Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Coronavirus Hits Nursing Home in Split, A 'Worst Case Scenario'

April 8, 2020 —  The coronavirus reached a nursing home with over 300 residents in Split, realizing epidemiologists’ worst-case scenario: a large group of at-risk patients exposed to the virus. 

All 10 of the residents with confirmed infections are now on respirators, with about 50 others who shared a floor with the infected sent to a hospital. Two staff members later tested positive for the virus.

Health Minister Vili Beroš and Minister for Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy Vesna Bedekovic traveled to Split to visit the municipally operated Center for the Elderly and Infirm, where the breakout occurred according to Jutarnji List.

The minister said epidemiological protocols will take over. The area where the coronavirus appeared will be disinfected and all necessary measures will be taken to allow the residents to return. 

“Unfortunately, what happened in Split was what we least wanted, because older groups of our fellow citizens are the most vulnerable,” Beroš said.

Jutarnji reports the virus emerged on the second floor of the nursing home, which houses 50 residents with limited mobility. Ten residents reportedly tested positive and 16 have a fever.

“The doctor who is there every day, a few days ago, noticed a few people with fever on the second floor,” said Ivan Škaričić, director of the center who also overseas two others.

Škaričić says they "took all measures" and that "no one from the home could come in and out." Asked how residents were infected, he said the assumption was that the virus entered the via a resident went to the hospital an examination, or through a staff member.

“I cannot speculate on this,” Skaricic said. “We were really shocked.”

When asked by a Nova TV reporter why he had not reacted quicker given that residents had a fever for the last ten days, Škaričić replied that he was not a doctor. "They were in contact with a doctor and I would not speculate on that.”


Škaričić’s carries a controversial past as a poster child for the patronage jobs system allegedly endemic around the country. The archeology and history graduate, and card-carrying Croatian Democratic Union member, was gifted a well-compensated job overseeing three homes for the elderly despite zero qualifications.

When asked about his hiring in 2013, Škaričić infamously told Slobodna Dalmacija, “Well, I have to work somewhere, too. I've been out of a job long enough.”

The sudden influx of patients from Škaričić’s home will strain Split’s healthcare system.

“We'll have to empty an entire hospital ward,” said Dr. Julije Meštrović, Director of KBC Split.

The infections came a day after Krunoslav Capak, director of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, said at a press conference, “The most important thing is that we have not penetrated nursing homes so far.”

Epidemiologists feared an outbreak in a nursing home, where nearly all patients are high-risk.

“It is a matter of semi-mobile people, so it is very likely that the disease was introduced by one of the staff, but of course it still has to be checked,” Čapak said. “Specifically, visits have been banned for some time. So far, there are 10 positives, a few still have symptoms.”

Once the epidemiological survey is completed and after all residents have been tested, those who are negative will return to the home, which will be disinfected in the meantime.

“At this point, the most important thing is that the wardens are cared for, that they will receive the best care and that everything will be done according to the established procedures to stop the spread of the infection,” the Minister of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Welfare Vesna Bedekovic told Jutarnji List. “Did the patients show symptoms earlier, could they have reacted sooner - I have no information about this. […] Now the safety of the residents is paramount.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Tourism Minister Predicts Revenue Plunge, Regardless of Summer Season

April 8, 2020 —  The coronavirus will decimate the tourism sector, according to Tourism Minster Gari Cappelli and Croatian National Tourist Board Director Kristjan Staničić.

The two industry heavyweights offered gloomy predictions of revenue falls of up to 75 percent, damping down expectations of a quick recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cappelli and Staničić joined Director of the Croatian Tourism Association Veljko Ostojic, President of the Dalmatia-Dubrovnik Family Accommodations Community Nino Dubretić and President of the Association of Vessels Accommodation Providers - Charter, during last night’s “Otvoreno”, for a roundtable debate program on Croatian Radio Television.

Capelli predicted revenue drops between 60 and 75 percent, even if the tourism sector salvaged some fraction of the July through September tourism high season.

“If we manage to catch [the summer season], it would already give some results so that we could generate about 25 to 30 percent of revenues compared to last year,” he said, according to Jutarnji List.

He added Croatia as a car-centric destination in the region enjoyed advantages over countries that are aviation dependent.

Staničić, the HTZ director, said the fiscal third quarter was the most important.

“It is already certain that the second quarter will be practically at zero or maybe with some mild tourist traffic,” he said, adding that Croats must also be a little optimistic and try to capture at least part of the tourist season.

He believes that Croatia's advantage is the proximity of our key markets — namely Central Europe — and stressed the importance of domestic tourists.

Ostojic said that recently adopted government measures will help tourism survive, and are much more concrete than the first package. Yet he expects additional measures.

“We do not have a realistic basis, and we do not have the right to expect a fabulous season,” he said. “we must be realistic and ready to start working as soon as the opportunity arises.”

Dubretić said private renters have 90 percent fewer bookings than last year, with a 70 percent decline overall.

