BELGRADE: Packed bars, few masks and almost no restrictions – in Serbia it seems the pandemic is over. But it's a cruel illusion, as the Balkan country currently tops the global charts for infection rates.
Despite having a variety of jabs available, the country's vaccination drive stalled after just over 40 percent of its seven-million population were inoculated.
Serbia has been averaging more than 6,500 cases a day over the past two weeks, according to AFP data, an infection rate of almost 93.5 per 100,000 people -- by far the highest in the world.
Although wearing a mask indoors and social distancing are mandatory, there is little or no enforcement. Following the rules is down to individual choice.
"I'm not bothered about the virus, I had it last year, it wasn't a big deal," 20-year economy student Marko told AFP while sitting in a crowded Belgrade bar.
Doctors have urged the government to impose strict measures, such as limiting the opening hours of non-essential businesses and introducing a vaccine pass that would limit social activities of those who are yet to receive the jab.
'Pure survival mode'
After juggling the idea for weeks, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic finally dismissed it, claiming there was no way to impose discipline.
"Passes are impossible to control, just as it's impossible to control wearing masks indoors," Brnabic said during a recent televised press conference.
"We have a cure for this... and that is vaccination."
Serbia's leading epidemiologist Predrag Kon -- a member of a government-appointed pandemic task force -- was incredulous at the refusal to bring in tighter measures.
"I can't comprehend what I just listened to," he said after a crisis meeting of the task force, accusing decision-makers of "obstruction".
Rade Panic, who leads a doctor's union, links the government's reluctance to enforce tough measures to elections due next spring and the widespread influence of vaccine sceptics.
"The anti-vaxxers created a problem, but the government does not want to tackle it because of the elections," Panic told AFP.
"The message is that we are all on our own... We are in pure survival mode."
AFP asked the government for an interview but received no reply.
'It's a battlefield'
On top of issues of enforcement, Serbia has also struggled to get young people inoculated. According to the prime minister, only 22 percent of those aged between 18 and 30 have been jabbed so far.
Health passes have helped encourage young people to roll up their sleeves in countries including France, but Brnabic believes Serbian youngsters are different.
"Once they hear of someone forging the pass to get into a bar or a nightclub, it would become cool and all young people would try to prove that they could do it," she said.
Panic, who works as an anaesthesiologist in a Covid hospital, said doctors were "overwhelmed" and labelled Brnabic "a dilettante".
"It's a battlefield out there, both for the dying patients and the exhausted doctors," he said.
Hotbed for misinformation
Serbia initially got off to a strong start with vaccines –securing enough jabs from both East and West to invite foreigners to come to receive the vaccine.
It announced it would become the first European country to produce Chinese-made Sinopharm jab and has also been given approval to start manufacturing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
Serbia was also one of the first countries in the world to offer the booster shot to the general public.
But the country has long been a hotbed of misinformation about vaccination, fuelled by a lack of trust in the government and other institutions as a result of frequent corruption scandals and a general lack of transparency.
A handful of rogue doctors fanned the suspicions, some of whom have since garnered hundreds of thousands of followers on social networks and have been given space in national media.
"The state must not only motivate citizens but also do everything to stop lies and manipulation," tweeted Srdjan Lukic, a Serbian pulmonologist who now works in Slovenia.
"Serbia has failed miserably there."-AFP