Authors: Mladen Stajic, Marko Pisev and Bojan Zikic, Department of Ethnology and Anthropology, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Serbia.
Fieldsite: Serbian web portals and social networking groups.
In this article, we will attempt to provide a brief introduction to the current situation and reactions concerning the COVID-19 epidemic in Serbia by presenting a summary of both the media perspective, as well as a number of personal perceptions of people commenting online.
Users of social networks in Serbia first started paying attention to the problems being raised by COVID-19 in late January, when a Chinese supermarket from a small town in Vojvodina asked customers on their Facebook page to continue buying from that shop. The post that went viral was written in broken Serbian and bluntly tried to explain that not all Chinese people were infected by the novel virus, despite the “rubbish news” circulating. The owner continued to humorously respond to enquiries and comments and she eventually gave interviews to different TV stations and newspapers explaining how potential customers’ fear of infection was affecting her business.
On the 6th of March, the Serbian Minister of Health, Zlatibor Loncar, informed the nation that the first local case of COVID-19 had been detected. It was a man in his mid-forties who had returned home from a business trip in Hungary. By this time, there was a widespread public expectation that it was just a matter of time before the virus “crosses the border” and the epidemic starts affecting everyday life in Serbia, despite the fact that government officials had vigorously been attempting to make the threat seem insignificant during the previous months, reassuring citizens that the country was prepared for an effective response. During the conference, held on the 26th of February, president Aleksandar Vucic was surrounded by doctors who later became members of the government’s pandemic Crisis Staff Team. At the time, he claimed the experts informed him that the virus was “weaker than the flu” and accused social networks of spreading panic and fake news. At the same time, the pulmonologist Branimir Nestorovic went as far as stating that COVID-19 was the “most laughable” virus in history, that women are immune to the disease, and even invited them to “go shopping” in Milan, where prices had been plummeting. Once the numbers of infected patients started gradually increasing, the officials’ rhetoric took a U-turn. President Vucic pleaded with older citizens to stay home, stating that “all the graveyards in Belgrade will not be sufficient” to hold them. Drastic social distancing measures have since been implemented, and a national state of emergency as well as a ‘state of epidemic’ have been declared. By the 20th of April, more than 6000 registered cases of COVID-19 infection had been reported.
Although the main source of information during the epidemic in Serbia comes from the official conferences held once or twice a day in which members of the Crisis Staff Team, as well as government officials, present the latest data on infected and deceased patients and answer journalists’ questions, some people also obtain and share information online in addition to this.
Perhaps the most indicative source of unofficial information and opinions is the comment section of popular online news portals, such as B92. The number of comments and positive or negative votes reveal which articles have a significant impact on the readership and their content often portrays anxieties, frustrations and hopes. Furthermore, people communicate about the epidemic on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The Facebook group called “Help for fellow citizens in Quarantine – Serbia” was formed on the 13th of March and currently has more than 16.000 members. The group was first envisioned as a place where people who are willing can provide help to those in need during quarantine, especially if those needing help have been diagnosed with the virus or are elderly. This is done by buying them groceries, taking their dogs for a walk or similar activities. A map of available volunteers was formed and groups like these started operating in most Serbian cities. Soon, numerous other enquiries and offers for social, physiological and financial support started to appear on this Facebook group and its members have as a result initiated a number of creative ideas such as producing face masks, protective visors and opening online ‘green markets’, which we will address in greater detail in future posts. This active group serves as a constant source of information not available in mainstream media on the epidemic in Serbia, while providing summaries of the official policies and decisions taken by the government and other official bodies. Members continue to be primarily focused on addressing individual problems and organising help and donations or providing advice.
The way some users on social networks engage with social networks even after the virus has started spreading in Serbia continues to be humorous. An elderly lady who was stopped and recorded by the police for being outside despite there being a ban on people over 65 leaving their homes enjoys widespread sympathy. The lady in question claimed to have been forced to break the rule so that she could attend an English language class. On the other hand, the case of Real Madrid football player Luka Jovic, who was detained and fined for breaching his prescribed self-isolation after arriving from Spain caused a public outcry and demands for severe punishment. A similar negative reaction among the public was caused by the footage of the Holy Communion taking place outside an Orthodox church in Novi Sad, where the same spoon was offered by the priest to a large number of attendants, despite precautionary measures having been imposed in the area.
When photos of the improvised hospital for the patients infected by COVID 19 set up in the Belgrade Fair Complex were first released, this sent a shockwave through Serbian social media. The photos showed an endless cluster of beds with no dividers under a massive dome. These images carried a strong symbolism with sinister connotations because they reminded viewers of old detention facilities, particularly the notorious World War II Nazi concentration camp Sajmište, which was located at the other Belgrade fair hall. Furthermore, the photographs were published on the 24th of March, which is a painful date in recent Serbian history – the day that the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (in 1999) began. President Vucic pointed out that he was pleased that the people were scared, and that he will have to “come up with something even worse” to ensure people would start acting in accordance with government instructions. Nonetheless, the design of the makeshift hospital was altered, dividers and other amenities were introduced and the members of the Crisis Staff Team were corrected when they used the term Sajmište (Fairgrounds) instead of Belgrade Fair.
In spite of that, it seems that most people have been supportive of rigorous social distancing measures so far and have found them to be necessary. It is idiosyncratic that the ban on pet owners and their pets going out has caused the greatest public upset so far. The issue of curfew hours has mostly been debated in relation to dog owners and the ban on evening dog walks was one of the few that have been lifted.
A large number of online users were supportive towards nations that were affected the most by the pandemic, as well as towards local people who had been infected. They often expressed gratitude publicly to the medical staff for their efforts during the pandemic, and a trend of clapping for the medical staff from windows and balconies every evening at 8pm has become popular on social networks during curfew.
On the 19th of March, Miodrag Stojkovic, a renowned Serbian geneticist working in the UK, posted a tweet claiming Hydroxychloroquine, a medication normally used to treat malaria, in combination with the antibiotic Azithromycin is showing promising results in treating COVID-19. The reaction to this tweet can be described as turbulent. This led to a larger than usual demand for these drugs and officials issued several warnings that self-prescribing and taking Hydroxychloroquine can be dangerous and counterproductive.
On the other hand, the multimillionaire owner of the largest private TV station in Serbia, Zeljko Mitrovic, continuously uses his ‘Pink’ channel as well as his Twitter account to promote the idea that ozone treatment applied to the blood helps prevent infection with the virus.
Additionally, a significant number of conspiracy theories have started spreading on social media, where they continue to thrive. An illustrative example is an Instagram post made by Jelena Djokovic, wife of the popular tennis superstar Novak Djokovic, of a clip in which the emergence of COVID-19 is brought into connection with the introduction of the 5G wireless communication network. This post was censored and taken down by Instagram for spreading false information, but raised a heated debate in Serbian media, both print media as well as on social networks.