He believes that the current measures are cosmetic and that a year-long moratorium on debt payments is a priority.

“Three or six would mean that it's just a matter of what month the renter will stop paying loans,” Dubretić said.

Cappelli denied allegations the government neglected family accommodations, adding that the Ministry of Tourism immediately wrote off a lump sum of tourist taxes for the first six months for all 108,000 registered private accommodations.

“One hundred sixty-four million HRK was written off, deleted, for the first six months - said Cappelli, adding that their philosophy was "zero generated - zero will pay".

A moratorium is being discussed, he added, emphasizing the government considered including private renters.

Klisović said that nautical tourists spend more than twice as much as average tourism guests.

“The nautical sector is ignored in a couple of important segments,” he said. “The ships moored in the marinas are not in operation, and the cost, the most important and largest in the structure of all costs, is the cost of berths in the marina.”

“At the level of the entire Croatian fleet, we are talking about EUR 30 to 35 million of liabilities that are due or due in the next couple of days at the level of the year for all charter companies and their vessels - said Klisović, warning that charters need an urgent response from the government.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Croatia's Islands: Few Coronavirus Infections Betray A Dark History

April 6, 2020 —  The Bura swung then pummeled the island of Iž along its flank. “Bura de levantara,” as the elderly call it. The air was briny. The seagulls hung suspended in the sky, beaks piercing the wind.

The coronavirus yesterday claimed the life of a middle-aged, otherwise healthy man — the first such victim in Croatia. Yet on this island and many other bucolic, empty hideaways, you’d never know there was a pandemic.

The nation's islands have been spared the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Infections remain low, with Murter being the lone exception.

Locals admit their feeling of safety comes with a dose of guilt... and fear that every island's inoculation against this global pandemic is mere luck. Luck which may run out.

Ne izazivaj vraga,” they say. Don’t tempt the devil. Indeed.

Women of a certain age still say, “Kuga te ubola.” 

It loosely translates to “May the plague get you.” Depending on the context, it’s either a curse against an enemy or expression of delighted shock at inappropriate humor.

It’s still in use for a reason. Because Iž and other islands like it suffered terrible losses during previous pandemics. The Bubonic plague, cholera and Spanish Flu swept through these coastal hideaways like a tsunami. 

COVID-19 is the outlier — for now.

Familiar with plagues

Virtually every deadly pathogen that hit Europe also swept across Croatia's islands. Anecdotes, church records and census numbers show odd demographic oscillations so precise, they can’t be the usual harbingers of death — war and famine. Process of elimination leaves only disease.

The Bubonic plague hit Zadar 20 times between the sixth and 17th centuries, according to late historian and Iž native Dr. Roman Jelić. The plague became so common, locals built churches, chapels and altars devoted to Saint Rocco, who protected against the illness (Mali Iž’s altar among them).

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The island of Lokrum served as a lazaret for Dubrovnik during the Black Death. The innovation quickly spread.

As the plague hit over and over, Zadar’s islands coopted an efficient system of stopping the spread of the illness, one recognizable today and oft-attributed to Dubrovnik. Good ideas, like plagues, often spread quickly.

Confirmed infections on islands went to lazarettos, or infirmaries, built in the hinterlands or the uninhabited islets. This early form of the quarantine and forced self-isolation set the foundations for the current fight against COVID-19.

Still, the numbers were staggering.

The island of Ugljan at the end of 17th century lost nearly 10 percent of its population in a single year. Records suggest the plague swept through the island, end-to-end, with the neighboring islands Galevac and Ošljak serving as lazarettos for the ill.

A century later, Molat lost 141 residents — more than a quarter of its population — in the four years between 1772 and 1776.

Medieval medicine at the time included some isolation measures, but hygiene and knowledge of microscopic killers were non-existent. The islanders of lore were helpless to stop the viruses. A full-time medical professional on a Dalmatian island is a modern invention, arriving about the same time as electricity. 

Other deadly pathogens followed the plague: diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, typhus, dysentery, and the Spanish Influenza. The lazarettos built for Black Death sufferers remained, repurposed for every new disease.

No one to infect

The modern coronavirus pandemic in Croatia began around in the beginning of March. Not that anyone on the islands noticed a difference. 

The newer houses built by foreigners sat dormant — as usual. The other homes grow quiet, one by one, every time the death bell tolls. 

The coronavirus’s great gift to Dalmatian islanders was its timing. It arrived during the annual stretch of ghoulish emptiness that leaves one wondering if anyone lives here at all. Had it hit two months earlier or later — New Years or the summer — and the situation would look bleaker.

The few who live here all year emerge from their homes every morning. Some split olive wood to prepare stoves for the single match that’ll heat their house at sunset. Others wait in line for a loaf of bread.

All have routines to survive early March: the temperature fluctuations and bitter wind sweeping down from the Velebit Mountain make it a torturous time. That signature March Bura. The “healthy” wind which pseudo-scientists around here claim is a panacea for many ailments. 

