Countering COVID-19 in the Balkans: Experience of #SoS_project Partners

#SoS_project partners in the Balkans have found and implemented many new techniques in the fight against COVID-19, which may be interesting and useful for other countries in the region. For the experience exchange, an online discussion was held “The Balkans’ Response to COVID-19: The Experience of #SoS_project Partners” on April 27. The event was attended by experts in the field of public health from 11 countries of the world: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Great Britain, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova, North Macedonia, Serbia, USA, Ukraine, Montenegro.

During the year of the pandemic response, many lessons were learned and a number of steps were taken to adapt health systems in EECA and the Balkans. Tetyana Deshko, Director of the International Programs Department of the Alliance for Public Health, noted that service providers began to work in a more customer-oriented way. The campaign to vaccinate the population against COVID-19 is in full swing: in Serbia, for example, more than 43% of the population has already been vaccinated with the first dose.

Andrei Senikh, Executive Director of “Stronger Together”, presented the experience of North Macedonia at the event speaking about supporting the main HIV programs and introducing new ones during the COVID-19 period. Thus, he noted some decisions that were made in a situation with limited budgets during the COVID-19 period to ensure the sustainability of HIV services:

Funding was reallocated without increasing the overall budget, under the current grant of the National HIV Program

Civil society organizations switched to redistributing funds from other sources (donors) as far as possible.

The main help from other donors was humanitarian aid

Also, a significant contribution for the country was the provision of 5,000 rapid tests for COVID-19 to ensure quick access for representatives of key communities, people living with HIV, with the support of the SoS project

Aida Kurtović, Bachelor of Laws, Master of Medicine, Executive Director of the Partnership for Health Organization (Bosnia and Herzegovina), spoke about innovations in response to COVID-19. During the pandemic, they were able to build partnerships with the three cities that signed the Paris Declaration, and together take steps to explore opportunities to support the response to COVID-19. This collaborative process resulted in two specific steps:

procurement of tests and medical protection against COVID-19 and

creation of a telemedicine platform, which is already available on the website:

The platform is intended for use by healthcare professionals working with COVID-19. A pool of experts is available to assist healthcare professionals with advice on patient management, contact tracing, COVID-19 ward design, and other relevant issues.

Goran Radisavljević, General Director of the Timok Youth Center (Serbia), spoke about the detection of COVID-19 cases and progress in vaccination, implementation strategies, and problems. According to him, the exceptional role of nongovernmental organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic was to support key population groups and people living with HIV (community volunteering); in promoting prevention and social distancing; educating the public on the benefits of a vaccination program. As a result, in Serbia, more than 43% of the population have already received at least the first dose of the vaccine, which is a significant success among European countries.

With regard to HIV/AIDS services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation escalated in early 2020, especially during the lockdown period. A twofold decrease in the number of new cases was recorded, and social and psychological support of representatives of the key population groups and PLHIV was also required. Mr. Goran pointed out that there is a constant search for innovative services to further adapt the public health system.

Sanja Šisović, Program Director of the NGO CAZAS, spoke about access to HIV prevention measures, testing, and treatment during the COVID-19 epidemic in Montenegro. According to her, the main problems that had to be faced during the pandemic in the country are:

Sustainability of HIV services: no funds since March 2021. The competition has not yet been announced, but services continue to be provided. Political changes did affect service delivery as a financial gap emerged due to the change of government.

Changing client’s needs: due to the impact of COVID 19, most clients from all key population groups faced a difficult socio-economic situation that required new service segments or the provision of new services.

COVID-19 measures limited movement and also influenced working methods, so some clients were difficult to reach, and not all services were provided constantly.

Personnel exposure to COVID-19

Dr Fifa Rahman, Principal Investigator, Matahari Global Solutions, UK, spoke about the results of a study on the impact of COVID-19 on the sustainability of HIV and TB services in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She also highlighted the HIV services, which are most affected by the pandemic in BiH:

Preexisting inequalities due to disparities in access to ART

COVID-19 has reduced access to testing centers

Distribution of ART by snail mail to hard-to-reach areas

Pre-existing consequences of poorly managed transition (MSM, harm reduction)

It should be noted that this is the second in a series of events to study the experience of countering COVID-19 in the countries of three subregions: Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Southeast Europe. The topic of the first one was “Impact of COVID-19 on HIV and TB programs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine”. As part of the event, there was presented research conducted in focus countries during the year of the pandemic by the independent company Matahari Global Solutions, commissioned by the Public Health Alliance, which is as part of the regional #SoS_project funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Recording of the online discussion “The Balkans’ Response to COVID-19: The Experience of #SoS_project partners”: