COVID-19 Surge Strains Balkan Health Systems to Their Limits

An additional organisational hurdle is having to swiftly transform hospitals wards that were not designed to treat infections into COVID-19 centres.

Doctors say this results in bad conditions in hospitals, with complaints ranging from disregard for safety protocols to lack of equipment and having to pay steep prices for essential medicines that should come at the state's expense.

Medical workers bring a fresh supply of oxygen for a patient at the Clinical-hospital center Zvezdara in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo: EPA-EFE/MARKO DJOKOVIC

For some, family doctors are hard to reach

For many people across the Balkans, family doctors are the first base in order to get tested and get help.

But in North Macedonia, Maja aged 31 from Skopje told BIRN that she went through a "indescribable nightmare" when she and her parents, with whom she lives, became ill this month, and suspected they had the coronavirus.

It took six days after they initially sought medical help to get the COVID-19 test results, which turned out positive. It then took another day before her father, who was worst affected, was admitted to hospital.

"We lost two days trying to reach our [family] doctor. First he would not pick up the phone, and then he made us fill in a questionnaire and said he would see what he could do. We lost three days, just getting the referral so we could get tested," Maja said.

During that time, Maja called the emergency state healthcare and a few private hospitals, as her father was becoming seriously dehydrated, but the emergency services refused to come without a COVID-19 test result.

In the end, the family ignored the referral and got tested in a private clinic on day four, hoping the results would...

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