It clears humidity out of the air, they say. Dries the sinuses, leaves a crust of salt on doors and windows. It cuts through the thickest of jackets.

Winter life will keep us safe, they say. Here, the winter sun is medicinal. (From April onwards, it’s a menace.)

Social isolation doesn’t need a mandate here either. At this time of year, it’s the norm.

If COVID-19 found its way to islands like Iž, it’d lack hosts. The regulars on the island keep a safe distance from each other — blame water-saving over hygiene, emotional suppression, and the disinterest that comes with seeing the same faces at the same time every day. Attempts at physical contact betray a too many drinks… or fair-weather friend trying to make good with the locals. We know better.

When a biting wind sweeps across your face and sends a chill to the base of your skull, a hug or a handshake feels ridiculous. Head nods and grunts are enough.

No well-wishers, family members, weekend visitors, or preparations for summer flings. Save a weekend bacchanal for carnevale, or perhaps a funeral, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone visiting Iž or any of the other smaller islands before Easter. 

Still Following Protocols

Make no mistake: people here follow the rules with aplomb. The store only allows one patron at a time, each greeted with a squirt of hand sanitizer at the door. The others wait outside in a haphazard line, with each new arrival pointing a questioning finger to see who’s ahead of them.

This rationing and pseudo-caution that comes with assuming everyone is a vector for a virus is familiar. The history of population-wide illness left a mark on many island norms.

In a long enough conversation, someone will mention a distant ancestor known to have died of… something. Those tales still circulate, along with the centuries-old quack medicine for combatting the illnesses.

Locals also used to fumigate their houses with burning juniper bushes to oust the plague. While nobody smokes themselves out of their own home, islanders still have an immeasurable fear of drafts — a well-documented phenomenon that dates back to the era when tuberculosis, common colds and pneumonia were death sentences.

It’s still customary for a visitor to shout your name a few steps before they arrive at your door — a bit of common courtesy predating doorbells but also a chance to be sent away without getting too close.

Folk medicine remedies are still common. Every bodul (islander) shoveling spoonfuls of honey into their gullet to combat a cough can thank their ancestors, who did the same to survive tuberculosis and pneumonia. Ditto to inhaling the vapors from sage or chamomile tea, a centuries-old remedy for pulmonary illnesses. 

Some islanders even continue to pile on layers of clothing and blankets to treat a fever, believing it helps the body cook out the pathogen. These treatments are still being suggested to young islanders with the fervency of Gospel.

Perhaps the closest the islands saw to today’s pandemic was the cholera outbreak of 1855, which hit every settlement on every island in the Zadar archipelago. The incomplete records from the time show 7,770 people were infected, 2,690 of them died. A 34 percent mortality rate. (It should be noted Patient Zero arrived from Italy.)

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The author's home: devoid of people whether there's a pandemic or not.

Offering An Escape 

During past the pandemics, those fearing death often fled to the Dalmatian islands. It may happen again.

Already detached from societal epicenters, the potential for an island becoming a pandemic hotbed disappeared over the last century, as islanders emigrated to the generous shores of Canada, Australia and the United States. Even Murter, now a hotbed, had its COVID-19 allegedly imported by tourists who wanted to get an early start on "The Season."

That's not to say the islands like Iž and others are immune to nasty pathogens and the ornery nature of life on this planet. But maybe the four-mile gap between these shores and the mainland is just enough to keep the inhabitants safe. 

That sense of detachment and self-sufficiency fuels the people living here year round. But the longer this pandemic lasts, the supposed-faults of island life will slowly become appealing to The Crowd. Those who often shun a quiet existence to be at the vibrating center of modern civilized life. Their norms are now poisoned.

Isolation, solitude, peace, and detachment from the throngs, shopping centers, cultural institutions and a quiet social life...  are now luxuries. And potential life-savers.

A parade of fresh faces uprooting their homes to these islands is inevitable. They’ve already made calls, promising to be here soon. They’ll join a long and storied tradition: escaping to the Dalmatian islands for refuge. 

It’s something those of us with roots here all share: there is no native bodul. Everyone came here to escape from something: fights between Venetians and Ottoman Turks, famine… plagues. 

This pandemic will end. The sun will continue to rise just behind the neighboring island of Ugljan and settle in the west behind the church steeple at the top of the hill. Like it always does.

Those still alive when this is all over will tell their kids and grandkids what it was like to watch fraction of the world suffer even though the illness touched nearly everyone.

And those who passed the time on Croatia’s bucolic little islands will hopefully shrug and say, “Nothing really changed for us. A few more people showed up and, when it was over, they all left.”

Don't tempt the devil.

 

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Croatia's Entrepreneurs Use Guile, Luck To Fight 'Coronavirus Economy'

April 4, 2020 — Runner, entrepreneur and tourism innovator Berislav Sokač saw the early warning signs when governments called off punishing 24-mile races.

