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Barred by officials from obtaining private tests, some Kosovars seeking certainty about their COVID status are traveling abroad.

Like much of Eastern and southeastern Europe, Kosovo has a high rate of COVID-19 infection, and the growth in cases has accelerated in recent weeks. The surge in the number of infections has seen neighboring countries erect travel barriers for their citizens. North Macedonia and Montenegro have restricted travel, including requiring people from Kosovo to produce a negative coronavirus test taken within the last 72 hours to be allowed to enter.

Until private laboratories were authorized to start doing tests this month, the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) was the only body authorized to carry out COVID-19 tests in Kosovo. With a capacity of just 400 tests a day, testing was limited to people who had symptoms of infection, leaving the rest of the population to their own devices until just recently. The surging demand for tests led to the creation of a black market using foreign laboratories in Serbia and North Macedonia to process tests for Kosovo’s citizens.

After an initial two-week period during which the border between Kosovo and North Macedonia was open without any restrictions, on 9 July North Macedonia announced that citizens of Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would be required to present proof of negative test results for COVID-19.

On 18 July, Kosovo police said they had arrested a Kosovar man on the Hani i Elezit border crossing with North Macedonia. His crime? Transporting the results of 20 COVID-19 tests on Kosovo citizens in his car.

Further investigation revealed a scheme in which the samples were taken in Pristina and sent to private licensed clinics in North Macedonia. Even though the police intervened, the case was not processed as a criminal case, since Kosovo’s criminal code has no provision for medical samples sent to another country.

The Kosovo border in 2006. Image by Rofle/Wikimedia Commons.

“I have authorized the police to pass the case to the Health Inspectorate since there are no elements of a criminal case – I have not been able to find any. Health Inspectorate representatives came to Ferizaj, but I don’t know what they did after that. I told them that we simply do not have the authority to open a case,” the chief prosecutor in Ferizaj, Shukri Jashari, told Kallxo.com.

Solutions Over the Border

The number of people infected with coronavirus and of deaths have multiplied since the measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 were eased. At the end of March, Kosovo had seen just 112 cases and one fatality, but within two months, the number of infections exceeded 1,000, with 30 deaths. As of 20 August, the figures were 12,006 infections and 438 deaths, according to the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH).

Finally, the testing logjam started to break this month. On 10 August, the Health Ministry licensed 38 private health facilities to do tests for COVID-19, 36 of them for serological (antibody) tests and two for the more accurate RT-PCR test.

Until then, when NIPH was the only institution authorized to carry out COVID-19 tests, Kosovars were isolated in their homes for days, waiting for a phone call from the Institute to tell them when they would have the opportunity to get a test.

Frustrated with the lack of alternative testing services, many people took advantage of the two-week travel window in late June and early July to get tested in North Macedonia.

Rozafa Ukimeraj, the general secretary of the Ministry of Local Government, publicly denounced public health officials for “indecent treatment” when her request for a test was left unanswered, even though she had symptoms and reasonable indications that she was infected.

Through a Facebook post she said she had been tested in a private health facility in North Macedonia, which returned a positive result for COVID-19.

“To all those who have been in contact with me: since there are no checks by any of the appropriate institutions here, please take the necessary medical precautions yourself,” she said.

One private hospital in North Macedonia, Acibadem Sistina Hospital in Skopje, told Kallxo.com it has conducted thousands of COVID-19 tests, including for citizens of Kosovo. The hospital would not divulge specific data on the number of tests or origin of samples.

Many thousands of Kosovars could theoretically have gone abroad for testing. During the two-week period from 26 June to 8 July when North Macedonia allowed Kosovars to enter without proof of negative test results, 29,495 residents of Kosovo entered the country, according to data from North Macedonia’s Interior Ministry.

Fines for Illegal Tests

Kosovo’s Health Inspectorate carried out 104 inspections across the country in June on the basis of information from the media, the public, and other official bodies, the Health Ministry informed Kallxo.com in a statement.

The inspectorate issued fines to three laboratories for illegally doing COVID-19 tests. It refused a request to divulge the names of the laboratories and the amount of fines imposed.

On 13 July, the government of Kosovo moved to increase testing capacities in public and private institutions beyond NIPH. The aim was to increase testing capacity nationally.

Immediately after the announcement, the city of Pristina bought 10,800 COVID-19 tests, worth 114,700 euros. The tests will help identify those who are in the first week of the infection, those who are in advanced stages, and those who have almost beaten the virus.

These antibody tests, done in institutions that participate in Pristina’s health system, are not the same as those done by NIPH, which uses the RT-PCR method, considered one of the most accurate ways of detecting and tracking the virus.

Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti wrote on Facebook that the antibody tests were able to determine whether an individual had at some point been infected with COVID-19, but not if they were currently infected.

“Therefore, this test does not replace PCR testing and the testing currently performed at the Institute of Public Health. But it shows enough information about the built-in immunity and also to prove that you have not had it in the past,” he said.

Kreshnik Gashi is managing editor of the corruption reporting platform Kallxo.com and a moderator of the award-winning TV program Drejtesia ne Kosove (Justice in Kosovo). Dorentina Kastrati is a journalist and assistant editor at Kallxo.com, specializing in economic issues, public finance, and energy.