A gaze into the „Croatian scenario“ of fighting the virus.

After more than six weeks of „fighting the invisible enemy“, Croatia appears to have surprised itself. Not only has it successfully flattened the curve of new infections and kept the number of deaths relatively low, but the country is also witnessing a (nonetheless still fragile ) social consensus, something that has not been seen for a long time. Public opinion indicators show that this is mostly due to „interdisciplinary“ coordination within the Ministry of Health’s National Headquarters, which entrusted the implementation of epidemiological measures to the civil protection system but under the direct authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. After several weeks of hindering exponential growth and „flattening the curve“, public confidence in the Headquarters has grown to surprisingly high levels. Some optimistic predictions are emerging, with the population’s shaky confidence being restored in public institutions, at least in those that have emerged on an ad hoc basis as result of the crisis, while there are also hopes that the political character of the Headquarters can be put to the side during this state of emergency.

The Health Minister as the central figure

The central figure in this reversal has certainly been Health Minister Vili Beroš, who replaced his unpopular predecessor shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak. At the time of his replacement, the previous incumbent had faced accusations of corruption related to property transactions. The official explanation given, however, stated that he had  „not coped to a sufficient extent with the threat of the corona virus“. This might have been one of the reasons for the new minister’s determination to closely follow the „Chinese scenario“ and to act fast: border controls and self-isolation measures were quickly imposed in a country that shares a border with Italy, the early European focal point of the pandemic. The impression that Croatia has not shown major signs of panic at the onset of the pandemic is also partly due to Beroš’s subtle and patient public performance of the kind the Croatian public has not experienced since the time of late Social Democratic Prime Minister Ivica Račan.

In addition, in his public speeches, Beroš insists on solidarity and not stigmatizing those infected. This hasprobably helped to alleviate the effects of the fact that the first cases of infection in Croatia were marked by „frivolous“ trajectories of middle-class sports tourists following their passion: the first recorded case came from a football match in Milan; several infected physicians came to work straight from their vacations in Italian ski resorts; and one of the first major clusters of infection in Croatia occurred after a Rotary Club charity tennis tournament in the town of Karlovac. The first case of contagion, which caused the evacuation of the person’s fellow employees at the multinational company Ericsson Nikola Tesla, also marked the beginning of strong media interest and provided the frame for the „Croatian scenario“ of contagion control. Despite the recommendation to keep the identity of the infected person hidden, the media began to monitor his condition as well as the health of his girlfriend and his twin brother, which also triggered the first major flood of uncontrolled comments on social networks. Thus, with all the controversy, the personalization of cases of infection and the nosey public monitoring them marks the true start of Croatian society’s initiation in the pandemic after the notorious „bat phase“.

Instead of panicking and engaging in the ‘morbid’ transmission of (dis)information, complete with images of the scenes in Chinese hospitals, of anonymous victims, and „ghostly empty“ cities, the “taming” of the exotic epidemic meant that it was quickly translated into the familiar outlines of the domestic context. This included the first cautious calculations of how much its consequences would cost Croatia economically not just in terms of public health. Together with the discovery that a large number of foreign tourists were still in the country, even after the closure of borders, the public became aware that the ‘hedonistic’ industries of tourism and entertainment were at the same time the main initial sources of infection and two of the central pillars of the Croatian economy.

Surprised by plans to save the tourist season

Even before the recent surprise announcement by the Government that it planned to save the tourist season with direct flights for confirmed non-infected tourists from Prague, whom Coratians remember as our favourite and loyal guests from the socialist era, evocations of the socialist period have suddenly taken hold in public discourse. However, when asked directly in a television interview whether he considered the success of the fight against coronavirus to be, among other things, a result of socialist public health relics, Beroš rather referred to the even older legacy of Andrija Štampar (1888-1958), the founder of public health prevention in Croatia. A few days ago, the “Andrija” application was named in Štampar’s honour.  Created by a cooperation of Croatian companies in the field of digitization and artificial intelligence, the app allows citizens to check for symptoms of COVID-19.

Remembering times when “production worked”, however, extends to some other suppressed benefits of the self-sufficient, regulated state economy: from the call for the revival of the Immunological Institute that was destroyed by corruption and indifference despite successfully meeting domestic and export needs for vaccines to the renewed world-wide interest in the broad-spectrum antibiotic Sumamed. The original patent was held by the Croatian socialist era pharmaceuticalcompany Pliva, which was sold in 2006, together with the INA oil company, to foreign owners in suspicious transactions by former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (who has in the meantime been sentenced to jail on corruption charges). An indication of the awakening of the „spectre of communism“, which has apparently again begun haunting the pandemic-hit West, was also fuelled by unexpected government impulses to support domestic agricultural production, which had been devastated during the transition period but brought to life again due to the closure of open markets, prompting small farmers to turn to door-to-door delivery. Government measures to save the national economy, which have started to heal one of the most open social conflicts – that is, the gap between the private and public sectors – should be considered among the unexpected upshots of the pandemic so far. The perception that the public sector is a parasite on the allegedly productive entrepreneurial sector’s results shifted significantly after it became clear that as much as 80 percent of public service employees directly serve to combat the infection, often making huge sacrifices. This shaped the divide within the working population into „front line heroes“ and those suffering the consequences of being under house arrest who, on behalf of the common good, work from home where possible.