“Oh, I knew when things were going to be bad… when the Tokyo Marathon was canceled,” he said.

The founder and head of Run Croatia, a platform focused on sports tourism, is used to the pain-gain logic which binds suffering and improvement. He is, after all, one of the country’s most-accomplished runners.

But his Zagreb-based business hasn’t encountered a challenge like COVID-19. The ban on public gatherings and large groups put the kibosh on all scheduled events and runs. More than a cough and fever, the virus cut the legs off the nation’s largest running platform.

It puts Sokač and many other members of the Glas Poduzetnika (Voice of Entrepreneurs) in the unenviable position of trying to keep their companies afloat with zero revenue. The organization of small business owners, artisans and self-employed emerged in March to advocate economic measures meant to ease the pandemic's effect on entrepreneurs.

Business owners in a series of interviews with Total Croatia News expressed a mix of uncertainty, grit and hope in the face of fluctuating conditions. Despite a daily drumbeat of new infections and deaths.

For some, vital agreements fell through, reverting them to a one-man-show operation. Others shut down operations, kept workers on the payroll and are negotiating with landlords and creditors.

They, like Sokač and many others, expect pain with no promise of gain.
They welcome early interventions by the government and hope for further action. Quick thinking and a bit of luck have them predicting survival and even long-term renewal — whenever this grim period ends.

Inadvertently prepping for government help

Orlando Lopac ordered equipment for his fitness company, but it ran late at the end of February.

The founder and owner of Zagreb’s ubiquitous Orlando Fitness Group knew delayed shipments from US-based companies often betray a bigger problem in the production chain. A few phone calls to suppliers in Taiwan and talks with colleagues in Italy confirmed the worst.

“That’s when I understood the seriousness of the whole situation,” the 48-year-old said.

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The equipment at Orlando Fitness now sits untouched.

The ensuing weeks included whirlwind preparations, all-hands meetings and planning: provisions made in case of forced closures; financial plans drawn if clients couldn’t go to one of OrlandoFit’s three Zagreb locations.

Communications strategies — bulletins, social media posts, emails — drafted in late-night writing sessions, laying out in plain language how memberships would be prorated to a later date.

“We always tried to be three days ahead of the virus,” Lopac said. “People have put a lot of trust in us.”

Then, on March 19, the government ground public life to a halt, closing all businesses that didn’t sell food or medication.

Lopac’s fitness centers would be dormant indefinitely.

The prepared social media posts and emails were met with understanding by customers.

Lopac and his crisis team laid out a financial strategy to keep the company’s employees on the books. It called for painful cuts in wages. Then, an all-hands meeting to break the news.

“We told them what’s coming is very hard,” Lopac said. “We told them our cash flow would dry up.”

Byzantine bureaucratic labor rules meant just one worker’s dissent would topple the plan, setting off a daisy chain of ugliness which would kill the company.

His 30 full-time employees would need to annex their contracts and become minimum wage workers. Then, stay at home and hope the pandemic wouldn’t last longer than the two months-worth of salaries the company could cover.

Lopac spent more than an hour presenting the plan to his workers, explaining the maths and answering their questions.

“Because we made the presentation face-to-face, and spoke directly and took the time to answer questions, they all accepted,” Lopac said. “If I sent it all in a long email, I wouldn’t have a company right now.”

Then, a stroke of luck.

The Croatian government on April 2 unveiled a second set of economic measures designed to prevent massive private sector layoffs.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said all minimum wage employees’ salaries would be covered, while raising the minimum to 4,000 HRK. The plan also added three months of tax breaks for qualifying businesses.

Lopac’s two-month lifeline and pay cut became a great idea.

Business owners greeted the government’s measures with open arms. Labor Minister Josip Aladrović said within days 69 employers signed up, keeping over 410,000 employees on their books for March.

Most applicants were from the catering and service industries, Aladrović added, reflecting the 53 percent drop in overnight stays last month. The nationwide shutdown of hospitality businesses also forced a 90 percent drop in turnover in the industry at the end of March. Croatia was emptying.

The measures offered some leeway for the marathon runner Sokač and fitness guru Lopac. Both will use them to their full advantage.

“It wasn’t easy giving someone pay while they sit at home and do nothing,” Lopac said.

By reducing employees’s compensation to minimum wage, they avoided layoffs. With the Croatian government covering wages, they can shift that loss off their books.

“Now, we aren’t saddled with any large expenses and production costs,” Sokač said.

Equally important for both, they feel the small business community became the fulcrum of public policy at the national level for the first time.

“The government was ready to listen,” Sokač said. “The entrepreneurial establishment was heard. That’s a lot of small gears holding up the economy.”

Lopac expressed a more befuddled view.

“What angers me the most… were we really supposed to come to a pandemic to get to a normal level of communication between the government and entrepreneurs?” he asked. “Did it have to come to this?”

