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Serbia’s road to collective immunity: A tale of two realities
The enthusiasm in the first months of this year regarding the mass vaccination in Serbia was so high that in March, the country was ranked highest in Europe in terms of the number of fully vaccinated people per million inhabitants. Eight months later, less than half of the total population has been vaccinated, and Serbia is once again ranking highest in Europe, but also fourth in the world! - this time, unfortunately, in terms of the number of new cases of Covid-19 per million inhabitants.
"I just can’t fathom this. The owner and editor of a small media outlet produced jingles encouraging his fellow citizens to get vaccinated. The reactions were negative, acrimonious even. So much so that several advertisers stopped advertising with his outlet. The man decided to stop the campaign," read a tweet from a well-known Serbian journalist that I recently came across.
I later found out this: the owner of that radio was told by angry advertisers that they would not advertise on a "radio station loyal to the regime"!
For starters, this is something completely new. Until now, I knew that some, mostly local media in Serbia have been barely scraping by for years because advertisers give them a wide berth, and it’s always for the same reason - they are not regime-oriented. Some people want to admit in confidence that it has nothing to do with their attitude towards the media in question, usually followed by the classic line - you know, I gotta look out for my business, you know what They are like...
This reaction of local advertisers could easily seduce the uninformed. Namely, it seldom happens that those who do not want to be advertised on "a regime-loyal radio station" are some sort of supporters of Djilas, Jeremic, Obradovic or someone else from the colourful Serbian opposition - and even if by some chance they are, what is the likelihood that they would boast about that publicly, while demonstratively punishing the media that are, according to them, in favour of the regime?
If they are not supporters of the opposition, but on the contrary - of the regime, are we witnessing, lo and behold, a quiet and admittedly local rebellion against the same regime? All the more so because vaccination is something that the regime - officially! - promotes and encourages. Then, where do these supposed supporters of the regime get so much courage to semi-publicly - and by the way without fear for their business - question not so much what the regime advocates, but what the adored personification of that regime personally advocates.
Paradoxically, the person who feels afraid is the one who believed in the true intentions of the regime about the necessity of vaccination and decided to contribute to that campaign as best as he can. And now this man is worried about the future of his radio station. By the way, much bigger media outlets than his own also promote vaccination, but, to his knowledge, they are not losing any business, nor are they being labelled. Another thing he has to worry about is far more important: how much damage will the numerous opponents of vaccination, including the dudes who stopped advertising with him, calling him loyal to the regime, do to his health and the health of others? Undoubtedly, he was called by many other names, all related to the vaccine and vaccination.
Some will live to tell the story
It is not known when all this happened to the aforementioned owner of the local radio station, but in September 2021, when this text was written, the general impression was that it would not be possible anytime soon to reach the percentage (over 80%) of vaccinated population necessary for collective immunity. Vaccine resistance and/or hesitation, along with an untold amount of misinformation about vaccines that are gobbled-up with no critical review and spread relentlessly, are the biggest obstacles to achieving this goal. However, it’s not like the state is putting its shoulder to the wheel to tackle these obstacles.
Since January this year, when the mass vaccination started in Serbia, followed by a major campaign, large stocks of vaccines, calls to citizens from all over to get vaccinated, politicians getting their jab in front of the cameras, all this has led to the fact that in March we were even the first among European countries in terms of the number of those who received the second dose per million inhabitants. Alas, after eight months, a mere 40% of the population is vaccinated, and a new, even more devastating surge of infection came that brought Serbia a new European "title" - this time, unfortunately, in terms of the number of new cases of Covid-19 per million inhabitants. In terms of statistics on the number of deaths: at the end of September, there were more than 40 of them on a daily basis.
After all, the question that arises is not whether the state could have done more, but - why it didn’t. Following that same path, when was the idea of reaching collective immunity through vaccination abandoned, for it already seems that they are instead opting to achieve that goal in a natural way, through the virus circulating the population?
