New data obtained by a network of non-government organisations has revealed that more than 10,000 death certificates citing COVID-19 as the cause of death were issued in Serbia in 2020. The figure is more than three times the number publicly reported at the time.
In 2020, the official website covid19.rs reported that 3,130 people had died of COVID-19 that year.
In May 2021, Serbia’s Health Ministry established the Commission for the Analysis of Deaths Caused by COVID-19 to undertake a review of the numbers, with the Commission ultimately reporting a much higher death toll of 10,356 people that year.
“We took health records, everything else that exists, death certificates, statements of relatives and friends of all those who passed away and anything we could get in connection with the coronavirus,” announced Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar, “the number of people [who died from COVID-19] in 2020 is 10,356.”
According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia has since revealed that 10,356 death certificates were issued that year. The Commission’s review of the death toll, then, only confirmed what authorities already knew at the time.
When presented with the data after the September 11 session of Crisis Staff, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic hit back at allegations that the 2020 death toll had been under-reported to the public.
“Do you think we would do something like that? Why would we do something like that?” she said.
From March to June 2020, BIRN reported that a total of 632 people had died in Serbia after testing positive for COVID-19. At the time, this figure was more than twice the official number of 244. Meanwhile the number of daily infections had reached at least 300 people, while official figures reported a maximum of 97 new cases in a day during the same time period.
Officials from the Batut Institut, tasked with managing the COVID-19 information system, declined to respond to the findings last year. President Aleksandar Vucic went as far as to criticise BIRN for its investigation, slamming the data used as inauthentic.
Later that year, in September, a member of the Serbian Government’s Crisis Staff confirmed that the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 by June 2020 was three times higher than the official reported figure. The official, Predrag Kon, blamed the discrepancy on the use of an imprecise information system that was being used for the first time.
“Deaths cannot be accurately reported unless a certain period has elapsed. The data entered in the death certificate is only returned in two months… I processed the data by June,” he said, “By June, in short, there were three times more deaths not only than what was officially announced but also what was reported.”
Serbia has emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot in recent weeks, with more than 6,500 reported daily cases on average. The country’s infection rate of almost 93.5 per 100,000 people is the highest in the world.