Clutching a piece of paper with a unique QR code in her hand — proof she has been invited for a COVID-19 vaccination — Marija Lazarevic made her way to her local medical centre on Wednesday to get the first of two jabs.
The 78-year old pensioner from Veliko Gradiste, a small Serbian town on the bank of the Danube River, was among the first of more than half a million people in Serbia who will be inoculated with the Chinese Sinofarm vaccine.
“I feel good, delighted," she said. "Joyful actually, because I will be able to get back to my normal life after a year of isolation. I will be able to see my children and grandchildren and to relax! This has been going on for too long. I haven’t seen a single friend since March.”
Along with 400,000 other citizens of Serbia, Marija applied for a jab through the government online platform.
With three different jabs already approved by the country’s Medicines Agency (Pfizer/BioNTech, Sinofarm and Sputnik V) and two more awaiting approval (Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca), citizens are even allowed to choose which one they want.
“I know that there is a lot of debate about vaccines. I read in the newspapers that the Russian jab is the best but I did not request a particular one. It does not matter to me. Under different circumstances, I would opt for the one coming from the West - Pfizer or Oxford - but I was just anxious to end the isolation and I could not wait. I guess that this Chinese one is all right too,” Lazarevic told Euronews.
The “nationality” of the vaccine became a subject of debate among Serbs, especially because the Russian and the Chinese ones are not approved in Europe.
But while the whole region was waiting to get at least some vaccines from the COVAX scheme, a plane from China landed in Belgrade with a million doses on board.
They were approved for use two days later and the first one to get the jab, in front of TV crews, was Serbia’s Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar. “These vaccines are efficient and safe,” he said while being inoculated.
With so few vaccines having arrived from the West, Chinese and Russian ones are now 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. Back in March last year, when the EU was banning exports of its medical supplies, even to its candidate countries, several planes from China landed in Belgrade and brought much needed protective gear and respirators, some of them as a donation.
Back then the president of Serbia, Alexandar Vucic, lashed out at the EU calling the block’s solidarity “a fairytale”. Billboards with the photo of the 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 did say: “Serbia has donated €2 million for the development of the vaccine. Our contribution to the joint European effort to support the research and end the crisis was not merely symbolic. We were the first from the region to actually pay money for the COVAX programme, the specialised EU scheme through which we were also supposed to get some vaccines. We have not yet received any. All we got so far was acquired bilaterally.”
With the latest shipment of a million doses, Serbia became the first, and so far the only country in Europe, with such a quantity of the Chinese jab. More than a quarter of a million of the Russian Sputnik V jab is set to arrive in the coming days, according to official announcements.
Although some of the immunisation began earlier with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, the mass programme of inoculation only began this week and Euronews got confirmation from the government that the majority of jabs will have been distributed by the end of June, as was previously announced by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.
They also confirm Serbia is still keen to buy vaccines from the western producers but no specifics of the deal have been given.
The rest of the region is voicing their frustration. Among the most vocal, Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, whose country managed to obtain just a few hundred jabs bilaterally. He accused the EU of “only thinking about themselves”.
Albanian and Serbian neighbour North Macedonia is still waiting for its share of COVAX jabs, and the first delivery to arrive in the country will be from Serbia. Eight thousand doses is a chunk taken from Serbia's "Chinese shipment", forwarded at the purchasing price.
Clumsy connections and failed expectations?
Editor-In-chief of the Nezavisen Vesnik newspaper, Ljuoco Popovski, told Euronews that Belgrade’s decision to share is good for the solidarity between neighbouring countries, both of whom are candidates for EU membership, especially at a time of somewhat failed expectations from Brussels.
“The EU has forgotten about the Western Balkans. We hear a lot of statements about how they are going to help, how they will give €70 million, but that just does not happen. I think it affects the trust in the EU in the whole region. If they go on acting like this, the support for the EU will fade even in North Macedonia where it is traditionally quite high. Because the people now see that they are being treated as second rate citizens,” he asserts.
As Bosnia and Herzegovina struggle with the pandemic and listens to the reports of their media correspondents from Brussels saying that they will have to wait longer for vaccines to arrive, frustration is growing.
“In some other countries people can already choose which vaccine they want, they can select the producer, whether they want Pfizer, Moderna, Chinese, Russian, while here in Bosnia we are waiting for a single box of jabs from the COVAX scheme, Ednan Drljevic, an infectologist from Sarajevo tells Euronews.
“It’s a disgrace," said Drljevic. "Israel has already vaccinated a million and a half people! It is injustice and we feel frustrated and unsatisfied and we do not know for how much longer we’ll be able to cope with the pressure.”
Montenegro also does not know when it will be able to start immunisation.
Analysts say that the lack of solidarity from Brussels is more a matter of perception than fact. In an interview with Euronews, Nemanja Todorovic, editor-In-chief of the European Western Balkans portal specialising in EU integration, said the crisis has exposed clumsy communication between Brussels and the region, rather than real neglect.
The EU has allocated by far the largest aid package for post-COVID recovery of the region but, in practice, may have missed an opportunity to overshadow the role of China and Russia.
“The key was to include the region and communicate in a way that the countries feel that they are involved in a joint effort to acquire the vaccines," Todorovic said.
“Instead, we see that for the countries that relied solely on the EU to get the jabs, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, the beginning of immunisation gets more and more uncertain. Political elites of the stranded countries in the Western Balkans will seize this opportunity to justify their lack of commitment to European integration. That can have an irreversible negative impact on the public support for their future in the EU,” he warned, adding that it must be noticed that the consequences of the crisis are surpassing the health concerns and are already in the political domain.
Stefan Goranovic is a journalist from our sister service, Euronews Serbia.