Guessing government’s next pool of measures has become a favorite parlor game for economic watchers and business owners.

Some belt-tightening already began this week.

Plenković put a moratorium on new public sector hires within his government. He also froze the second search to buy fighter jets.

Even the seemingly recession-proof local Croatian public sector experienced cutbacks. City administration employees in the City of Pag, for example, will see 20 percent pay cuts. Ditto workers at city-owned companies.

What’s left to cut? Many eye the mandatory fees charged to business owners every month — forests, water, radio and television frequencies, among others. Early rumors suggested the government would scuttle the levies. They remain for now.

How bad can it get?

drazen-tomic-ictbusiness-by-damir-brkic.JPGDražen Tomić greeted 2020 with a slate of 17 conventions ahead of him. The media guru, journalist and editor owns and operates a collage of sites, including ICTBusiness, GamePerspectives, a production company and two YouTube channels

Events around Europe and rest of the world develop the contacts and stories his bundle of media companies churns out at a substantial clip. The gatherings are all on hold or canceled outright — as Tomić expected.

“Those who understood anything about virology knew that the virus would leave China,” he said.

Worse than the conventions, the photography and video gigs garnering additional revenue have all fallen through, leaving an immeasurable hole in his company’s finances.

“If someone asks me what’s my revenue now, I have no idea,” he said. “Some jobs were already agreed upon. Some were in the works. Some are renewed every year. Some were a head nod and promise to get something done. They’re all on hold now.”

For Sokač, Run Croatia’s numbers are grim. He forecasts a 70 percent drop in revenues this quarter, and a 40 percent drop if the crisis lasts into autumn.

A blow to the tourism industry would be devastating. He pointed to a race organized in Novalja, where 70 percent of registered runners would come from outside the country. Closed borders would leave him reliant on the 30 percent of Croatian participants — if they show up.

A continued moratorium on public gatherings would cancel the race — a 100 percent loss.

“Worst case scenario, we’re looking at an 80-90 percent drop,” Sokač said.

Holding onto employees

Tomić’s company relies heavily on him, one full-time employee and eight others working in a freelance capacity.

That circle is tightening.

“I have a small firm,” he said. Halting isn’t an option. “In this company, a lot of things rely on me. I either work or I don’t work.”

He doesn’t expect layoffs.

Sokač first reached out to the social media influencers and people he outsources to, telling them the races earning them money may be canceled. Then came the “crisis meeting” with employees, a common response with nearly all the business owners interviewed.

He told his workers they’d weather the pandemic using whatever measures were available, keeping Run Croatia alive in some iteration.

“I’m not prone to panic,” Sokač said, adding his employees share his demeanor. “I’m lucky that the people who work for us also live for what we do.”

He knew the run-friendly business would likely fall off significantly. Luckily, he created an alternative stream of revenue.

Smart Planning and a Dash of Luck

On Jan. 15, Sokač added another wing to the Run Croatia ecosystem he’s built since founding the company in 2015.

“It’s important to create a platform. The stronger the platform, the higher your immunity to crisis,” he said.

That addition was a web shop — exactly the sort of operation exempt from the restrictions put in place to fight the pandemic. Traffic to the site jumped in March, as soon as people were told to stay at home.

Suddenly, Run Croatia had a lifeline.

“It was totally by accident,” Sokač admitted.

Lopac said now that wages are off his mind for the short term, he’s trying to renegotiate deals with his financiers and landlords, using the same transparent approach he took with his employees. Early signs show promise.

“The things I am not doing: complaining, crying and waiting with hands outstretched looking for help,” he said.

But just in case, Lopac spent the better part of last week developing a promising alternative revenue model — one he’s keeping to himself.

“At this moment, OrlandoFit will be alive as long as I can keep working at the same tempo,” he said. “This will survive the same way it has over the last 30 years.”

Sometimes, the nature of the business works in one’s favor, according to the journalist Tomić.
“It’ll be hard to survive the next few months,” he said. “Thankfully, this journalism bit has strict controls on expenditures.”

The low overhead and high amount of news means Tomić’s “stay at home” lifestyle remains uptempo. He admitted to sometimes hammering away close to 17 hours a day.

“At this moment, the volume of available content hasn’t been greater,” Tomić said joylessly.

Looking Ahead with Hope

Tomić knows that this pandemic, like most calamities, will pass. The real challenge, he said, will be the recovery. A wrong turn or lackadaisical response could lead to “an economic death spiral.”

“When we come back, it can’t be at 90 percent. Or 100 percent,” he said. “It has to be at 150 percent.”

Lopac’s forecast for his company is somber: between two and three years to be back at full force. He admits fitness centers grow quiet during summer months. Many members disappear until autumn.

The bigger problem is the economic aftermath. A downturn leaves people clutching their wallets. Luxuries like personal trainers and fitness center memberships are among the first expenses discarded.

There’s also the nagging caricature of gyms as dens of bacteria and sweat.