However, humour and optimistic quarantine folklore, mostly domesticated from neighbouring countries, are only rare hints that the „Age of Corona“ will overall have a happy ending in social terms for Croatia (for example the humorous fake news that dolphins return toVenice’s canals“). It took only a few weeks for the abstract discourse about the „Headquarters” to be socially contextualized in radical ways, especially after the intensification of restrictive measures and controversial methodologies for their implementation. Initial public enthusiasm turned into strong criticism, even questioning the legal bases underlying the institution of the Headquarters (of the Ministry of Health). After the critique of counter-pandemic measures was initially exhausted during heated debate over the now notoriously controversial issue of protective face masks – there were conflicting narratives about their necessity on the one hand and others pointing out supply shortages on the other – there were reports of cases of inappropriate police behaviour in situations where a larger number of citizens gathered. The opposition to the Headquarters culminated, however, as Easter, the „greatest Christian holiday“, approached. The appearance of the representative of the Croatian Episcopal Conference at one of the pre-Easter press conferences of the Civil Protection Headquarters triggered a decline in general confidence in the Headquarters’ neutrality and commitment to the general interest.

As the media revealed that at least two eminent experts (the Minister of Health himself and the popular director of the Infectious Diseases Clinic, Alemka Markotić) were privately genuine believers, the public became especially sensitive to any subsequent apparently controversial measures implemented by the Headquarters: allowing open markets to operate in the run-up to Easter and allowing the traditional procession Za Križen (Behind the Cross) to be held on Good Friday on the island of Hvar. The announcement that the local population would not take part in this event and that it will take place under strict epidemiological measures (wearing face protection masks and keeping distance) did not prove sufficient to convince the audience that there was no undue influence. On the contrary, the conviction prevailed that familiar Croatian nepotism (the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health descend from the island) had played a role in this decision. Likewise, the impression that the Headquarters showed an obliging attitude towards the Catholic Church in Croatia, whose position is determined by the harmful Vatican Treaties signed between 1996 and 1998, was reinforced by the hesitation of the police to intervene when a pastor from the city of Split urged his congregation to attend an Easter Mass in violation of the directives of the Headquarters and of the Croatian Episcopal Conference. Police also did not stop the violence against a journalist who sought to record the situation in the church. This was sealed up with the image of a parish priest and masked people holding a banner with the Ustashe slogan “Za Dom Spremni” (For the Fatherland, Ready) in front of the church the day after the incident.

A sharp division in public opinion

In less than two months, though still enjoying majority support for its measures against the spread of the virus, public opinion is increasingly sharply divided over the Health Headquarters. Its legality is being questioned, as is its political neutrality.. The average citizen today is once again in a state of utter confusion, following self-protection measures almost instinctively rather than by obeying expert interpretations. The daily proliferation of ‚democratic debate‘ on questions of restrictive protection has fallen back into the usual routine and follows established political fault lines. In terms of the validity of the government’s anti-pandemic measures, it seems that we have arrived at a paradoxical „point of no return“. The question now is whether the government’s measures are too rigid, given how effective they have been in terms of stemming new infections and deaths, or too light given how often they are violated. Some doubt has also been cast on the daily statistical updates for equally controversial reasons: both because of the alleged under-testing (otherwise the number of cases would be higher), and unclear definitions of Covid-19 induced deaths (when, due to comorbidity, the numbers could be significantly smaller). Critics also see quarantine, as well as other measures (washing hands, keeping physical distance), as either too “primitive” or too restrictive and thus prone to paralyze the economy.

Despite the good results and the avoidance of the „Italian scenario“, the critique of „the Headquarters treatment“ today effectively captures the wide range of problems that the Croatian society has faced before the outbreak of the pandemic and that will surely continue after the pandemic. However, it is impossible to avoid the impression that maintaining an enviable level of democratic debate has been possible precisely because, among other things, Croatia has managed to avoid the scenario faced by other countries and has  successfully slowed down and delayed the rate of infection. Furthermore, adherence to democratic procedures, paradoxically, has been shown to proceed in parallel with the loosening of the social consensus that accompanies health emergencies: a balance of restrictive behavioural measures and solidarity in respecting them is necessary. It is as if the epidemiologists‘ old prophecy is being fulfilled: “When our measures are implemented and the numbers start to fall, this will not be taken as proof that the measures were good but that we were exaggerating the threat.”

Featured image: Source: Orlovic via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0