Tale of Bosnia and Herzegovina
How my holiday gave me perspective on my country’s handling of the pandemic
Where ever you are in the world, mistakes and miscalculations have been rife in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking for a budget adventure holiday, I had low expectations for the former war-torn country Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it did not fare as badly as I guessed. More than that, the reality check helped me gain some perspective on how I judged my own country. Here are some key points with which to compare your own country.
1. The Government’s Severe Lockdown in BiH
The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) find themselves twenty-five years after the Dayton peace accords fighting a new threat, the COVID-19 pandemic. On the 5th of March BiH recorded its first case of Covid-19 located in the second largest city and de facto capital of Republika Srpska entity, Banja Luka. Adopting a severe response by the 17th of March, the government declared a state of emergency - closing schools and non-essential business, prohibiting large gatherings, banning minors under 18 years old and the elderly over 65 years from leaving their homes, in addition closing its borders and installing a national curfew between 20h00 and 5h00 the following day. With a population of almost 4 million people, the beginning of July had 4,606 infections and 188 lives lost.
International experts praised BiH for its swift implementation of nation-wide preventative measures towards the Covid-19 pandemic but from here on BiH’s miscalculations and missteps emerge.
2. Local Push back and Uncontrollable Migratory Patterns
BiH has its fair share of successes and challenges in navigating its management of the spread of Covid-19. In terms of the movement of people and the age-based lockdown, disgruntled members of the public resorted to taking the government to the Constitutional Court. Bosnian authorities lost with the Bosnian Constitutional Court ruling in favour of complainants on April 22nd that officials did not prove children and the elderly carried a higher risk of contracting or transmitting the infection.
The Bosnian court ruled that the age-based lock down was in fact discriminatory and had to be lifted in the time period determined by government.
On the other hand, the government was seen early in April to have some success with screening returning citizens for the virus and facilitate quarantine at border crossings. Success was however marred by complaints around a 30 hour waiting period to access screening as well as a lack of information about the government’s Covid-19 plans between national and domestic implementation levels. Moreover, a fire from an undetermined cause, destroyed three triage tents at the Maljevac Bosnia-Croatia border crossing and at the Izacic border, a returnee documented appalling conditions without electricity or water.
Would you surprised to hear BiH in recent years is the host of a significant migratory route from Greece to other parts of Europe?
Even though the government halted foreigners entering the country, at the beginning of the virus outbreak in BiH an estimated 8,000 migrants and refugees were stranded in the country, their movements halted by the lockdown. To enhance available facilities for homeless migrants, the government together with international non-governmental organisations swiftly arranged a 1,000-bed camp. The new camp is lauded for providing hygiene kits, screenings for Covid-19 and quarantine spaces. More problematic are the two older camps of Bira and Mira, consisting of tents and containers inside former factories, reportedly with poor hygiene conditions, no light and limited access to humanitarian support.
3. Rescuing a flailing economy
With the Covid-19 economic shutdown, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast BiH’s growth to shrink by 5% in 2020 before recovering to 3.5 per cent growth in 2021. The effects of the global economic slowdown were felt first by the BiH industrial sector when China and Italy came to a halt, countries belonging to the BiH’s largest export markets.
As it was, the country was not prepared by the economic strain caused by the pandemic, losing 50,000 workers annually to western economies, in 2019 the Republika Srpska found itself in a debt spiral and the Bosnian-Croat Federation kept afloat on its pension fund.
Hope emerged through when the European Commission allocated 250 million euros in financial assistance while the IMF noting the urgency of the BiH’s need to balance its payments approved an emergency support package of 361 million US dollars.
Despite this lifeline to the BiH economy, a lack of coordination between the different levels of government in addition to fierce disagreement on how to spend the money led to delay of almost a month in internationalizing the funds.
The crisis is deepening as infections and deaths increase while sectors in accommodation, food service, and transport have suffered the worst initial blows, while the textile and fabricated metals sectors have suffered the worst supply chain disruptions. Although this decentralized governance system in BiH helped prevent the spread of the virus since Bosnians are tied to localized economies and political structures, the Covid-19 crisis exacerbates greater structural weaknesses in transparent regulatory controls leading to reports on opportunistic behaviour.
In one instance, an investigation opened into a raspberry farm that was granted a government contract to import 100 ventilators for US$55,000 each from China, a high sum compared to the $7,000 — $30,000 they would ordinarily be worth on the international market.
It seems government succeeded overall to manage the Covid-19 infection rate, leading to a loosening of the restrictive measures throughout the BiH, with age-based lockdowns reduced in the last week of April and the Serb Republic allowing wholesale trade businesses and retail shops as well as hair-dressing and cosmetic salons to reopen from the 11th of May. In fact as of July, though large gatherings are still not allowed, citizens are no longer required to wear a mask if social distancing is following.
4. Encouragement from the International Community
With the special role awarded to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor BiH, the greatest concern expressed surrounded the introduction of punitive measures for spreading ‘fake news’ in the media and social networks across the country.
The OSCE warned that regulations censoring the press endanger public trust in public institutions, when instead journalists should be able to report freely alongside clear government communication strategy on Covid-19.
The issue on fake news is overshadowed by the news that the October municipal elections are postponed to November 2020, this is the first major political process to be affected by consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. Bosnians are to remain for the foreseeable future on a bumpy ride through the pandemic, over and above managing deep-seated structural issues in domestic affairs.
Comparing to BiH, how did your country fare in managing the pandemic?
My country, South Africa, shares a short history and developmental challenges, akin to BiH. Funny enough the mistakes my government made and the challenges society put to it, are just as similar to those of BiH as any other developed European country.
The tale of BiH is a lesson to all of us, that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, nor is it necessarily a wilderness. Each of us has resources and the responsibility to hold our countries in check. More so perhaps in these complex multi-pronged crises, we should also cut our government some slack, roll up our sleeves and get active ourselves.
For reasons between the hopes of peace-builders, economic investors and adventure junkies; the precarious situation signifies that BiH will remain a special interest to the international community for a long time to come.
Updated and Adapted from Original Source:
Balkan states towards Covid-19– solutions & challenges.The University of Wroclaw. (Ed) A Jagiello-Szostak. Available online: https://www.ism.uni.wroc.pl/attachments/FINALBalkan-states-towards-Covid-19-solutions-challanges-predictions-2_2020-06-24_18-33-12.pdf