Serbia Scents Trouble as Truffle Wars Reach Murderous Level

BELGRADE, Dec 19, 2020:: Serbian Gendarmerie police will strengthen their patrols in the area of Sremska Mitrovica, in the northern Vojvodina province, as conflicts between locals looking for lucrative and highly prized truffles risk getting out of control, the Interior Ministry said. According to a Thursday press release, Minister Aleksandar Vulin met Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Branislav Nedimovic, Mayor of Sremska Mitrovica Svetlana Milovanovic and Chief of the Police in Sremska Mitrovica Djuro Mandic on Wednesday.

“Thefts, robberies, racketeering, street violence, all those crimes that have mostly damaged citizens, must receive the full vigilance of the police,” said Minister Vulin, adding that Sremska Mitrovica had always been a safe town and must remain so. He spoke after two brothers, Predrag and Stanislav Jelicic, were killed in a suspected truffle war on Sunday, December 6, in the village of Jarak, near Sremska Mitrovica. Local media said the police had since arrested two brothers, Dejan and Nebojsa Eric, from the same village, suspecting that their conflict broke out over competing searches for the elusive delicacy.

The newspaper Vecernje novosti reported that a court in Sremska Mitrovica had ordered the brothers into custody while probes continue. Boris Ivancevic, from the Natural Museum in Belgrade, told Radio Television of Serbia that the area of truffle hunts was “not sufficiently regulated, the existing laws are not sufficient, and even they are not implemented properly”. “Most of the truffle trade in Serbia goes through illegal channels,” he remarked.

“There are now a really large number of searchers, already counted in the thousands, although it is difficult to say [how many] because there are no official data. The locations are well known,” Ivancevic told RTS. The so-called royal mushroom is hard to find, and can only be found at certain locations in Europe. However, succesful finds are worth it. The average price for a kilo of fresh white truffles is currently between €2,000 and €2,500.

Vaccine Approval Can’t Come Soon Enough for Region

BRUSSELS, Dec 19, 2020:: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Wednesday the first COVID-19 vaccine would be authorised within a week, and Central European governments have been pressing ahead with plans for mass vaccination programs while also trying to keep a lid on infections over the Christmas period. The EU has bought more than enough doses for everyone in Europe, though it will be left up to individual member states on how to administer these. “What is important is that all Europeans would have access to the vaccine on the same day. Then, national vaccination plans would start to kick in and then each member state will organise their own national procedures,” Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told Euronews on Wednesday.

The Czech Republic is ready to begin its vaccination program as soon as that EU approval is complete, and the first doses should be made available during the Christmas holidays, Health Minister Jan Blatny boasted on Wednesday. Unfortunately, however, those doses will number no more than 10,000. Vaccination coordinator Zdenek Blahuta said this week that a similar number of doses should arrive in January, despite hopes for over 250,000. He added that Prague hopes that the delay in deliveries, blamed on Pfizer’s capacity, should be over by February or perhaps March. Blahuta’s career prospects are currently unclear, but the official government position is still that everything is on schedule for the mass vaccination effort to start sooner, in January, 2021.

Still, the Czechs may not need many doses. According to surveys, no more than 40 per cent of the population is prepared to take the jab. The prospect of low uptake has provoked fierce criticism of the government – from the prime minister, oddly enough. Why has the country not been educated? Andrej Babis demanded to know in parliament, doing a good impression of being the leader of the opposition. “We should have been convincing the people for a long time that the solution to this terrible situation that all of us are experiencing this year is vaccination. Only vaccination,” the PM thundered.

The hope of vaccination comes as Czechia crossed another milestone, with 10,000 now having died of COVID. With new infections also on the rise again just a couple of weeks after restrictions were relaxed, pubs and restaurants were once more shuttered from Friday. In Poland, the government’s commissioner for the National Vaccination Program and head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Michal Dworczyk, told a press conference this week that over 80 per cent of Poland’s municipalities, covering over 92 per cent of the population, have registered medical centres that can carry out vaccinations.

“We also decided to launch the first five mass vaccination points. They will be implemented in cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants,” Dworczyk said, adding that these facilities would be set up in the temporary COVID-hospitals. The units will start operating when the vaccination process begins with the first stage, including seniors, people aged 60 and over as well as teachers. That should happen from January 15, Dworczyk said, though added that this date depends on the pace of vaccine deliveries. There will be four stages in all.

Slovakia announced the first details of its coronavirus vaccination plan for 2021. According to the document, the vaccination rollout will be divided into four parts and continue throughout 2021. Slovakia plans to create special vaccination centres, with at first 25 sites, gradually increasing to 79, covering each county. Each centre should be able to vaccinate at least 500 people a day. In addition, mobile vaccination units will attend to people in retirement and social care homes.