How did the owner of the local radio station, mind you he was not the only one, believe in the true intention of the state in terms of vaccination and the corresponding intention to hinder and prevent further spread of the virus with as widespread immunization as possible? Perhaps it wasn’t necessary for him to see state officials getting the vaccine - well, some immediately, some after a long wait, nor did he have to see how countries all over the world are procuring millions of vaccines and calling for citizens to get vaccinated, with celebrities joining in on the call in a series of videos, but he started from the premise that the vaccine has so far been the most successful weapon in overcoming all kinds of diseases. He may have thought - what would have happened if in 1972 many questioned the content of the vaccine when variola spread?
Surely in these past 18 months, he has noticed a lack of no-compromise, if you will, in the promoted war of the state against coronavirus. He still clearly remembers, as does everyone else, last year's lockdown and curfew, the total lockdown of senior citizens and the drastic measures introduced by the state, in epidemiological circumstances far less worrying than today, but still because of the election last June, victory was declared over the coronavirus and everything quickly returned to some kind of normal, more or less. This was supported by favourable official data on the number of infected and deceased, which numbers, as journalists found out, turned out to be doctored. And they were actually much bigger.
He probably didn't take everything for granted after that - he multiplied, added and subtracted, and he would always come up with not at all encouraging numbers.
He may have naively surrendered to the conviction of the importance of pluralism and to the fact that all media in Serbia have an independent editorial policy, so he did not pay attention to the fact that media that are truly loyal to the regime, unlike his, report little on vaccination, they share some news here and there in its favour , and provide a lot of space for everyone who passes by the editorial office and has something to say about the conspiracy behind the virus, the conspiracy behind the content and the real purpose of the vaccine and such similar bullshit.
When mass vaccination of citizens started at the beginning of this year, the owner of that radio station could only observe how the number of vaccinated is growing day by day. Well, at the beginning of the year, no one in the world was equal to us, our citizens were queueing up, as well as citizens from the region, everyone waiting for a jab in the shoulder. He himself contributed to that, at least minimally. And when, less than eight months later, the number of vaccinated citizens has not exceeded 50% (the number of people over the age of 18 who are vaccinated is above 50%), and those who not only reject it but also encourage others to do the same suddenly feel powerful enough to punish everyone who takes the opposite stand, he realized, the hard way, that his efforts, for his part at least, were in vain.
And he's not the only one. Many, however, did not give up and become pessimistic about the time it would take for the epidemic to at least be brought under control, some old habits be restored and at least some semblance of a normal life regained, due to threats and all kinds of pressures. Instead, they merely solved the riddle. And for months, the solution was only imposed through encoded messages issued by the government and experts in its shadow: Don't expect reinstatement of total lockdown and strict measures, coercion and violation of the Constitution, whatever happens, the economy is more important. Let’s face it, it's about the GDP… And yes, people are dying, officially 3o, 40 and more a day, it's sad. So, if you can, be careful and get vaccinated, if you don't want to – to hell with you. Stricter measures are not an option. Some will live to tell the story.
How do the messages and standpoints of the state sound decoded and in their integral length?
We could run a more energetic and honest campaign for vaccination, but we will not totally step on the toes of those who refuse the vaccine. Especially not before the spring elections. If they are bothered by the invitation to get vaccinated in the media on which, for example, they advertise and want to withdraw their advertisement, well, everyone is in charge of their money and interest. We will, therefore, not shine a spotlight on calls for vaccination and we will point out its benefits in a way that is not offensive to anyone, but at the same time we will award a medal from the state to a person who spreads incomprehensible bullshit about the vaccine, vaccination, coronavirus (and not just that) because he is a renowned MD… A nod to one side, a nod to the other. So that everyone is happy.
