Serbia: Bloggers Make Health Care Scandal A Personal Affair

It would seem that Serbia’s bloggers have officially joined the ranks of citizen journalism. This week, just some 48 hours after several Serbian bloggers united to demand the resignation of Serbia’s Minister of health, Tomica Milosavljevic, whom many hold responsible for the corrupt state of medical practice in public health institutions, said Minister reacted to the bloggers’ open protest and demands (ENG). Regardless of the several scandals uncovered connected to state medical institutions during his mandate as Minister, Mr. Milosavljevic stated at a press conference on July 6th that he had no intention of resigning. Serbia’s bloggers and public, however, seem to have no intention of resigning their demands either.

What is interesting in this particular health-related government scandal is the fact that the Serbian media received news of this public protest and demands through the local blogosphere. The news was then passed on to the Minister by the press, which led to his first reaction. This is possibly the first public reaction ever from a government official to what was being said on the Web. Dragan Varagic, a professor from Novi Sad who is an avid and analytical blogger on all things Web-related, gave a short analysis of the local blogospheres efforts [SRP] and why this kind of pressure may actually have meaningful effect:

The reason for the very quick “intervention” by the Minister are the very specific stories with specific names of people who have offered their statements, specific names of institutions, doctors, medical nurses, etc. In other words, all statements could very easily be used as evidence in an eventual judiciary process.

While Mr. Varagic looks at both the pros and cons as to the effect of the blogosphere’s efforts, he makes a very valid point here. The series of cases of misconduct within national institutions seems to have hit a very personal nerve with the public and bloggers are no exception. As one sifts through the dozens of blog posts written on the latest scandal that led to the demand for Minister Milosavljevic’s resignation, one finds a common thread among all of them – each author has a personal tale to tell. Most stories have to do with demand for payment by medical staff (in medical institutions where treatment should be covered by the national healthcare system and budget), plain malpractice or blatant refusal to even admit a patient. And these bloggers are naming names.

Tamara Gocmanac, a.k.a. Shaputalica (the Whisperer), was among the three bloggers who kicked off the efforts to dethrone the Minister of Health that now run like wildfire through the Serbian blogosphere. She tells of friends who wait for urgent medical care while national healthcare funds are appropriated elsewhere [SRP]:

I learned the day before yesterday of a person who has a tumor and managed to make an appointment with a specialist for August 26th… Another person with four cerebral aneurysms managed to make an appointment for an MRI with the shortest possible wait – some forty days, and if something in their head should bust – so what, one less to worry about.

The affair with Novartis is no news, at all. One million vaccines… for the citizens of Serbia were paid for to this company at the price of eight euros per dose. Croatia paid the same distributor for that same vaccine 6.47 euros. Was there corruption involved? I don’t know. I’m just asking. Where’s our money?”

Another blogger, Marija Spasojevic, known to the community as Drveni Advokat (The Wooden Advocate) has written several times in the past about her mother’s grave diabetes and all that goes with that condition, including her family’s misadventures throughout Serbian medical facilities. In participating in the on-line community’s demand for the resignation of the Minister of Health, she now chooses to make a wishlist, appealing to the ethos within each of us and, hopefully, the Minister himself. Marija begins her post [SRP] with the Hippocratic Oath, calling on everyone to help support it in Serbia, and concludes with this:

I wish for the despair and fear I feel every time I need to go to a doctor to be replaced by hope and faith, trust and altruism.

If the realization of these wishes requires the resignations of a thousand people, then I wish for that to happen. Let’s begin with the first.

Serbian author turned blogger, known on-line as Mahlat, published a list of her own on her blog yesterday [SRP]. Her list could be deemed as personal to each citizen of Serbia, as she lists the very concrete reasons why Minister Milosavljevic should resign and other changes take place in Serbia’s healthcare system. She includes specific cases of corruption, flaws in basic medical treatment that the Minister introduced personally and other facts. Her list includes:

There are rare diseases that one or two people in Serbia are diagnosed with and medication for these diseases not only aren’t on the positive medication list [a list of medication that can be covered by funds from the national Mandatory Health Insurance], but aren’t even included in the national drug register. This evening I watched a news report about a girl who suffers from an acute and rare form of anemia that her brother died of last year. Her medication costs over 40,000 euros. Not to mention the children who have been diagnosed with Batten disease, which “doesn't exist” in our country.

Mahlat also openly accuses the Serbian Minister of using the national television network RTS to “advertise” vaccination against the H2N1 virus and she is not the first to do so. She concludes by citing articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights in her “defense”, that allow for the freedom of thought and religion, the freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble and associate with others, albeit on-line.

The bloggers who, provoked by the most recent pharmaceutical scandal in the country, felt compelled to write on the subject and call for a change, supporting the demand for Minister Milosavljevic’s resignation, some offering their expert or amateur advice for creating a more effective on-line protest campaign. Slavko Ilic from Nis presented a number of suggestions and concerns in a post titled Heads and Tails [SRP] on his blog that otherwise covers IT related news. It seems everyone is joining the discussion, both on-line and off. But will that be enough to bring about a change that is obviously called for in Serbia? We return to Dragan Varagic’s analytical post [SRP] in which he reminds us of the factors that may sabotage the bloggers’ initiative:

The political context that Tomica Milosavljevic’s removal from office represents is extremely adverse due to the fact that he is the second most important figure of the G17+ party and his removal from office may well lead to the dislosution of the coalition currently in power, unless G17+ itself were to initiate his removal.

Varagic once again makes a valid point, not only in indicating the intricate political backdrop behind the matter, but also by indirectly reminding us of the fact that bloggers in Serbia are either strongly anti-establishment or insist on remaining entirely apolitical. Linking to any political party, including those opposition parties who are demanding Milosavljevic’s resignation [SRP], is in this case truly adverse to the cause and undesirable. The professor from Novi Sad also mentions that he feels the small number of those who make up the local blogging community may not be enough to induce the expected resignation of the Minister or any major change in the healthcare system. He estimates there are some 250,000 bloggers in the country, most of whom seldom blog or blog about more personal matter. When reading such statistics and numbers along with the words “protest” and “resignation” and in relation to Serbia, one may recall a statistic from a decade ago – it took “only” a little over 100,000 people on the streets of the capital to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in October of 2000. Whether something similar can be accomplished through the blogosphere remains to be seen, as we wait for the latest reaction from the Minister of Health and the government.


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