SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — When thousands of people across the European Union began rolling up their sleeves last month to get a coronavirus vaccination shot, one corner of the continent was left behind, feeling isolated and abandoned: the Balkans.
Balkan nations have struggled to get access to COVID-19 vaccines from multiple companies and programs, but most of the nations on Europe’s southeastern periphery are still waiting for their first vaccines to arrive, with no firm timeline for the start of their national inoculation drives.
What is already clear is that Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — home to some 20 million people — will lag far behind the EU’s 27 nations and Britain in efforts to reach herd immunity by quickly vaccinating a large number of their people.
North Macedonian epidemiologist Dragan Danilovski compared the current vaccine situation in the Western Balkans to the inequalities seen during the 1911 sinking of the Titanic.
"The rich have grabbed all the available lifeboats, leaving the less fortunate behind,” Danilovski told broadcaster TV 24.
Such sentiment as the world faces its gravest health crisis in a century has gained traction in the Western Balkans - a term used to identify the Balkan states which want to join but still are not part of the EU. It is actively being stoked by pro-Russian politicians in a region sandwiched between Western and Russian spheres of influence.
"I felt as if the bottom fell out of my hopes for a return to a normal life,” 50-year-old Belma Djonko said in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, describing the emotional fallout of hearing that thousands of doctors, nurses and the elderly across the EU had received the first doses of a vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech while her war-ravaged country is kept waiting.
Many Balkan nations are pinning their hopes on COVAX, a global vaccine procurement agency set up by the World Health Organization and global charity groups to address rising inequities of vaccine distribution. COVAX has secured deals for several promising COVID-19 vaccines but, for now, it will only cover doses to inoculate 20% of a country’s population.
Alongside other politically unstable post-communist Balkan nations that have long professed their desire to join the EU but keep failing to fulfill conditions to achieve that goal, Bosnia has reserved vaccines through COVAX and expects to start receiving its first doses in April at the earliest.
That seems like an eternity from now.