Residents of three of Sandzak's cities feel the government has let them down in their efforts to curb Covid-19 cases.
Amina Saracevic recently lost her uncle to the coronavirus, and she is now worried about her health and her family’s wellbeing, too.
“The number of dead is quite high, obituaries are everywhere. There isn’t a single day without hearing that someone died due to Covid-19. I hope that this will end soon,” Saracevic, a 27-year-old resident of the Sandzak region of Novi Pazar, told TRT World.
Novi Pazar, Tutin and Sjenica, three of Sandzak’s cities, have recorded the highest number of Covid-19 deaths compared to all other countries in the Balkans.
Over ninety people infected with the virus have died in a region of 165,000 inhabitants.
According to Mirsad Djerlek, the coordinator of the Novi Pazar General Hospital, all patients came from Novi Pazar, Tutin and Sjenica, which means the region is preparing itself for an average of 551 deaths per one million inhabitants.
On average, these three municipalities have up to ten times the number of deaths per one million higher than all other Balkan countries.
In Greece, the number of deaths per one million is 19, in Croatia 29, Albania 39, Bulgaria 43, Montenegro 48, Serbia and Slovenia 53, Kosovo and Turkey both have 65, Bosnia and Herzegovina 75 and North Macedonia 199.
Semir Poturak, a Novi Pazar-based architect, holds the state responsible for both the deaths and the health crisis that is on the verge of spiralling out of control.
"They (the government) held large political rallies, graduation parties although the situation in the hospitals was uncertain and worrying," Poturak told TRT World.
He added that while people followed social distancing rules and wore masks during the first wave of the pandemic, election campaigns jeopardized their efforts, turning the region into a Covid-19 hotspot.
During the start of the pandemic’s outbreak, Poturak participated in civil protests in Novi Pazar, seeking a proactive role from the government to keep the virus at bay.
Having lost his faith in those in power, he even suspects the data on daily infections and deaths that is frequently being regurgitated by the health ministry.
He says he stopped following the official data as their numbers do not match up with reality on the ground.
The virus has penetrated so deeply that he was shocked to learn that a man he had met during the protest lost his father to Covid-19.
"A lot of people I knew from the city have passed away," Semir said.
“I hope that situation will be resolved every day and that it will be under control. Novi Pazar is already suffering and will suffer in the future from severe economic consequences and every new coronavirus case will multiply damage to the entire region”.
He added that the government was "lying" to the people and making attempts to "cover up the situation" in the Novi Pazar hospitals.
Nepotism, corruption and decades of decay in the health sector has exacerbated the crisis in the region, according to Semir.
“We have a lot of cases where people without any expertise were given job posts in the hospital. Even now, in these moments, we lack medical workers, although help from foreign countries is slowly arriving. For instance, Turkey sent significant help to Sandzak,” he said.
In Semir’s opinion, the Serbian government can rebuild the trust it has lost among its citizens in the pandemic by ramping up the emergency response to the health crisis, as well as taking measures to improve the faltering economy.
“A couple of days ago, director of the Novi Pazar general hospital (Mirsad Djerlek) said that the situation is encouraging – only five people died during the last 24hrs,” Semir said, betraying a hint of sarcasm.
The number of deaths in the three Sandzak municipalities is still the subject of a great deal of speculation. The region's Muslim and Christian communities have recorded the numbers based on the number of funerals they have organised in the past few months. The Serbian Orthodox Church has insight into the number of buried persons who have died with apparent symptoms of Covid019.
Similarly, the Islamic community of Serbia announced that it performed 61 funerals under special conditions since the beginning of the pandemic.
Speaking to TRT World, Muhamed Demirovic, one of Serbia's reputed Islamic scholars, also held the Serbian government accountable for the grim health situation.
“Allowing an election campaign in a situation when it was known that the virus was expanding along with the number of patients with clear symptoms of Covid-19 in the Novi Pazar hospital and sending a big number of patients home for treatment are one of the main causes of this situation,” Demirovic said.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is yet to release its data on the number of funerals that were related to Covid-19 deaths.
TRT World however gathered the number from various sources in Novi Pazar and Tutin. At least 17 funerals were performed in Novi Pazar and one in Tutin.
In Sjenica, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Mileseva, the official data obtained by TRT World suggests that five funerals were performed there since the start of the pandemic.
According to data obtained by TRT World, Serbia's Islamic community has performed 65 in Novi Pazar, 35 in Tutin and 20 in Sjenica.
In light of the unofficial tally of deaths across the two main religious communities, there have been at least 204 deaths in the three municipalities of Sandzak city, a number which is double the official count, suggesting a figure of 1,236 deaths per million people.
By that tally, Sandak would be the second place in the world after San Marino, which has 1,238 deaths per one million inhabitants.
While there is a mismatch in official data between religious and public health authorities, there are 238 patients in the Novi Pazar General hospital as of July 18. At least 12 of them are in a critical condition, while out of 155 people, 89 have tested Covid-19 positive in the last 24 hours.