“I know our fitness centers have the highest level of hygiene you can image,” Lopac said, spelling out the protocols and culture of cleanliness at his gyms. “I can tell you it’s cleaner than any grocery store. But the perception and thinking of the public might be different.”

Sokač, the marathon runner, admits to being an optimist. His kids, he said, are a testament to the positives this coronavirus has wrought.

“I see on this digital schooling a lot of attention is being given to physical fitness,” he said, pointing to new online courses and curriculum. “These are all changes we can keep.”

The pandemic? It’s just another challenge.

“You have people who are negative and depressive and they can’t function,” the 45-year-old said. “No matter how hard things get, you have to find something that works."

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Korona & Corona: Eponymous Virus Doesn't Stop Tiny Croatian Village

April 4, 2020 —  Idyllic scenes of the picturesque Istrian hills, the waking nature, and the chirping of birds on a sunny day, and in the middle of it all - Korona. No, not the virus that has changed our lives from the ground up these days, but a village. Reporters from 24sata visited the enclave on a hill between Motovun and Buzet, home to only five people. 

Life in this small Istrian village continues unabated, while the world around it toils and struggles with a pandemic. Its only tie to the virus, fortunately, is its name.

"Get out of here, don't come near me, move on," an elderly woman Marija warned the journalists with a smile, sweeping the yard and appreciating the sizable distance between herself and the visitors.

Marija, one of five residents, lives alone in her house. Her son's house is close by, with three of them living there. The reporters knocked on the door for them too, but there was no one there. Marija says they’re all busy planting potatoes.

Not dropping the broom, she shows crates full of small potatoes for planting. These are, she says, the ones you don’t need to cut. They go to the ground.

Asked if she fears the coronavius that threatens everyone. 

“We have nothing to fear, there will be a story to tell,” she replied. “I’m not going anywhere. Where can I'll go?”

Marija’s age and stature suggest she’s seen a bit of the world and experienced life’s highs and lows. “It's good while we have something to eat, that's why we in the countryside work all the time. She complains that the virus has the same name as the village she married into and has lived in from an early age.

She is old, she says, and has to die of something, by grace or force, and that coronavirus is the least of her problems compared to anything she has gone through in her life.

Born during the reign of Italy, she felt what war, hunger and poverty were like. She had been married for sixty years, now a widow. Pressed for her age, she keeps telling the reporters she’s 100, then letting out a laugh.

"They to laugh better than to cry,” she said, as the reporters went on to her neighbor Milka.

She warns the reporters not to come closer than a few meters. Milka lives alone, but lively farm work hummed all around her. Milka’s son-in-law just arrived, and with his plow he prepared the ground.

"We've been fighting the corona as long as we’ve been here, and we're still alive," he yells, laughing. Milka says she has a real son-in-law, and she wouldn’t trade him for anything.

These days there are few who come to Korona, and Milka likes it that way.

"I'm afraid and staying at home,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere, and my legs are hurting, too," adding it's better to be alone while all this is going on.

They have enough to survive, Milka said. They struggle and work because, as she herself says, "if you don't do it, there is nothing."

Friday, 3 April 2020

Beroš to Young Dalmatians: Stay the F at Home

April 3, 2020 —Croatia’s Civil Protection Directorate earned kudos for its response to the coronavirus crisis and strict measures seemingly followed by everyone — except, apparently, Dalmatians.

The Civil Protection Directorate wanted to deliver positive news, with 48 new infections showing a steep in the virus’s spread yesterday. Instead, Health Minister Vili Beroš and other officials chastised young folks in Croatia’s coastal region for reportedly flouting social distancing measures and restrictions on movement. Data released by Google later in the day confirmed not just Dalmatians, but Croats in general are flouting the rules.

Locals and officials claim many young adults in Zadar, Split and Šibenik continue to congregate in cafes with tinted windows, drinking and socializing. Footage also emerged of Split locals enjoying a casual game of their traditional take on volleyball. 

Various reports from around the country suggest social distancing and self-isolation measure have met their match in Dalmatia’s traditional contrarian spirit and self-assurance.

“This is not acceptable behavior,” a visibly irate Beroš said during a press conference yesterday. “In doing so, they endanger themselves, their families and the health of the nation. I would like to tell everyone to be patient and wait for this epidemic to end. There will be time to socialize and relax. Until then, we must be disciplined and extremely cautious.”

Zadar’s Mayor Branko Dukić, a medical doctor himself, is baffled.

“I understand everyone who has a hard time being indoors, I have not spent as much time in my entire life as I have in recent weeks,” he reportedly said in a statement. “But I cannot understand that we are playing so easily with the health and lives of ourselves and our loved ones. Whichever state and whatever city tried the ‘it won’t happen to me’ tactic ended in disaster.”

As the directorate was holding its press conference, locals in Split publicly defied orders to stay at home by continuing to play “picigin,” a local beach-volleyball variant that favors banana hammocks and shallow water.

