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COVID-19 vaccine: China marches to Serbia’s aid as EU’s COVAX scheme fails to deliver

Marija Lazarevic held a piece of paper with a unique QR code in her hand – evidence that she had been invited to a COVID-19 vaccination – and made her way to her local medical center on Wednesday for the first to get from two bumps.

The 78-year-old pensioner from Veliko Gradiste, a small Serbian town on the banks of the Danube, was one of the first of more than half a million people in Serbia to be vaccinated with the Chinese Sinofarm vaccine.

“I feel good, delighted,” she said. “Actually happy because I can return to my normal life after a year of isolation. I will see my children and grandchildren and I will be able to relax! It’s been like that for too long. I haven’t seen a single friend since March. “

Together with 400,000 other citizens of Serbia, Marija applied for a stab through the government’s online platform.

With three different shocks already approved by the country’s drug agency (Pfizer / BioNTech, Sinofarm and Sputnik V), and two more yet to be approved (Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca), citizens can even choose which one they want want.

“I know there is a lot of discussion about vaccines. I’ve read in the newspapers that the Russian kick is the best, but I haven’t requested a specific one. It doesn’t matter to me. In other circumstances, I would go for the western one – Pfizer or Oxford – but I just wanted to end the isolation and couldn’t wait. I think this Chinese is fine too, ”Lazarevic told Euronews.

The “nationality” of the vaccine became a matter of debate among Serbs, especially because the Russian and Chinese are not allowed in Europe.

But while the whole region was waiting to receive at least some vaccines from the COVAX program, a plane from China landed in Belgrade with a million doses on board.

They were approved for use two days later, and the first to be stabbed in front of the television crews was Serbian Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar. “These vaccines are efficient and safe,” he said during the vaccination.

With so few vaccines arriving from the west, Chinese and Russian vaccines are almost the only option for most in Serbia.

The country’s friendly relations with Beijing and Moscow appear to have paid off for the second time in this pandemic. As early as March last year, when the EU banned the export of its medical supplies to its candidate countries, several planes from China landed in Belgrade and brought urgently needed protective equipment and respirators with them, some of them as donations.

At that time, the Serbian President Alexandar Vucic struck against the EU and described the bloc’s solidarity as a “fairy tale”. Billboards with the photo of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Belgrade read, “Thank you, Brother Xi!” But this time there were no harsh words from the Serbian leaders.

However, the president said: “Serbia has donated 2 million euros for the development of the vaccine. Our contribution to the common European effort to support research and end the crisis has not been symbolic. We were the first in the region to actually pay money for the COVAX program, the specialized EU program through which we should also receive some vaccines. We haven’t received any. Everything we have received so far has been acquired bilaterally. “

With the last shipment of one million cans, Serbia was the first and so far only country in Europe with such a large amount of the Chinese push. According to official announcements, more than a quarter of a million Russian Sputnik V-shock will arrive in the coming days.

Although some of the immunization started earlier with the Pfizer / BioNTech surge, the mass vaccination program only started this week, and Euronews received government confirmation that most of the vaccinations will be distributed by the end of June, as previously announced by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić .

They also confirm that Serbia is still interested in buying vaccines from the western manufacturers, but details of the deal have not been released.

The rest of the region is expressing frustration. Among the most vocal is Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, whose country has managed to receive just a few hundred bumps bilaterally. He accused the EU of “only thinking about itself”.

The Albanian and Serbian neighbor North Macedonia is still waiting for its share of COVAX hits, and the first shipment to arrive in the country will come from Serbia. Eight thousand cans are a piece from Serbia’s “Chinese shipment” that is forwarded at the purchase price.

Awkward connections and failed expectations?

Nezavisen Vesnik’s editor-in-chief Ljuoco Popovski told Euronews that Belgrade’s decision to share is good for solidarity between neighboring countries, both of whom are candidates for EU membership, especially at a time when expectations of Brussels are somewhat higher failed.

“The EU has forgotten the Western Balkans. We hear a lot of statements about how they are going to help, how they are going to give 70 million euros, but that just doesn’t happen. I think that has an impact on trust in the EU across the region. If they continue to do so, support for the EU will wane even in North Macedonia, where it is traditionally quite high. Because people now see that they are being treated as second rate citizens, ”he claims.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina grapples with the pandemic and listens to reports from their Brussels media correspondents that they have to wait longer for vaccines to arrive, frustration mounts.

“In some other countries, people can already choose which vaccine they want, they can choose the manufacturer whether they want Pfizer, Moderna, Chinese or Russian, while here in Bosnia we are looking at a single box of puffs from the COVAX program, Ednan, wait Drljevic, an infectologist from Sarajevo, tells Euronews.

“It’s a shame,” said Drljevic. “Israel has already vaccinated a million and a half people!” It’s injustice and we feel frustrated and dissatisfied with not knowing how much longer we can handle the pressure. “

Montenegro also does not know when to start immunization.

Analysts say the lack of solidarity from Brussels is a matter of perception rather than fact. In an interview with Euronews, Nemanja Todorovic, editor-in-chief of the European Western Balkans portal, which specializes in EU integration, said the crisis had uncovered clumsy communication between Brussels and the region rather than real neglect.

The EU has provided by far the largest aid package to the region’s recovery from COVID, but in practice it may have missed the opportunity to overshadow the role of China and Russia.

“The key was to involve the region and communicate in such a way that the countries felt they were part of a concerted effort to get the vaccines,” said Todorovic.

“Instead, we see that for countries that have relied exclusively on the EU, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, the start of vaccination is becoming increasingly uncertain. The political elites of the stranded countries in the Western Balkans will use this opportunity to justify their lack of commitment to European integration. This can have irreversible negative effects on public support for their future in the EU, ”he warned, adding that it should be noted that the consequences of the crisis are beyond health concerns and are already political.

Stefan Goranovic is a journalist at our sister service Euronews Serbia.

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