BELGRADE (Serbia) -- The main hospital in Romania's capital ran out of room for the dead recently. Doctors in Bulgaria have stopped routine surgery to accommodate a rise in COVID-19-related patients. The Serbian capital now has an additional day of operation at the graveyard to accommodate all bodies arriving.
Two months ago, a persistent wave virus infection has been ravaging several countries in Central- and Eastern Europe. Vaccination rates are lower here than elsewhere on Europe. While medical professionals pleaded for strict restrictions or even lockdowns to stop the virus from spreading, leaders allowed it to rage for weeks.
"I don’t believe in measures. Ana Brnabic, Serbia's Prime Minister, stated last month that she doesn't believe in the same methods used before vaccines. This was after the country suffered some of the worst daily deaths from the pandemic. "Why did we need vaccines?"
An official from the World Health Organization stated earlier this month that Europe was once again the epicenter for the coronavirus epidemic. While many countries in Western Europe are experiencing an increase in coronavirus-related deaths, it is the East that is causing them. According to WHO, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Balkans had the highest per capita death rates worldwide in the first week in November.
Experts believe that leaders dither and mismanaged and underfunded health systems created the conditions for the latest outbreaks. While some are taking action now, many doctors feel it is too late and still insufficient.
Many of the countries in the region will soon face elections, which makes it difficult for them to force people to vaccinate or impose unpopular lockdowns. This is even true in former Communist countries that used to inoculate without hesitation and where leaders were quick in introducing closures during the pandemic.
However, politicians' inability to respond quickly to the demands of the medical community has likely undermined a already fragile trust in institutions in countries with widespread corruption. In the wider distrust of authority, misinformation about vaccines is also a common theme.
This has led to countries struggling to cope with the new surge of vaccines and having few protections. Many countries around the globe have faced resistance to vaccines. However, Central and Eastern Europe has low rates in areas where there is no supply. Both Bulgaria and Romania are part of the European Union and have vaccinated approximately 23% and 35% respectively. Bosnia and Herzegovina only has 21% of its population fully vaccinated.
Octavian Jurma, a physician and health statistician, referred to Romania's slow response. He described his country as a textbook example of the "tragic results produced by a political overthrow of the pandemic response."
This month, leaders introduced a curfew that requires people without a COVID (which shows proof of vaccination, recovery from illness, or a negative test) to stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Although infections have declined slightly in recent years, hospitals are still overwhelmed.
The bodies of COVID-19 victims were piled up in a corridor at the Bucharest main hospital. There was no room in the mortuary. A waiting area was converted into an emergency room by the use of a sheet of plastic.
Some hospitals in Serbia are so overwhelmed that they can only treat virus patients. This leaves doctors with no choice but to sue Brnabic's government, which is up for election in April.
"Since Brnabic stated she doesn't believe that measures are necessary, approximately 900 people have been killed," Slavica Plsic, a specialist in lung disease, said to N1 television, Oct. 21.
The prime minister has refuted that criticism and said Thursday that she was proud of the government's response.
According to Belgrade's authorities, 65 burials per day are now the norm, up from 35-40 before the pandemic. To handle the load, gravediggers now bury people on Sundays. This is a change from what they used to do.
Few mitigation measures have been put in place in Hungary. Similar to Serbia's, Hungary's government claims it prefers to rely on vaccines. The country has nearly 60% of its population fully vaccinated. However, this leaves a large portion of the population without protection.
The government of Hungary ordered the wearing of masks on public transport earlier this month and gave permission for private employers to require vaccines for their employees.
Gyula Kincses (chair of the Hungarian Chamber of Doctors) said that this was too little, too late and suggested that all indoor spaces be fitted with masks.
Viktor Orban (prime minister of the populist party that faces election next spring) stated in a radio interview that mandatory vaccinations would be "beyond the limits" of what Hungarians would accept. However, Orban acknowledged that the new restrictions could slow down, not stop the spread of the virus.
Because of the low level of vaccination in Bulgaria, hospitals had to suspend all non-emergency surgery temporarily to accommodate more COVID-19 patients.
"Politicians are now focusing on the elections, but there will inevitably be a lockdown in tragic circumstances," Ivan Martinov told national radio. Martinov is a prominent cardiologist at Sofia’s main emergency hospital. Sunday will see the start of Parliamentary Elections.
In Croatia, where there were unusually long lines of people waiting to get vaccines, the rising incidences may have been a wake up call.
On Wednesday, authorities said that over 15,000 people had received their first dose of vaccines a day before -- a remarkable increase after the 4.2 million-strong Adriatic country.
In recent weeks, COVID passes have been introduced in Croatia and Slovenia.
However, Slovenian medical organizations have warned that the country's health system could collapse. They appealed to the public to refrain from seeking urgent medical attention in the coming months.
Bojana Baovic (head of Slovenia's Medical Chamber) said, "There are traffic accidents and accidents at work. Other infections." "This is an alarming circumstance that we can deal with by maximum solidarity."