One day later, police promised to put the kibosh on all games of “picigin.”

“Had police officers found themselves at the ‘picigin’ game, they would have certainly warned the participants to disperse. You can walk, but ‘picigin’ cannot be played under these circumstances,” Split police reportedly said in a statement.

Workers in Dalmatian hospitals took to chastising their neighbors as well. One sent a plea to Dalmacija Danas, with a video of his hospital ward.

“Do you want me to send footage of a man choking and begging to be intubated?” he wrote. “Or are you waiting for the next one to be one of you ?! Hello?! Are we going to do anything?!”

Stipe Čogelja, Head of the Department for Tourism and Maritime Affairs of the Split-Dalmatia County, said in an interview some locals are exploiting the situation to build illegal piers and other structures on the maritime commons, a protected strip of land where the sea meets soil with strict limits on construction.

The head of the Civil Protection Directorate and Interior Ministry Davor Božinović said he won’t introduce stricter police measures or regular patrols, as some neighboring countries have.

“I did not know about young people gathering in cafes, but it does not surprise me,” he said, adding local police forces will be instructed to monitor local cafes and bars. “Young people are often unaware of this and when they do not see and feel that there is an enemy that we all fight together, they think that it is not there.”

Director of the Infectious Diseases Clinic "Dr. Fran Mihaljevic” Alemka Markotic also denounced the relaxed attitude, pointing to the growing number of patients on ventilators. New figures from the United States and other western countries offer a grim forecast for any critically-ill patient requiring a breathing machine, with a majority dying anyway.

Markotić said it’s best to limit any situation that might spread the virus.

“I am sure that Split may be the first in everything, but that it does not want to be the first in the corona,” she said. “Please show the citizens in the south that you are better than others and do not allow the corona to expand.”

The chastising runs against the overall compliance shown by Croats around the country — something reiterated with a trove of data showing Croats have cut back on their movement significantly.

The online giant released a trove of data showing users’ movement during restrictive measures in comparison, showing Croats cut back their outdoors excursions by some 82 percent from Feb. 26 to March 29, compared to Jan. 3 and Feb. 6, before restrictions took force.

Google users cut back their trips to work by 50 percent across the country, while people are overall spending 16 percent more time in residential areas.

But the most telling statistic: visits to parks, which in an era of “stay at home” should be close to zero. Overall, Zagreb County, Varaždin County and Lika saw the biggest drop in visits to the park.

Dalmatians didn’t follow suit. Residents of Šibenik-Knin County curtailed their visits to parks by only 12 percent. Not far behind were Osijek, Karlovac, then Zadar.

Croatian Public Health Institute Director Krunoslav Capak criticized the reports from Split and Zadar, warning the consequences of their nonchalance would come back to haunt them.

“Today, there are half as many new cases as yesterday, which is an extremely favorable situation and we want this trend to continue,” he said at the press conference.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Government Introduces e-Passes and a Little Leeway, Despite "Stay at Home"

April 1, 2020 — From dog grooming to neglected gardens, many Croatians responded to “stay at home” with a, “Yeah, but…” 

The government is responding with measures meant to streamline the system of “passes” designed to track movement, while also increasing the number of exceptions to the “stay at home” mantra.

Ivan Malenica, Administration Minister, unveiled an “e-Pass” service to streamline the until-now Byzantine “pass” system which allows citizens to travel within the country. It should be available by the end of the day.

The app, within the Shared Services Center, links with the Ministry of the Interior, the Tax Administration, the Croatian Pension Insurance Institute (HZMO), the health system and the Civil Protection Headquarters.

“It's not about the app, it's about the shared services center,” Malenica told N1. “The e-pass system is intended for citizens under the civil protection system and, if necessary, towards employers.”

The e-Pass system creates a single point to access and monitor issued passes, said Malenica. Citizens can access passes through Croatia’s “e-Citizen” system, an online repository of government services and information available to anyone with an official identification card.

Citizens granted a pass can print them out or keep them on their mobile device. Each pass features a QR code which police officers can scan.

Previously issued passes will be accessible through the system.

“The goal is to speed up and digitize the whole process,” he said.

Those who do not have access to the “e-Citizen” service can use the current means of request via email and doctors. Employers, doctors and the Civil Protection Directorate can still give out passes.

The passes were introduced after the March 22 earthquake hit Zagreb. The government banned citizens from moving within the country, demanding they remain in their declared legal residence.

Closing loopholes

The previous system of giving out passes created many lapses, and was proving hard to maintain.

Over 50 residents of Brodsko Posavske County tried to leave the area after the measures were introduced, Mijo Kršić of the county’s police department told Jutranji List.

The requests for passes started trickling in — some justified, others silly.

“Individuals were asking us to issue passes to go get their dog groomed,” said county leader Danijel Marušić. “There were other similar requests that are not necessary and not relevant at the moment.”

