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 network groups
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in Serbia, there have been numerous individual and public initiatives aimed at overcoming difficulties that arose in the everyday lives of a large number of people amid new dire circumstances. In the previous report, we mentioned a few, including the activities of the Facebook group called “Help for fellow citizens in Quarantine – Serbia”. Members of this group have primarily been focused on helping the elderly as well as the positively diagnosed corona patients, which were recognized as the most vulnerable members of the society. Their voluntary assistance consisted of buying them groceries, walking their dogs and offering social, physiological and material support. Since the 18th of March, citizens older than 65 in urban areas and older than 70 years in rural areas have been prohibited from leaving their homes, so they have been dependent on members of their family or other fellow citizens for acquiring basic amenities. Although the ban will be lifted after the abolition of the state of emergency on the 6th of May, during one and a half month-long lockdown, the government has only allowed senior citizens to go grocery shopping on Sundays between 4 and 7 am, aiming to discourage them from going out even then. This is why the self-organized online groups were a well-needed mechanism to mobilize individuals interested to help others, especially more vulnerable social groups, in the early stages of the crisis, before the state officials provided valid alternatives to enlist volunteers. The government has, on the other hand, given retirees a possibility to receive their pensions at home and in full, differing from the previous fortnight disbursement in post offices and banks. In different cities, aid packages containing elementary food and hygiene products have been distributed to the elderly, sometimes accompanied by the promotion material of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and distributed by their activists. Furthermore, the state is offering a one-time financial aid of 100€ to all interested citizens, which has aroused a public debate with different opinions and standpoints. This issue will be addressed in our next contribution on care vs. surveillance.
Another important change during lockdown, which has affected the society in Serbia as a whole, was the shutdown of open green markets. Costumers have been forced to substitute these traditionally widely popular locations for buying fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products with supermarkets and grocery stores. This problem, however, initiated a desire to transfer the green markets to the internet and provide the customers with the possibility to buy amenities from their trusted producers and vendors with contactless payment and delivery. Two online green market pages that are covering different areas of Belgrade were formed by the end of March and both quickly gained more than 6.000 members. During the lockdown, the Facebook group called “Small producers of food in Serbia”, which provided independent food producers with a platform on which they can sell their products directly to the customers has grown from a modest number of members to almost 30.000 people. Furthermore, the founders invited interested individuals who are familiar with using social-networks to help producers who did not have an online presence to establish and maintain Instagram and Facebook pages and more than 50 volunteers are currently working on that project. The vivid interaction developed between members of the group by sharing photographs of freshly purchased goods and impressions of the transaction process, which in turn inclined others to buy as well. A variety of producers publicly declared that they were forced to put a number of orders on a pause for a certain period of time because they were unable to satisfy the enormous increase in demand. It seems that this endeavour will continue to thrive even though the open green markets have started operating once again.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, the lack of surgical face masks has inspired some professional and amateur tailors across the country to start producing cotton masks, which were distributed for free to interested parties. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world, currently situated in the asylum protection centres in Serbia, who are familiar with using sewing machines, offered to contribute and produce masks as well, which was an initiative modestly covered in the media. Despite their questionable efficiency, these masks usually provided users with a sense of safety and protection and spread the idea of solidarity. The Facebook group “The Visionaries of Serbia” (A play on words that highlights the similarity between the words visionary and visor), which was formed on the 20th of March, gathered a number of designers and makers who started producing and printing 3D face shields, with the intention of providing health workers with basic protection from infection by droplet transmission. So far they have supplied visors to numerous hospitals around Serbia and they publicly made available the 3D design, so that anyone who has a 3D printer can produce visors him/herself. Inspired by this initiative, a public call by a group of members of “The visionaries of Serbia” was posted on Facebook, inviting creative individuals to suggest new useful products that can be used in the battle against the epidemic. The Facebook group “Serbia hacking the Coronavirus” was thus formed, gathering engineers, scientists, programmers and designers from different fields, with the idea of developing prototypes and mass-producing four new health protection products: A full-face isolation mask, a noninvasive respiratory ventilator, a room sterilizer and a disinfection gate, all accompanied by the necessary software. So far they have produced 300 clinically tested full face masks, and their official announcement claims that all three remaining products will be completed in the next couple of days. Since all products have been designed so that they would be simple to put together with materials that are easily attainable, after testing, the plan is to make their production globally available with an open-source license.
