This article originally appeared in Istinomer (Truthometer), a data verification initiative of the Research, Transparency and Accountability Center (CRTA), and was translated into English by Filip Stojanovski. We publish an edited version as part of a content sharing agreement.
We invite you to read the special coverage of Global Voices about the global impact of COVID-19.
News about the arrest and subsequent release of journalist Ana Lalić for “spreading panic and fomenting unrest” after her complaint of a shortage of protective equipment at Novi Sad hospital led Istinomer's team to decide to publish this analysis. from recent statements by Serbian rulers about the pandemic.
According to covid19.rs, the official Serbian website dedicated to monitoring COVID-19 in the country, the total number of cases in Serbia is 6890, with 130 deaths as of April 22.
Misinformation # 1: The “funniest virus”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić declared on national television on March 11 that the media was spreading a lie, according to which a state official had referred to the new coronavirus as the “funniest virus.”
However, in videos you can see Dr. Branimir Nestorović, a pediatrician and professor who integrates the Vučić crisis committee, saying this phrase in the presence of the president on February 26 in a press release:
Ne mogu da verujem da se narod koji je preživeo sankcije, bombardovanje, svakojaka maltretiranja, uplaši najsmešnijeg virusa u istoriji čovečanstva, koji na Fejsbuku postoji…
I cannot believe that people who have survived sanctions, bombings and all kinds of abuse are afraid of the funniest virus in human history, which exists on Facebook …
At the time, when Serbia did not yet have confirmed cases of the disease, the doctor applied his peculiar sense of “humor” to assure the public that there was no reason to worry.
Istinomer assessed President Vučić's statement as false.
At that same press conference, Dr. Nestorović joked that the women were “especially resistant” to COVID-19 “by estrogens”, and that “they could go shopping for clothes in Milan” (where the epidemic was causing havoc in those moments). President Vučić then joined the mockery and stated that alcoholic beverages could prevent the disease (which is not true), and that he now had an excuse to drink every day. Videos criticizing these gaffes went viral in the region at the time.
Misinformation # 2: Coronavirus is less severe than seasonal flu
Serbian Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar expressed on February 26:
Do sada, po svim karakteristikama koje pokazuje ovaj virus, on je dosta slabiji i od ovog sezonskog gripa.
This virus, according to all the characteristics it has shown so far, is much weaker than the seasonal flu that we usually have.
But according to information revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) during that time, that's not true:
Globally, about 3.4% of reported cases of COVID-19 have resulted in death. In comparison, mortality from seasonal flu is usually well below 1% of those infected.
The WHO noted that although many in the world had developed immunity to the flu, no one is immune to the virus that causes COVID-19. This means that many people are susceptible to getting sick and suffering more serious forms of the disease.
Misinformation # 3: The number of respirators is a state secret in all countries
On March 13, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated (minute 12:50 of the video) that the government should not reveal the number of respirators used in Serbia because it is “a state secret in all countries.”
She spoke in the context of an urgent supply of new respirators that had been requested by the Ministry of Health.
Istinomer has confirmed that the total number of respirators in use is publicly available data in many European countries, as well as in the United States and Canada.
Misinformation # 4: Ban on public gatherings prevents assemblies in Parliament
On March 23, the President of the Serbian Parliament, Maja Gojković, falsely claimed that Parliament could not meet during the state of emergency.
On the contrary, the Serbian Constitution clearly says that Parliament cannot be dissolved during a state of emergency.
Neither the Constitution nor any law stipulates that a government decree (such as a ban on public assembly) can suspend the work of the national assembly. There are no formal or legal bases that prohibit Parliament from organizing sessions.
Misinformation # 5: Experts Advised Ban Pets From Walking
After declaring a state of emergency on March 15, pet owners were still allowed to walk their dogs during curfew. However, a few days later the Government decided to withdraw the permit.
“Based on the opinion of experts, the government of the Republic of Serbia has decided to withdraw the permission to walk pets for 20 minutes between 8 and 9 pm,” the government declared on March 30.
However, at the press conference that same day, epidemiologist Predrag Kon, a member of the COVID-19 government crisis group, denied this, claiming that the group's experts had not mentioned any recommendations against pet walking, but that the authorities had decided to ban it anyway.
The government's argument appears to have been an attempt to blame the doctors who were part of the crisis response group for an unpopular measure.
Therefore, Istinomer evaluated this Government claim as false.
On April 14, Dr. Kon announced that he planned to resign from the government team of epidemiologists. But after meeting with the President and Prime Minister soon after, he appears to have decided to stay in the group.
Disinformation # 6: Spain decreed a total ban on citizen movement
Goran Vesić, deputy mayor of the capital Belgrade, announced on April 1 that on March 31, Spain decreed a ban on the movement 24 hours a day.
This is not true. The state of emergency declared on March 14 in Spain stipulates a quarantine of 24 hours a day, but does not include a 24-hour curfew. Although the Spanish citizen movement is indeed limited, you can still make purchases in supermarkets and pharmacies before 9:00 p.m., and walk pets near home.