Residents of Serbia’s Sandzak have raised alarm over the number of coronavirus patients in the southwestern region’s hospitals amid a rising death toll, appealing for urgent help from the authorities.
Local media and social media users published videos and photos online last month, showing patients in the region’s central town of Novi Pazar lying on blankets on the floor of a hospital due to overcrowding.
Over the last few weeks, medical staff and patients in the towns of Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin have reported shortages of necessary equipment and personnel.
On Saturday, a letter by Dr Mersada Hadzifejzovic, head of the internal medicine department of the health centre in Sjenica, was posted on Twitter in which she appealed to Serbia’s health minister to send adequate help immediately.
“If you do not react and send professional medical assistance quickly, there will be an apocalypse in Sjenica … HELP, PLEASE!!” Hadzifejzovic wrote.
Lacking infectologists, pulmonologists or other relevant experts, her department’s COVID-19 patients were being treated by general practitioners of which there were very few, she wrote.
The doctor warned the entire hospital was under threat of infection as the COVID-19 unit was not physically separated from the non-COVID-19 department, and she and her staff had already been infected.
“There is no respirator in the hospital or central oxygen,” Hadzifejzovic wrote. “Everyday patients are dying … the situation is extremely ALARMING!!!!”
By June 23, the director of the general hospital in Novi Pazar, Meho Mahmutovic, informed local media that 60 medical staff – 20 doctors and about 40 nurses – had been infected with the coronavirus.
The following day, Jasmina Curic, president of Serbia’s Bosniak National Council appealed for help in a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to the data published on Monday by Novi Pazar’s Institute of Public Health, 645 people have been infected with the coronavirus in Novi Pazar, a town of 71,000 people.
Locals have alleged that the death toll from coronavirus is significantly higher than official statistics provided by Serbia’s Ministry of Health.
According to media reports which cited unofficial information from health institutions and testimonies from doctors and patients on social media, 11 people died from the coronavirus in a single day in Novi Pazar on June 27, while official data from the Ministry of Health showed only three deaths for the same day.
“I believe there isn’t a family in Novi Pazar who doesn’t have a family member that isn’t ill or doesn’t have coronavirus symptoms,” Senad Konicanin, a 44-year-old resident of Novi Pazar, told Al Jazeera.
He said his mother had contracted the coronavirus a month ago and was rushed to a hospital in Kragujevac, 120km (74 miles) away, as the hospital in Novi Pazar is not well-equipped.
“My mother is home now and she’s recovering well, but a huge problem for us in the city is that 10 to 15 people are dying daily in cities like Tutin and Sjenica, and it’s all because of a lack of equipment and medical staff,” Konicanin said.
On June 29, two men from Sjenica aged 49 and 69 suffocated after a hospital in Uzice, 100km (62 miles) from Sandzak, refused to treat them despite being seriously ill. They had been taken by ambulance to Uzice because doctors from their local health centre could not help them.
Nonetheless, the authorities insisted that everything was under control.
Last week, Serbia’s Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar said it was “absolutely incorrect” that 12 people had died in the past 24 hours from the coronavirus.
“As minister of health, it’s my duty to tell you what the real situation is and to responsibly stand behind it. There are enough equipment, materials and medicine,” Loncar told reporters.
But locals remain unconvinced.
On July 2, Mevlud Dudic, the head of Serbia’s Islamic Community, told local news outlets that over the past 10 days they had conducted funerals for 114 people in Novi Pazar and Tutin, a smaller town of about 31,000 people.
“It’s a devastating number of deaths compared with the period before the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
Last month, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) also reported that the death toll was much higher than the official count.
“Between March 19 and June 1, 632 patients died from the coronavirus – 388 more than the officially announced number for that period, which was 244,” BIRN reported.
The Ministry of Health did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
After reimposing a state of emergency, Loncar and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic visited a hospital in Novi Pazar last week. They were booed by protesters and the medical staff turned their backs at the two officials during their news conference.
Pro-government media outlets labelled the protesters as “Sandzak separatists” and “drug dealers”.
Reacting to the growing outrage over the deteriorating situation, Brnabic denied allegations that there was no personal protective equipment (PPE) or medicine in the region, saying the situation should not be used for “politicisation”.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called the allegations “lies” and said last week that he would not allow relations between Serbs and Bosniaks to be ruined in Novi Pazar – a Bosniak Muslim majority city – where “extremists are destroying national peace and stability”.
Safeta Bisevac, a journalist of the Belgrade-based daily Danas, told Al Jazeera that it was the government that politicised the coronavirus situation.
“Novi Pazarians protested and booed the premier because they were mad and furious with the government for many reasons. The health system did not react responsibly to the alarming increase in the number of patients, there were no tests, the patients were lying on the floor in hallways, the authorities were hiding the statistics of the number of infected and the death toll,” Bisevac said.
“Since [Novi Pazar] has a Bosniak [Muslim] majority, the president mentioned extremists. The coronavirus has nothing to do with ethnicity and religion. I believe the government is abusing the multi-ethnic and multiconfessional structure of Sandzak,” Bisevac said.
“There are politicians in Sandzak who sometimes give unacceptably sharp nationalistic statements, but there is no extremism or separatism in Sandzak. People just want better conditions for treatment.”
Meanwhile, thousands of dollars have been quickly raised for medical supplies in Sandzak, including a large donation from the diaspora.
Last month, two young ladies from Novi Pazar managed to gather 36,000 euros (about $40,600) within 24 hours in donations from locals, which they used to buy 50 oxygen regulators and other equipment for local hospitals.
On Saturday, supplies from Turkey arrived in Sandzak, including 100,000 surgical masks, 30,000 epidemiological masks, 10,000 litres (2,642 gallons) of disinfectants, one mobile X-ray machine and other devices.
The government sent in a team of doctors to reinforce the hospital in Novi Pazar last week.
The situation has improved, but is still worrying, according to Rade Panic, the president of the Union of Doctors and Pharmacists of Serbia.
He told Al Jazeera that the government had acted irresponsibly in the lead up to parliamentary elections on June 21.
The lockdown measures were lifted and sporting events were held with as many as 20,000 spectators at one football match in Belgrade, which has also turned into a coronavirus hotspot.
Beds are being set up in the Belgrade Arena once again after closing the makeshift coronavirus field hospital two months ago as hospitals have reached capacity.
“Some members of the crisis staff had been warning before the elections that the situation isn’t favourable, that some measures should be implemented and things should be done differently,” Panic said.
“In order for the elections to be held here, everything was [detrimentally] relaxed at once.”
Panic also said information was being “hidden”.
“Colleagues are under pressure, under threat of being fired if they say anything. In addition to all the hardships they have in treating and caring for patients, they avoid disclosing information openly and publicly,” Panic said. “Media darkness reigns over Serbia.”
In an attempt to address the lack of medical staff, neighbouring Bosnia had offered to send in a medical team to Sandzak to help in hospitals, but Serbia rejected the offer last week, saying it had everything under control, to the dismay of locals.
Three Bosniak citizens of Serbia, working as doctors in Germany also sent a request to the Serbian government on June 30 to volunteer their time and work at the hospital in Novi Pazar, noting the shortage of medical staff, but this offer was rejected as well, according to one of the doctors.
Even if Sandzak obtains all the necessary equipment, Panic believes that the lack of medical personnel will still be Serbia’s biggest problem.
“It doesn’t matter how many ventilators we have. If there is no one to operate them, then they’re totally useless,” he said.