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Serbian Economy Shrinks as Country Responds to COVID-19

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Serbia is expected to face 2.5 percent contraction of its economy in 2020 providing containment measures introduced to fight COVID 19 are lifted by end-June, according to the World Bank’s latest Regular Economic Report (RER).

The report uses two scenarios in the face of high uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.

The baseline scenario assumes that the COVID-19 pandemic begins to slow soon enough, so that containment measures can be lifted by the end of June and a gradual recovery can begin in the second half of 2020. The downside scenario assumes the outbreak lingers and containment measures can only be lifted at end of August, with a recovery of economic activity only in final quarter of 2020. In this case Serbian economy will shrink by 5.3 percent. Both projections are calculated based on the data available on April 15, 2020.

“Serbian government reacted swiftly to economic challenges induced by COVID 19 crisis with the 5.2 billon Euros program”, says Stephen Ndegwa, World Bank Country Manager in Serbia. “The program addresses employment, small and medium businesses, and liquidity concerns. Country’s economy will bounce back in 2020 if this ambitious program is fully implemented and coupled with addressing long-pending structural reforms. “

Regional growth in the Western Balkans is forecast to be between -3 and -5.6 percent, according to RER. 

 “The magnitude of the recession depends on the duration of the pandemic in Europe. While the economic impact of the ongoing pandemic in the region is difficult to forecast, there is little doubt that this pandemic is wreaking havoc on lives around the region – taxing health care systems, paralyzing economic activity, and undermining the wellbeing of people,” says Linda Van Gelder, World Bank Country Director for the Western Balkans. 

“Over the medium-term, growth is expected to rebound strongly in the region, as economic activity gradually returns to normal, but this also depends on the length and intensity of the current crisis, as well as what steps policymakers take to address this pandemic.”

The recession in all Western Balkan countries will be driven by a significant drop in both domestic and foreign demand during the pandemic. Travel restrictions and social distancing measures have a particularly protracted impact on tourism and services, the latter accounting for around 50 percent of total employment in five countries in the region and 75 percent in Montenegro. Supply-side disruptions and lower demand further affect many manufacturing sectors, while liquidity constraints and acute uncertainty stifle investment.

The main risk for the Western Balkans is that a prolonged pandemic, as well as a deeper recession in the European Union, could make the unfolding economic crisis difficult to handle.

According to the report, quick, bold, and carefully designed mitigation measures can limit the social and economic impact of this crisis. Governments in all six countries have announced fiscal and social measures to support households and businesses during the emergency—ranging from 1 percent to 6.7 percent of GDP. Countries that entered the crisis with larger fiscal and external buffers have more space to finance larger support programs.

The announced short-term measures are necessary and aligned with the policy responses of EU countries. However, more people in the Western Balkans rely on self-employment, part-time work, and incomes from informal activities. These groups are vulnerable to the crisis but difficult to support through conventional measures.

According to the report, additional support – fine-tuned to the local context – may be necessary to support all vulnerable groups in the region. Several Western Balkan countries, for example, announced an expansion of the coverage of existing social transfer programs to support self-employed families and more vulnerable people. Given the uncertain length of this crisis, policymakers everywhere face the same policy dilemma: using all available fiscal space to mitigate the immediate impact can backfire if the crisis endures. Policy responses should therefore be calibrated to mitigate the immediate effects, adjust to new realities that may emerge, and to leave space to prepare the economy for a recovery.

The report focuses on the macroeconomic impact of COVID-19 in the Western Balkan countries, setting the stage for additional analysis. A series of Regular Economic Report notes, looking at the impact on specific economic areas, social sectors, and on poverty and income distribution in the region, will be be published in a follow-up e-launch in May.

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Health & Wellness

Over 500,000 people have been inoculated against COVID-19 in Moscow

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The number of people who wish to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Moscow has reached half a million, and over 500,000 of them have already received their first jab. Every day between 12,000 and 20,000 residents of the city sign up for vaccination.

Vaccines are being administered in 100 vaccination points in city polyclinics and 20 popular public places, where mobile teams have been deployed. The list of categories of citizens entitled to vaccination is constantly expanding and the city’s vaccination campaign is picking up pace.

The list of categories of citizens prioritized for vaccination also includes Muscovites over the age of 60 years old (who form the largest risk group and are most vulnerable to COVID-19). More than 9,000 residents of 33 retirement homes have already been vaccinated. In addition, vaccination is recommended for people with chronic diseases who need to stay at home, as well as college and university students over 18 years of age.

A convenient online vaccination appointments system has been set up specially for Muscovites in the mos.ru portal. It can be accessed by going to ‘Doctor’s Appointment’ in the list of services and selecting ‘Vaccination Against COVID-19’.

