Analize English Kolumne

Albania – between covid-19 and its impotent Government

Analysis of the situation in Albania during the current Covid-19 pandemic and the government (mis)management of the crisis. Written by a comrade from Organizata Politike.

Covid-19 has been confirmed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization only ten days ago and, although it kills a small percentage of those infected, its rapid spread is a major problem everywhere it appeared. Even a country like Italy, world’s 8th largest economy, is failing to put it under control. According to the Italian media, the number of new cases has reached 53 578, while more than 700 died only today.[1]

What about Albania?

Because of the geographical proximity with Italy and negligence – by both citizens and the Government – it didn’t take long for the virus to “land” in Albania too. Movement between the two countries didn’t stop until Patient 0 was found. Nor did the Albanian citizens stop traveling from Italy – probably trying to flee from the virus – and neither did the authorities take any action like testing those coming from across the Adriatic, or closing the border, at least with Italy. Only after the first case appeared did the Government close the border.

At first, the Government tried to keep the arriving of coronavirus a secret, so much that it cancelled the licence of a private school for panic-spreading when the school announced lessons suspension fearing the pandemic, on 24th of February. Ironically, two weeks later, not being able to hide it anymore – Albania had officially no virus cases declared until then – because of the rising numbers of cases, the Government ordered the closure of all institutions. But no orders to stop work at private companies were given.

In only 12 days, the number of infected has reached 76 with only two dead – at least officially – while there have been only around 700 people tested. In such a situation, where the Government cannot afford testing more people (as they declared), one cannot be sure how many infected there are. Besides, since it appeared in Italy, the virus has been “wandering” around in Albania on its own pleasure until we had the first official case. Patient 0 had come back from Italy more than a week before he was tested, having met tens or hundreds (probably even thousands) of others during that time and having passed it to many others. As it’s known, covid-19 spreads exponentially, hence the number of infected can be a couple of times higher than the officials report.  

Since 9th of March, when the first case was made public, the Government has been escalating measures starting with the closure of institutions that day, continuing with public transport closure on 12th of March, stopping of movement between cities the next day and stopping all vehicle movement the day after.  On 16th a curfew, starting at 18:00 every day, was imposed along with 10 000 Leke fine (around 85 euros) for those who brake it. In the upcoming days the curfew would continue to change, causing confusion and panic to the citizens. Instead of stopping the spread of the virus, these measures the Government has taken (and changed almost every day) are merely a higher risk to help spreading it. Today for example, the curfew started at 13:00 and before that time, all the markets were full of people buying food and things they need for the upcoming days as the curfew will last until Monday. You would see long queues at drug stores, bakeries and super-markets – a perfect way to spread some more coronavirus. This is what’s been happening during all these days of half-quarantine.

In the meantime, work has continued in most of the businesses. Only coffee shops, restaurants, pubs and clubs were ordered to close, being considered highly dangerous places in such time. But mines, call centres and textile factories did not close. Hundreds of people sharing the same working space, not more than half a meter away from each other and touching the same tools have been working during all these days in call centres, mine galleries and factories, risking a major spread of the virus. Yesterday, Solidarity Union (national union of call centre workers of Albania) announced that one of the call centres had sent an operator home because he turned out positive. Ironically, these working spaces weren’t considered dangerous at all – the PM said that the country needs to continue producing goods. Even more ironically, the curfew at 18:00 (which lasted for a couple of days) corresponded with the end of the shift for most of the workers.

The Albanian PM (claiming to be a socialist) is famous for being in favour of the employers instead of the workers. Not long ago he even invited Italian businessmen to come invest in Albania because we don’t have any unions; didn’t take any action while miners of Bulqiza were struggling for their rights at work, fighting against the most notorious oligarch of the country – Samir Mane – who tried to oppress their newly founded union (United Miners of Bulqiza Trade Union) by dismissing four of its leaders only days after it was publicly announced; didn’t take any action while oilmen of Ballsh refinery were protesting for more than two years of unpaid salaries.

However, new unions have been found recently and they have been active, especially by asking to stop work because of the pandemic and be paid during the quarantine time. But the government won’t take their requests in consideration as long as it’s tightly connected to a bunch of oligarchs. Those oligarchs in favour of whom all the decisions are made. The oligarchs that have drained the budget with the PPP scheme (Public Private Partnership – concessions given to the oligarchs at the expense of the citizens) and are engulfing all of the public assets.

Those quarantining themselves during this time, although they aren’t working, will have to pay their bills at the end of the month as usual – the PM announced that there won’t be any tolerations just a couple of days ago while live on Facebook. No concessional measures were taken for closed small businesses either, risking bankruptcy if the pandemic won’t stop soon. Assistance to Roma people who aren’t being allowed to do the only job they have, collecting cans in garbage bins for sell, is not seen in the horizon even though they were protesting two days ago about their miserable conditions.

As if this wouldn’t be enough, the military has taken the streets of the country. You would see military vehicles wandering around the capital yesterday with soldiers on them holding machine guns on their hands, as if they were looking for the virus to kill it and finally set us all free. Today the PM shared a video, supposedly in Spain – depicting police chasing and beating people attempting to keep people away from the streets – threatening to act likewise when dealing with people who break the government-imposed curfew. Those threats started to become real very quick. Only a couple of hours later a man was beaten and arrested by the police for breaking the curfew in search of a pharmacy. 

The way that the government is acting isn’t really going to stop the spread of the virus, as long as people will have to go out once in a while and wait in a long line to buy all the things they need. We need a full quarantine, where the government supplies all citizens with food, medication and hygiene products, in order to stop the spread of coronavirus. Hospital capacities need to be immediately extended as there aren’t enough beds and staff. Instead of wandering around the cities with machine guns on their hands, the soldiers should be supplying citizens with goods.

A crisis like this calls for proper management and only specialists can do that, not a PM who acts without asking anyone at all and cannot stop going live on social media telling us what to do. Another thing to be quickly done is to put a high tax on all oligarchs, at least during the pandemic, to be able to extend capacities. Otherwise we might face a worse scenario than Italy.

Nebih Bushaj

Activist of the socialist grassroots movement Organizata Politike

[1] As of March 26th, the number of confirmed cases is over 70.000.