Public anger grows as Bosnian mother denied test dies of COVID-19

Despite showing serious symptoms, attempts by Advija Kanlic’s children to have her tested were repeatedly turned down.

epa08298165 Bosnian People are waiting for a medical examination for a coronavirus in front of a tent at the entrance to State hospital, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 16 March 2020. Several Eur
People wait for coronavirus tests in front of a tent at a hospital the entrance in Sarajevo [Fehim Demir/EPA]

Advija Kanlic, a 52-year-old woman from the Sarajevo suburb of Hrasnica, had serious symptoms of coronavirus infection for more than a week, including high fever – at one point reaching 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) – and shortness of breath.

For six days, her children asked the health service for a coronavirus test, but their requests were routinely rejected. The reason given? Their mother had not been abroad in countries with serious outbreaks, such as Italy.

“The only question that they asked was whether we had been abroad, and that was that,” Advija’s daughter Ehlimana, 25, told Al Jazeera.

During her sickness, nurses and doctors repeatedly gave her antibiotics and sent her home, advising her to keep taking Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory drug, to lower her fever.

On the morning of March 24, Advija woke up blue around the mouth, hands and feet.

She was unable to get up on her own so her daughter Ehlimana and a neighbour tried to bring her down three flights of stairs to an ambulance, which had arrived but without any medical staff.

Advija died in her daughter’s arms that morning.

It was not until after she died, Ehlimana said, that authorities finally conducted a COVID-19 test and confirmed in the evening that she had indeed been infected with the coronavirus.

“They neglected all her symptoms, they kept sending her home to be treated; they didn’t isolate her,” Advija’s son Nezir, 29, told Al Jazeera as he called for an investigation.

The local clinic has since been closed as at least 40 medical personnel who were in contact with Advija were ordered to self-isolate.

epa08321418 People wait for a corona test at a tent outside the State Hospital in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 March 2020. Several European countries have closed borders, schools, public facil
At least 15 people have died so far in Bosnia and Herzegovina from coronavirus [Fehim Demir/EPA]

‘Who are the priorities?’

Stories like Advija’s, of people being denied tests, have stirred public anger in the country of 3.5 million people.

Bosnians have taken to the internet to criticise a system in which politicians suspected of having the virus are immediately tested, while citizens who have serious symptoms are rejected.

In another case, in the southern city of Konjic, 53-year-old Hasib Mustafic died on March 24, after being repeatedly denied coronavirus testing.

This was despite his manager at work haing tested positive, and after Mustafic showed symptoms for nine days.

Mustafic’s brother Nazif told local media through tears: “Whenever I would call him to ask ‘when will they test you?’, he would tell me each time ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’, probably as not to worry me.”

According to a statement by a war veterans’ association Mustafic was a member of, it was not until two days before his death that he was finally tested, but it was already too late. Previously, the association claimed, Hasib was told by officials there were only three tests available and they were to be used based on priority.

The association sent a letter to authorities, stating that Mustafic had contacted emergency services and the chief epidemiologist.

“Who are the priorities? The infected or members of the Crisis Staff and their families?” the letter asked, referring to a special team which has been set up to address the pandemic.

Al Jazeera contacted the Public Health Institute for Bosnia’s Federation entity and the Health Centre for Sarajevo Canton for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

epa08334217 People wearing face masks hold up umbrellas to shield themselves from heavy snowfall in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 31 March 2020. According to latest figures by WHO on 30 March, a t
Bosnia and Herzegovina has more than 500 confirmed cases  [Fehim Demir/EPA]

Tests delayed

At least 15 people have died so far in Bosnia and Herzegovina from coronavirus out of more than 500 confirmed cases. The federation entity has so far tested only 590 people.

Bosnia recently ordered 150,000 test kits from South Korea, worth 2.5 million euros ($2.7m), but the delivery was delayed as Jelka Milicevic, the head of staff for civil protection, reportedly put off signing the agreement, saying she wanted to ensure the number and quality of the tests.

In an interview to Radio Free Europe on Friday, Sebija Izetbegovic, director of the Clinical Centre at the University of Sarajevo (KCUS), said she now expects 170,000 tests for the federation entity to arrive within a week after securing a further 20,000, following a reshuffling of the crisis staff group after critics accused it of dysfunction.

Playing down accusations that politicians are being prioritised for testing, she said: “The testing is conducted as directed by an epidemiologist and infectologist and there’s no debate about this.

“It’s not true that anyone was tested because they’re an influential or well-known person; no one was ever tested on their personal request.”

Meanwhile, there have been reports of faulty testing.

On Tuesday, Bosnian media reported on the case of a patient who, after testing negative at a private lab in Sarajevo, tested positive a few hours later at a university clinic.

epa08318157 Employees of the local cleaning company  'Deratizer' wearing face masks with filters disinfect a building in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 24 March 2020. Several European countries hav
Employees of the local cleaning company disinfect a building in Sarajevo [Fehim Demir/EPA]

Unanswered questions

Back in Hrasnica, the Kanlic family are left with many unanswered questions.

On the morning of Advija’s death, the family was first informed that her test for coronavirus was negative.

But in the evening, authorities called them again informing them a second test had been conducted which came out positive.

Ehlimana has since been tested positive for coronavirus, while Nezir, his wife and infant son who have been living in the same 30 square-metre apartment with Ehlimana since their mother’s death have tested negative.

The Kanlic family say they are waiting to give their mother a burial but it remains unclear when an autopsy can be conducted.

“A day after her death, prosecution began an investigation,” Ehlimana said. “They were informed that no one from the autopsy experts can work because they don’t have adequate equipment.”

Source: Al Jazeera