The social aspects of culture and entrainment during self-isolation have been addressed in a number of well-intended ways, as well. The National Theater started online steaming plays and operas free of charge and other theatres made similar gestures. The National Museum provided the virtual tour of the current exhibitions and certain book publishing companies offered some of their popular editions for free e-book download. Cable TV providers unlocked all premium channels during the state of emergency and a number of musicians broadcasted live concerts on their social networks. The city of Belgrade, inspired by the performance of Andrea Bocelli in front of the Milan Cathedral, organized a series of concerts of popular musicians under the slogan “Belgrade is wining” (similar to the 2016 election slogan of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party “Serbia is wining”) in front of the Old Royal Palace, three times a week.
All sports games and events have on the other hand been halted, leaving the resolution of ongoing competitions still undecided. The news articles dealing with potential solutions for these problems, especially the ABA Adriatic basketball league (which will probably decide the next year contestant in EuroLeague), are by far the most commented news articles on every web portal, surpassing other breaking topics. Sports clubs, associations and athletes have however been active in providing aid during the epidemic. By the end of March, the members of the Belgrade-based football club Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) have donated money for purchasing 4000 coronavirus test kits, following the example of their coach, Dejan Stankovic, who has previously provided the government with the means to buy several respirators, from his own savings. Players and management of Partizan Belgrade football club have donated a portion of their monthly income to the Government of Serbia for buying necessary medical equipment and the Football Association of Serbia provided 250.000€ to the Clinic for Infectious and Tropical Diseases. The Serbian tennis player, Novak Djokovic has donated provisions of one million Euros worth of medical equipment to Serbia, through his global Novak Djokovic Foundation. Former tennis player and UNICEF ambassador Ana Ivanovic provided 35 respirators and former and active basketball players from the NBA club Sacramento Kings, Vlade Divac, Predrag Stojakovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, made similar donations as well.
Occasionally, the symbolic acts of support have been organized in different cities in Serbia for the counties that were affected the most by the epidemics, as well as a symbol of gratitude for the counties perceived by some to have provided the greatest aid during the time of crisis. The flags of Italy, Spain, Germany, as well as China and Russia have been projected or raised on government buildings and iconic structures. The appearance of the flag of Germany on squares, bridges and buildings on the 6th of April has however raised a negative reaction of the public because it coincided with the day of the brutal bombing of Belgrade by Luftwaffe during WWII. It is also worth mentioning that the Government has organized and sent three cargo planes with medical supplies to aid the Republic of Italy and donated two million Euros to the WHO and CEPI.
Every night at 8:00 p.m., citizens show their support for the medical workers by clapping their hands from windows and balconies. A Facebook group titled “Support for the medical and pharmaceutical staff in Serbia” that was formed on the 15th of March currently has more than 50.000 members. A number of doctors who had tragically lost their lives from COVID-19 have gained national recognition in the media as heroes and martyrs and in some cases their local communities showed appreciation and respect by drawing murals, organizing memorial events and demanding posthumous honours.
On the other hand, a significant number of citizens perceived the state of emergency and imposed prohibitions as unjustifiably strict and with the hidden purpose of restricting civil rights and freedoms. Citizens who have been infuriated by the long-lasting quarantine measures imposed by state officials started expressing their protest with the way the government is dealing with the epidemics by banging on pots and pans at 8:05 p.m., while often shouting insults to president Aleksandar Vucic and other state authorities. This noise has provoked the reaction of the ruling party in all levels of its membership, so activists loyal to President Vucic’s regime have organized reactionary performances on buildings and rooftops with torch lightings and firecrackers at 8:30 p.m., shouting back insults at leaders of the opposition and quarantined citizens who are protesting against Aleksandar Vucic. This has raised a number of political issues and confrontations in the Serbian public, especially since the main accusations of the political leaders opposed to the current Serbian government rest on the claim that the formal decision to introduce the state of emergency was carried through in the absence of the Parliament, and therefore represents a breach of principles of the Serbian Constitution. Furthermore, the outbreak of the epidemic and the declaration of the state of emergency has interrupted the election campaign, so it will be interesting to see how will this situation develop in the future. According to the official reports, the abolition of the state of emergency in Serbia should be expected on Wednesday, 6th of May, and the parliamentary election is expected to be held in the second part of June.