During the first stage, vaccines will be administered to doctors and nurses, people working in care homes, and in critical infrastructure. In the second stage, the vaccine will go to people over 65 and patients in the highest risk groups. The third wave is reserved for teachers, homeless people or marginalised communities. The rest of the adult population will get the vaccine in the last, fourth stage.

The vaccination program can’t come soon enough for the Slovak government, which, despite endless debates and arguments, hasn’t been able to do much to stop the rapid growth of the epidemic. New daily cases have been on a steep rise since the nationwide mass testing of October-November slowed it down for a couple of weeks. On Wednesday, the number of new daily cases reached almost 8,000, both from PCR and antigen testing, which is an extremely high number for a country of 5 million.

The number of COVID patients in hospitals passed 2,300, with 150 people on ventilators. The overall number of fatalities reached 1,378 on Thursday, and the country was shocked this week to find that the popular actor Stefan Kozka had died of COVID. This week, the city of Trencin announced mass testing of citizens over the coming weekend and Nove Mesto nad Vahom opened the first COVID-only hospital in the country offering 60 beds. Several hospitals across the country have stopped accepting non-urgent patients under the strain of COVID outbreaks.

While Prime Minister Igor Matovic keeps dreaming about more rounds of nationwide testing, his coalition partners are proposing more regional measures, prompting President Zuzana Caputova to consult experts and call for decisive steps and clearer communication. The measures, however, have stayed the same since November, while Slovak hospitals continue to fill up with patients. Matovic, meanwhile, has attempted to shift the blame onto everyone else, mainly the president, Economy Minister Richard Sulik or public health officials.

Last Friday, the pandemic committee made up of epidemiological experts recommended a strict lockdown right away, warning that the situation was becoming unsustainable and hospitals were on the brink of collapse. While Health Minister Marek Krajci agreed, the rest of the government did not and by Wednesday the cabinet had introduced its own take on the lockdown: all non-essential shops would close this Saturday and people should stay at home until January 10. However, with over a dozen exceptions, experts described the measures as too soft, ineffective and impossible to monitor.

Over Christmas, Slovaks will be allowed to travel to work, go skiing or attend Church. They can also visit relatives, as long as they form “bubbles” from only two households over the lockdown period. Travelling across the regions has not been banned and people can also stay in hotels over the holidays. The government has received criticism for allowing Christmas mass in churches, as well as leaving the ski slopes open. But with Boris Kollar, Speaker of the Parliament and leader of the coalition We are Family party, famously owning a ski resort in Donovaly, Central Slovakia, it’s not hard to see why it has done so.

Given the Hungarian government’s general antipathy toward the EU, it came as no surprise to hear that it is already negotiating with Russian and Chinese suppliers about their potential coronavirus vaccines. “If the antidote is found in the East first, neither Brussels nor the pharma lobby can stop us from bringing the vaccine to Hungary. The health of the Hungarian people comes first!” Tamas Menczer, Secretary of State of the Foreign Ministry, said, somewhat offensively.

Like almost everything in today’s highly polarised Hungary, the issue of mass vaccination has already provoked controversy. Shortly after the government created a special website where people can pre-register for the vaccine, the government-critical newspaper Népszava wondered why the government was asking for highly sensitive personal data and warned that people would also have to give their consent to be on the mailing list of the PM’s cabinet office (practically, the ministry of communications). The debate escalated when Communications Minister Antal Rogan mentioned on a TV talk show that those who do not register will find themselves at the back of queue should they decide later on to get vaccinated.

The government’s coronavirus website boasted that in the first few days 100,000 people had signed up for the vaccine. But like the Czechs, many Hungarians are sceptical about any vaccine. The latest poll of Publicus institute revealed that only 20-36 per cent of the population would be willing to be vaccinated. Trust in Russian or Chinese vaccines depends on party preference: 29 per cent of government voters but only 7 per cent of opposition voters would be ready to accept them.

Vaccination would be voluntary and free of charge, and could start as early as the end of the year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said. Initially, it would focus first and foremost on doctors, nurses and others working in the health sector; mass vaccination is expected to begin only in the spring, but epidemiologists worry about the low willingness of the public to get vaccinated. In the meantime, Orban said in a Facebook video, which has lately become his regular way of communicating government measures, that: “The strict measures must be maintained. We will have Christmas next year too, but it is important that we should all be around.”

As infection numbers and the death toll skyrocket, reaching 3,000-5,000 and 140-180 cases daily, respectively, the government’s only hope in limiting the spread of the virus is that vaccination starts as soon as possible.