This system plans to close such loopholes by overlapping various information at the national and local level, while also giving the Civil Protection Directorate a better handle on movement.

“There was abuse of the whole system because employers were able to issue passes to non-employed persons,” Malenica said, adding that the goal was to digitize and make it easier for citizens and employers to get passes, according to Dnevnik.hr.

Loosening restrictions on islands

The Civil Protection Directorate’s “stay in place” orders scuttled plans to spend the pandemic in weekend homes well away from urban centers, in less-inhabited coastal towns and islands.

The government has, for now, loosened up those restrictions slightly, allowing local agencies to decide the urgency and necessity for someone to go to an island.

Some local authorities have already promised to pull back restraints on visiting islands. Zadar, for example, will now allow citizens to visit islands if they own agricultural land in need of attention — regardless of whether or not they reside there. The measure is not limited to companies or family agricultural businesses, but private citizens with agricultural land — pending confirmation they have land to tend.

Business owners and their workers must also show an urgent need to go to an island to get a pass to islands or remote areas.

One group not getting passes: those ordered into self-isolation.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Croatian Tourism Industry Already Feeling Coronavirus Consequences

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to rock the global economy, those working in the Croatian tourism industry are already feeling the consequences.

As Poslovni Dnevnik writes on the 11th of March, 2020, as many as two-thirds (66 percent) of Croatian companies are already feeling the negative effects of the coronavirus situation in their business operations, and more than half, as many as 53 percent, have experienced a drop in turnover, according to a poll recently conducted by the Croatian Chamber of Commerce (HGK).

Travel agencies, those who deal with accommodation, food preparation and logistics companies are among the hardest hit, and small and medium-sized businesses operating within the Croatian tourism industry are feeling more negatively impacted than large companies are, according to Glas Istre.

Thus, the coronavirus situation could have far-reaching negative effects on Istrian tourism and the economy, and the first being hit are those in hospitality, hoteliers, travel agencies, and private renters. In discussions with individuals from these sectors, let's look at the reactions to the current situation with coronavirus in Istria and the forecasts.

Oliver Juric, co-owner of a travel agency: Although they've paid, many aren't coming:

Bookings have stopped. If the situation doesn't calm down, we could quickly lose up to forty percent of traffic. Group arrivals aren't being sold now, and although they've paid, many won't take their trips because of fear. We're following everything with great caution and we're hoping that the situation will calm down. The question now is what the situation will be in April and May, and if the panic doesn't cease, we'll lose groups during those months, and then the question is what will happen next. If we pull out of this in spring, then we could save ourselves and we'll somehow get somethng out of the season, but if this condition continues, it will be difficult.

Our Austrian partner has stopped their sales because everyone is in awe, nobody wants to travel. The Swiss are in a panic as well, and they're starting to cancel because more cases have occurred. If the situation in Italy escalates, we can forget the preseason. This is the chain reaction that will most hit people in the Croatian tourism industry, perhaps hospitality workers the most. If the groups don't come, the restaurants will be empty and those working in hospitality will have nobody to serve.

We're all generally very concerned. The worst is the "status quo" and what people don't know is what awaits them. There is no booking and everything has stopped and no one knows how long all of this will go on for. We're powerless at the moment. If everything stops right now, it's hard to predict what Easter and May Day will be like. I sincerely hope that the situation will settle down by the beginning of the main season. But right now it's dramatic! People have been investing in accommodation, they're now burdened with loans they've taken out, and they don't know if they will have any guests.

Veljko Ostojic, Director of the Croatian Tourism Association: The tourist season isn't in danger:

The tourist season hasn't been compromised and we believe that the results will ultimately be satisfactory. At the moment, we have a slowdown in bookings but no cancellations for the main season. With the calming down of this virus, we can have a good season and post season. It should be emphasised that the response of health institutions and the entire Croatian Government in this situation is of high quality, which is crucial for the rapid return to normal after the slowdown because of the spread of the virus.

Ivo Lorencin, private landlord, Medulin: The preseason won't affect the financial picture

As for family accommodation, the pace of arrival of reservations for June, July and August has slowed down slightly, while for April and May it has completely stopped. There have been no cancellations so far, not even for the accommodation that was already reserved for Easter. But this trend doesn't have to mean anything, since it's common for early spring that most bookings are done "last minute".

The early preseason won't significantly affect the financial picture of the season because, except for Easter and May Day, we mostly have weekend tourists. But, on the other hand, that's the first revenue after the winter and spring investment in apartments and in the local environment, so for most family renters who opened in the early spring, this income, though relatively small, is extremely important. If the virus situation resolves in the next two to three weeks, the last minute bookings will work out and I don't believe we'll feel the consequences. However, if the situation persists and even if there are no epidemics, people will not dare to travel primarily because of the risk of quarantine.

Make sure to follow our dedicated lifestyle and travel pages for more on the Croatian tourism industry and coronavirus.

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