MONTENEGRO’S COVID-19 RESPONSE

by Ljubomir Filipovic

On March 17th, Montenegro was the last country in Europe that has reported patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

The government’s response to the crisis was a surprise to many. The Institute for Public Health started using social networks to directly communicate with citizens and respond to their questions and worries. Our diplomats abroad were praised for helping our citizens return to their homes safely. Prime Minister Duško Marković formed the National Coordination Body and delegated his deputy, Milutin Simović as the chief coordinator.

A spontaneous donor campaign was organized with many Montenegrins from abroad donating funds for ventilators and other medical equipment. Sportsmen and businessmen were competing to see who would donate the most aid. Also, foreign investors who are developing projects in Montenegro, namely Greek Petros Stathis, Swiss-Egyptian Samih Sawiris, and some Emirati officials organized an airplane with supplies worth several million euros.

The government’s initial efforts were praised even by the country’s opposition and opposition media, up until the moment they hit the first bumps. Following the first diagnosed cases of coronavirus, the government decided to subsequently introduce harsher measures to curb the contagion rate. Self-isolation orders were issued to many people who traveled abroad, and later many of them were taken into quarantine.

Those who were not complying with the orders were arrested and taken into guarded quarantines with criminal charges filed against them. By arresting the Chief of the Montenegrin Navy for this reason, the government sent the clear message that there would be no exceptions for those who are not respecting the restrictions and orders put in place by the National Coordination Body (NKT).

The first wider outbreak happened in a small town of Tuzi on the Albanian border, with a majority ethnic Albanian population. The town of 15,000 inhabitants had 15 individuals diagnosed with the virus and was immediately put under lockdown. The news about the Tuzi lockdown inspired a hate wave on social networks targeting Albanians as “disease spreaders”. Those are the same Facebook pages known for being used in the days before the pandemic as a coordination tool for the Serbian Orthodox Church protest and mass processions that were organized since last December.

Another setback in government’s good public communication strategy was the decision to publish the list of the individuals who were issued a self-isolation order. It was perceived as a privacy breach by several NGOs and was later qualified as a matter of concern even by the Civil Rights Defenders.

The Montenegrin Government is still coping with the pandemic professionally and they have been quite successful in communicating their policies and measures with the general population.

While the pandemic and the spread of the virus remains the main concern of the public, the lockdown caused many people to lose their jobs. Restaurants, hotels, and cafés are closed while taxis and public transport are also out of business. While the government did issue a moratorium on all leasing and bank loan payments, some families are completely left without income. The tourist season prognosis is grim, mostly due to a global trend of people canceling their travel plans.

In a country in which one-quarter of its GDP comes from tourism, this might prove to be a tougher challenge for the government after the pandemic ends. While the national Investment Development Fund (IRF) supports retail industry, thus preserving the supply chain, we need to focus on what will happen if we don’t have a successful touristic turnover to cover a chronic problem of the Montenegrin economy – the foreign trade deficit where exported goods value covers only roughly 15% of that of imports ( minus 2.4 billion USD in 2018).

Ljubomir Filipovic is an experienced consultant who specializes in  in government affairs and political risk assessment. He was elected as a Deputy Mayor of Budva, Montenegro, and served as the Acting Mayor. He was selected as a 2018 McCain Institute Next Generation Leader. Recently, he worked with the Atlantic Council in Montenegro and the Government Affairs Office at the Denver International Airport. Filipović holds partner and senior management positions in a number of consultancies based in Brussels, Geneva, and Tbilisi. He has been published and provided commentary in local Montenegrin media, as well as in The New York Times, The Guardian, The World Politics Review, and Le Figaro. He has appeared as an analyst and commentator on Euronews, Al Jazzeera and other networks. You can find him on Twitter @Ljubofil.