It’s not that we intend to give up, but hopefully we will organize regular classes in all schools this school year, children and parents could hardly wait, but we will anticipate the possibility of switching to alternative types of classes if a certain number of infected people is registered in the classrooms. The students will then move on to online learning, and the others will be safe. Now, there is the fact that those who switched to online classes will be able to go out in the evening to clubs, cafés, concerts, because all venues are working normally, so they can be exposed to the virus and then they will spread it around the school, when they return to the classroom, because covid-passes are not mandatory there. The passes have not been approved yet, we will get to it soon, say by New Year’s. First, we need to see how much it would harm our rating because elections are coming up, and we need to see if it’s in accordance with the Constitution, because it’s the only thing that matters to us. So, the Crisis Staff will debate this issue, the next two weeks are crucial for convening the Crisis Staff. And what’s the hurry, after all, they are working even when they don’t have meetings. Anyway, everyone knows what’s in their own best interest.
People, get the vaccine, continue wearing masks and don't go to mass gatherings! Except when such gatherings are justified and useful. And no, we will not tell you which gatherings are justified and - economically and politically - useful, and which are not - should we tell you whether to go to sports matches, weddings, concerts, festivals, conferences, and even to protests?! We have introduced some measures, and they are still valid… Wait, what do you mean - what measures?! Well, you know full well - wearing a mask, indoors in particular, a limited number of visitors to indoor gatherings… They are still in force, of course!
And if the visitors at those events are not wearing a mask, it is certainly because they believe that they are not putting anyone at risk. That is also why we rarely wear masks ourselves. We believe that citizens are responsible, without coercion and without a covid pass. Which we never get around to approving because we have a secret plan, by talking about introducing the pass to motivate young people to get the vaccine, because that is the group that is least vaccinated. And, yes, we are planning to introduce the pass. Provided that it will not lower our rating. We are guessing not. And if it turns out that it affects the rating, we will not go forward with it.
Young people will get vaccinated because they often go out… Maybe they won't, and we will continue our fight, because we managed without a pass so far. Surrender is not an option. Despite anti-vaxxers and their campaign in national media. And no, this government does not control the media, never mind what people say on Twitter. Well, if all media were under our control, 1000% of the population in Serbia would have been vaccinated… However, fortunately, they are not. To be precise, not all media are under our control. But if all influential media outlets were under our control, although that might be the impression you get on a daily basis, our government would, ah, be safe. This way, we live and work in uncertainty, because everyone is free to criticize the government in their shows or programmes, if they want, and they can let anyone go on air, even the biggest opponents of vaccination, never mind that they are also recipients of the highest state awards.
In their programmes, they can also encourage citizens to get vaccinated. We, who are officially pro vaccination, although it may not always seem that way, cannot tell him what to air on his programme. Nor can we punish those who find this action unacceptable, because that is undemocratic and in violation of the Constitution. They have the right to do that, we are a democratic society, never mind what the reports of some foreign and hateful organizations say. No one forced him to be so accepting. To trust us that much, that is. We did our part, we did everything right, we got so many vaccines, we invited you to get vaccinated and now it's all up to you. You choose who you will trust, and, bottom line, whether you want to live or not.
In Serbia, there has been more than one reality for a long time. In one such reality, vaccinated citizens, despite their full vaccination status, again face the risk of infection, watching in disbelief as hospitals switch to "Covid mode"; scheduled operations are postponed; new Covid hospitals are built in record time; the people dying are younger and younger; the numbers are becoming increasingly worrying; but they also see that, in spite of all that, there is no readiness to make the moves that would put an end to it all.
There is another reality, in which the existence of the virus is either denied or treated as a mild flu; where any measure is considered an attack on the freedom of the individual; where those wearing masks are called blind followers; where teachers who insist on masks are threatened; where efficiency of the vaccines is negated and those who support vaccination - doctors, scientists, citizens are fiercely attacked; where conspiracy theories are spread and pseudoscience is promoted; and where people are gloating over the deceased who have been vaccinated… And at the same time, obviously, they feel powerful. The numbers are pretty much in their favour. They know that the state is aware of that, which is why its actions are so considerate towards them. Elections are just around the corner…
The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), Albania (Exit), Slovenia (DKIS) and Greece (Macropolis), within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
*Denis Kolundzija is a journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of the Cenzolovka portal. He writes for the Vojvodina Research and Analytical Centre (VOICE) and the American Elections (Američki izbori) portal. He lives in Novi Sad.