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Balkans fights virus amid lack of doctors, medical supplies

BELGRADE – The main Serbian hospital treating patients infected with coronavirus looks like an abandoned building, but it isn’t.

With its rundown facade, peeling walls and rooms crammed with metal beds, the downtown Belgrade clinic for infectious diseases has for decades been a symbol of Serbia’s depleted health system that now has to cope with a major virus outbreak.

“If coronavirus doesn’t kill you, that hospital surely will,” said Bane Spasic, a middle-aged man who recently visited the place for a minor infection.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't hit Eastern and Central Europe with such a force compared to Italy, Spain and France, health officials throughout the region are sounding alarm about the lack of medical staff, facilities, equipment and enough hospital beds to handle several virus outbreaks simultaneously.

The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most of those infected, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or people with existing health problems. The vast majority of those infected recover

The countries in the region have taken a range of restrictive steps, from cutting off travel links to closing down schools and universities. But there are fears that the relatively low number of tests being carried out doesn't reflect the true scale of the outbreak.

The massive exodus of doctors and nurses to the West, mainly Germany, appears to be a major hurdle in the fight against the outbreak. Now, the medical staff are being called to come out of retirement, graduate medical students are asked to volunteer and officials are promising special bonuses to the overloaded staff.

The government in Slovenia has suspended specialist studies for new doctors and interns so they can join the effort to combat the epidemics. Graduated doctors who still don’t have their licenses will be appointed wherever their help may be needed.

The small country of Slovenia was hit hard by the spreading of the virus from neighboring Italy with 273 confirmed cases and one death, according to the latest figures from Tuesday.

The medical systems in Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia, Northern Macedonia and Romania have all been hit hard by the massive exodus of doctors and nurses over the past several years. The medics have moved to richer countries for better pay, but they are also driven away by the ailing health systems which offer them hours of overwork, modest salaries and chronic shortages of basic medical supplies to treat people.

In Bulgaria, the government has announced financial support for all medics involved in the treatment of coronavirus patients. An additional 500 euros will be paid to every medical worker with their monthly salaries. In Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama said that starting from March all medical staff will be paid 1,000 euros more a month. Albania’s average monthly salary is 450 euros.

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, announced last week that all medical workers were getting a 10% increase in salaries as they face a looming struggle against the coronavirus.

Faced with low wages and tough working conditions, about 6,000 Serbian doctors and nurses are believed to have left the country in recent years. This has prompted the government to cancel an agreement with Germany on the hiring of nurses from Serbia.

A state of emergency was declared throughout Serbia, including a nationwide dusk to dawn curfew for all citizens and a ban for all those older than 65 from leaving their households.

Epidemiologist Predrag Kon, who is part of Serbia’s anti-virus team, has explained that the idea of the imposed state of emergency has been to stretch the epidemic as long as possible to avoid choking the clinics and putting too much burden on the health system at once.

Zlatko Kravic, the head of the general hospital in Sarajevo, said he was concerned about Bosnia’s ability to respond to the major crisis because of the shortage of medical staff.

“We will need more doctors, our current staffing levels will need to increase by at least a third,” he said, calling on doctors to come out of retirement and “contribute to our fight against this 21st-century menace.”

In Croatia, which also faces a major shortage of medical workers, the struggle against the epidemics is compared to the country’s war for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“I believe we are used to all kinds of situations,” said Alemka Markotic, the head of Zagreb’s hospital for infectious diseases.

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AP writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Konstantin Testordes in Skopje, Northern Macedonia, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak