BELGRADE (Reuters) – Elma jumped in her car with her mother and brother as soon as she heard that Serbia was offering free COVID-19 vaccines to foreigners, and made the five-hour trip from her home in Bosnia to queue up for a shot.
When she arrived on Thursday, she found she was one of hundreds flocking in from Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia who had heard the same reports of Belgrade’s plentiful supplies.
While many countries across the Balkans, and beyond the European Union, have been struggling with hold-ups and shortages, Serbia has been trumpeting its success it securing vaccines from a clutch of different suppliers.
Marko Cadez, the head of Serbia’s Chamber of Commerce, said on Wednesday his organisation had 10,000 shots for business people across the region. “We are all one region and only together we can beat this scourge,” he told reporters.
The Chamber of Commerce had been authorised to secure vaccines for business people and workers, a government official who asked not to be named told Reuters.
“I came here because vaccines will never arrive in Bosnia,” said Elma, who declined to give her last name.
“Eventually they will arrive but it will be too late,” she said. Bosnia has seen a spike coronavirus cases and deaths in March, particularly in the capital Sarajevo.
Critics from across the region say that Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has been using the vaccines to strengthen his country’s influence – a charge he denies.
The deals have allowed it to notch up what the government say is Europe’s second highest rate of inoculations after Britain. According to official data, more than 2.1 million people in a country of 7 million have had at least one shot.
It has been donating vaccines to Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia since January.
News of its largesse has already spread beyond the Balkans. Daniel Bindernagel, a German psychiatrist from Switzerland, told Reuters he had travelled in and managed to apply for a shot on the Serbian government’s website.
“It’s very good for me,” he told Reuters. “I tried … in Switzerland and Germany. I am a physician, but I could not.”
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic, Aleksandar Vasovic and Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Andrew Heavens