By Michael Seifert
Albania was one of the first countries in Europe to take drastic measures to combat the Corona virus in early March. A strict curfew completely paralyzed public life. Between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m. only one person per household could leave the house for a maximum of one hour to run important errands. To do this, you had to obtain police approval by SMS at least 24 hours in advance. There was a general exit ban on weekends from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning. Pensioners were not allowed to leave the house at all. All public transport was stopped, private cars could only be used to commute to work. The authorities held extensive control: streets and squares were monitored by the police and armored army units, even drones were being used for surveillance.
These rigid measures were fueled by the fear that Albania’s weak health system would never be able to withstand a massive outbreak of the virus. The fight against the virus has been declared a “top priority” by Prime Minister Edi Rama. The charismatic socialist politician has ruled since 2013, 2.03 meters tall and a former national basketball player and artist (two exhibitions of his works have recently been shown in Germany). He also likes to be hosted by Angela Merkel, who is adored in Albania. He communicates his measures to the population in an original way, not only through videos on his Facebook page, but via SMS to all users of the most important mobile phone provider. And sometimes his voice can suddenly be heard when people are about to call someone: “Hi, this is Edi. Wash your hands! Stay at home! Together we can do it! I hug you from afar!” As reported by a writer for the German daily newspaper taz, as well as my private contacts in Albania.
The government’s official figures seem to justify the tough measures. There are only 773 infected as of April 30th, of which 385 have already recovered. 31 patients have died. However, only 8253 tests were carried out – with just under 3 million residents. Many doubt the numbers, numerous deaths in private households are not recorded, according to the observers. There is an idea circulating in the media, some physicians are advocating, that the corona pandemic is weaker in post-communist countries because the population there has been vaccinated against tuberculosis.
The measures are reviewed every two weeks and easing is now taking place. The shopping time has been increased to two hours and the afternoon is also included. With good reason, you may apply for permission to leave your own residential area. Seniors can leave the house on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and children up to 14 years may go out accompanied by their mother on Sundays (fathers or male relatives are not permitted). The fines for going out were so high that they could not be paid with an average income of around 300 euros per month, now there is an amnesty. The police turn the sirens on for children and teenagers and turns a blind eye…
There are over 600,000 pupils in Albania who have not been able to attend regular classes for two months. Classes are held online as well as through a public TV broadcaster – though not for families who do not have an internet connection. According to the Ministry of Education, around 10,000 pupils had no contact with their teachers during the pandemic. School operations are due to start again at the end of August, and for graduating classes in June.
Due to the severe earthquake on November 26th, 2019 of magnitude 5.4 with numerous aftershocks lasting several weeks, lessons were canceled for six weeks. Over 60 people were killed at the time, and around 10,000 became homeless. The Corona crisis is the second catastrophe to strike Albania within a short period of time. The EU pledged 1.5 billion euros for the reconstruction, although these construction measures are currently out of the question. It is consoling for the Albanians, however, that in the middle of the Corona crisis, after a long back and forth, the pledge for EU accession negotiations came through.
Albania was isolated from the rest of Europe under Communist tyranny for almost 40 years until 1991 and has remained a largely unknown territory until now. Tourism has slowly developed in recent years and a whole range of German tour operators offer trips to Albania.
The ARD Südosteuropa-Redaktion, based in Vienna, reports regularly about Albania, now also through online biweekly reports. The Austrian daily newspaper “Der Standard” and “taz” also report on the Balkans and Albania. This snapshot of the Corona crisis in Albania is based on these reports and my own contacts. A friend told me via Skype: “The situation also has positive aspects: we finally have good air and no more smog in the capital Tirana and the garbage problem hardly arises anymore.”
Photo: Michael Seifert.
The Skanderbeg Square, the central square of Albania’s capital Tirana, at the beginning of January 2020. Today the square is cleared, as you can see on Internet videos.
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