In addition, vaccine appointments can be made via the My Moscow mobile app, the Moscow Gosuslugi government services website and the emais.info medical services portal, as well as by calling a vaccination center. The vaccine is administered in two doses, with appointments for the second injection being made automatically.

Many large employers are requesting on-site vaccination of their staff, and this network will be gradually expanded. Naturally, the throughput capacity of such organizations and, most importantly, the employers’ wishes are being taken into account.

Detailed information on the vaccination program has also been posted in the portal’s special project.

The Sputnik V vaccine consists of two components requiring two injections, and provides a reliable immune response. Volunteers will first be injected with the first component of the vaccine, with a second vaccination following 21 days later. Only the first appointment needs to be booked, as the doctor will arrange the patient’s second visit on the day of their first vaccination. To ensure that people do not forget about their re-vaccination, they will receive an SMS message the day before it, reminding them of the date, time and clinic they need to attend.

The vaccination process takes at least an hour, including a 10-minute examination by a doctor before the vaccination and 15 minutes spent preparing the vaccine, which is stored in frozen state (with five doses in one vial) and thawed for five patients at once when they have been examined. Post-vaccination observation and examination take a further 30 minutes. Each patient receives a certificate recording the two injections and confirming that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vaccine was produced using a biotechnological process based on the most modern technological platform created by Russian scientists. It is safe because it does not contain the coronavirus. It is based on special structures (carrier vectors) created in the laboratory that contain only a part of the virus gene. Upon encountering the vaccine, the human immune system produces protective antibodies.

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Human Rights

Belarus human rights situation deteriorating further

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

A “systematic crackdown” against dissent in Belarus is continuing, months since the country’s disputed presidential election last year, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has told the Human Rights Council.

In comments to the Geneva forum on Thursday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted that curbs on demonstrators had got worse since last August’s poll returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office.

Those protests had led to “mass arbitrary arrests and detentions” of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with “hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment”, Ms. Bachelet said, before noting that “not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment” had been investigated.

The High Commissioner highlighted concerns about Government proposals which would reportedly “enable harsher punishments” for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations from now on.

To date, nearly 250 people have received prison sentences on allegedly politically-motivated charges context of the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Bachelet said.

‘Unprecedented’ human rights crisis

The OHCHR report “covers serious violations” of rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. “The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, added Ms. Bachelet.

All of the violations detailed “committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear”, she said, noting the further deterioration since December.

She said journalists were being increasingly targeted, “and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna (A Minsk-based human rights centre) were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for ‘mass disorder’”.

Release innocent protesters

She told the Council it was “essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released.”

The rights chief called for “thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations” into all the allegations of serious violations, with perpetrators being brought to justice, as well as an “immediate end” to the Government policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.

“I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework”, she concluded. “Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.”

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Health & Wellness

Natalia Vodianova joins UNFPA to tackle stigma and advance women’s health

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Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova has been appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA. Photo: UNFPA

The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, on Wednesday appointed supermodel, philanthropist, and impact investor Natalia Vodianova as its newest Goodwill Ambassador, in an effort to empower women and girls, including fighting stigma surrounding menstruation.

“For too long, society’s approach to menstruation and women’s health has been defined by taboo and stigma”, said Ms. Vodianova, stressing that the situation “has undermined the most basic needs and rights of women.”

In her new role with UNFPA, officially known as the UN Population Fund, Ms. Vodianova will seek to help culturally redefine menstruation, as a normal bodily function.

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are actively menstruating. In many countries, taboos surrounding the cycle leaves girls vulnerable and can even be life-threatening, says UNFPA, as they are excluded from public life, denied opportunities, sanitation and basic health needs.

Major mission

The agency said in a press release, that the issue has been starved of the attention it deserves, but in recent years that has started to change, and “achieving this, is central to UNFPA’s mandate”.

“It’s a tragic irony that something as universal as menstruation can make girls feel so isolated…We all have a role to play in breaking the taboos around menstruation”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, underscoring the significance of spotlighting the damage caused.

She added that the agency “is pleased to partner with such a powerful and committed advocate. Societies prosper when girls are confident, empowered and making their own decisions!”

Building on past momentum

Over the past three years, Ms. Vodianova has teamed up with UNFPA to launch a series of “Let’s Talk” events worldwide, which have mobilised policy makers, civil society and the private sector to help tackle shame, exclusion and discrimination, faced routinely by millions of women and girls.

Leaders from various sectors such as fashion, politics, sport, technology and media have also gathered in Turkey, Kenya, Switzerland, Belarus and India to advance women’s health.

Raised in poverty by a single mother in Russia, along with caring for a half-sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, Ms.Vodianova is a passionate advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights and the rights of people living with disabilities, UNFPA noted.

The agency said it was looking forward to working with her in her role as a bridge builder across the fashion and technology industries, where she’s an influential international voice, to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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