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Political, Public Health, and Psychosocial Impacts of COVID-19 in the Former Yugoslavia

This week for #GLOVicariously, we featured a panel of four faculty members from the Northwestern Comparative Public Health: Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina program. The conversation centered around COVID-19 in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the implications of the historical trauma during a new pandemic.

Our panel was moderated by Peter Locke, the Program Director for the Comparative Public Health program and consisted of Nemanja Džuverović, Associate Professor in Peace Studies at the University of Belgrade, Marija Šarić, Director of the psychosocial support services organization Wings of Hope, and Ivan Djordjević, an anthropologist and research associate at the Institute of Ethnography, Belgrade, Serbia.

Relatively small countries with proportionately small epidemics compared to the U.S.—recent figures on Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH, population 3.5 million) suggest only a few thousand cases, and Serbia (7 million) has been reporting case numbers approaching 15,000—Serbia and BiH nevertheless face the kinds political and institutional challenges, upended daily routines and economies, and exacerbated inequalities now felt acutely all over the world. Djordjević started by sharing that the problem of unreliable data is a major barrier in the Balkan context. “It’s definitely a characteristic of Serbia and Bosnia is that data is not reliable. Statistics are deeply intertwined with politics. So we don’t know what to think.”

Džuverović shared his experience of recently living in the US for four months and returning to Serbia in June 2020. In his view, the colloquial reactions of society were drastically different. “Trauma, stress, and anxiety are real problems. But in Serbia, we take [stress from COVID-19] as just another inconvenience. This isn’t new to us.”

Šarić expanded on this observation to say that while trauma is ongoing in the former Yugoslavia, responding to a crisis is also an ongoing process. “Trauma is reoccurring, especially when 60% of the population have developed signs of PTSD.”

While resilience can be built over the course of challenging experiences, trauma can also be triggered in a new struggle. Djordjević continued to explain “In the beginning of COVID-19, we thought that we are tough, we have faced challenges before, and this is just one more thing. But it didn’t stop, as we expected, after two months. You hear of people dying in hospitals, everyone is getting more anxious and don’t know what to do with kids, school, or work. Our first reaction was to show how tough we are. Now our reaction is between denial and anxiety.”

In addition to widespread fear, there are immediate implications in the most vulnerable populations. Djordjević works with Roma populations, and has seen how their already delicate situation is only exasperated. “In the second wave of COVID-19, the Roma are very much affected but it is not known. I know because I work with them. Their basic problem is their access to the healthcare system. In fact, it’s not easy for them even to have the opportunity to come to a hospital and be treated.” The larger story of the COVID-19 pandemic is the light it sheds on preexisting society problems. “The inequality has become even bigger and greater during this pandemic.”

The panel also discussed the implication of COVID-19 on immigration, public trust in government and health care workers, and the economy. “There are Bosnians and Serbians all over the world, and we cannot see our loved ones. Barriers to immigration had already been a problem, and now there is more separation,” said Šarić. 

The panel concluded with the agreement that COVID-19 is highlighting existing weaknesses in the health care system and disproportionately affects on the most vulnerable populations in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing anti-racism protests, global engagement across difference and development of intercultural skills are critically needed to build a more just and peaceful world. We want to continue fostering global learning opportunities for students throughout this summer 2020 through our virtual webinar series, #GLOVicariously. #GLOVicariously webinars feature speakers involved in GLO programs who have expertise on a variety of critical global issues. View upcoming #GLOVicariously webinars.