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Is Montenegro About To Become The First Coronavirus-Free Country In Europe?

A women rides a bicycle past people waiting for a bus in Podgorica on May 25.
A women rides a bicycle past people waiting for a bus in Podgorica on May 25.

No new cases of the coronavirus for an extended period of time.

For most countries around the globe, that is a wish rather than a realistic goal.

But Montenegro, a small Balkan country of some 600,000 people, is claiming it is on the verge of achieving it.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic announced on May 25 that no confirmed cases were registered in the mountainous country on the Adriatic coast. His announcement came a day after the last known coronavirus-infected patient had recovered.

Now, if no new cases are reported, Montenegro plans to declare itself coronavirus-free on June 2, in step with guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Technically, it wouldn't be the first country to declare itself coronavirus-free. Slovenia did the same recently, only to later report fresh cases, highlighting how fraught with uncertainty the move can be.

The government hopes the coronavirus-free status will give the country's crucial tourism industry a boost, assuring jittery foreign visitors that all is safe, although the government will be selective about whom it lets in.

Montenegro reported its first COVID-19 infection on March 17, making it the last European country to register a case of the coronavirus disease. In total, it has confirmed 324 cases and nine related deaths.

How Does A Country Certify It Is Free Of Coronavirus?

Montenegro said that if no new cases of COVID-19 were registered by June 2, it would be free of the deadly contagious virus. Why? That will be exactly 28 days since the last case was identified on May 5.

The WHO declares a country free of a virus when there hasn't been a confirmed case after twice the maximum incubation period, which is the time of first exposure to an infection and the onset of symptoms. In the case of COVID-19, the WHO has said the maximum incubation period is 14 days.

In the past, the WHO has issued official declarations announcing the end of a health crisis in a country, as it did with the Ebola virus in 2014. It is unclear if and when the WHO is planning to do the same thing for Montenegro now.

How Did It Do It?

Montenegro banned all travel to coronavirus hotspots Italy, Spain, and Hubei Province in China -- where the virus was first detected in December 2019 -- as well as South Korea on March 10.

The small Balkan country then closed its borders to all foreigners -- except those with temporary and permanent residency -- on March 15, two days before the country registered its first coronavirus case.

In early March, the government also shut schools and banned public gatherings and outdoor activities across the country to curb the spread of the virus.

It was generally lauded for its testing, with more than 12,000 people checked for the virus as of May 26.

Controversially, the government also publicly listed the names and addresses of people in self-isolation due to suspected infections or heightened risk, a move that was criticized by rights watchdogs and kept an entire municipality in lockdown for weeks.

"Let every citizen know which of his neighbors and fellow citizens puts them at risk," the Montenegrin government said at the end of March, when the lists were posted online.

At one point, the names and locations of nearly 6,000 people -- about 1 percent of Montenegro's population -- were listed on the government's website.

As the numbers dropped, the government started to ease restrictions on March 30.

Will It Revive Tourism?

In his announcement on May 25, Markovic said Montenegro would open its borders to travelers from countries reporting no more than 25 cases of infection per 100,000 people - including Croatia, Albania, Slovenia, Germany, and Greece.

That excludes frequent flyers like Britons and Russians, who account for a sizable chunk of foreign visitors to the coastal country.

Borders are to open in early June, officially kicking off the holiday season.

Tour operators are still expecting a tough season, but hope the coronavirus-free status will soften the blow for an industry that accounts for a fifth of the country's GDP and employs about 19 percent of the workforce.

But arrivals will nevertheless fall far below the 2.6 million recorded last year, with forecasts of up to a 70 percent drop in tourism revenue as well.

Possible Pitfalls

Zoran Radovanovic, an epidemiologist and retired professor in Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service on May 19 that "every epidemic is also a social, economic, and social phenomenon."

Montenegrin officials "obviously had their economic and financial reasons; a large number of workers to whom they would have to pay compensation, a stagnant economy and other reasons, so the authorities estimated that it was more expedient to simply say that the epidemic was over. But let's not forget that preventive measures are still applied in Slovenia, " Radovanovic said.

Slovenia announced an end of the coronavirus outbreak in that small Balkan country on May 14.

The current situation "makes it possible to relax measures that were urgent to contain and manage COVID-19, but they cannot yet be completely abolished," the government said in a press release that day.

Prime Minister Janez Jansa said on May 14 that Slovenia had been "the most successful country in the EU in dealing with the epidemic."

Slovenia, however, reported a coronavirus case on May 25, showing the virus still lingers there.

Elsewhere in Europe, tiny Liechtenstein -- with a total of 82 coronavirus cases and one death in a population of 38,000, the lowest numbers on the continent -- has not reported a new case since "early April," according to the principality, sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria.

Iceland also appears on the road to recovery. The remote island country registered a total of 1,805 cases with 10 related deaths. Currently, there are three reported cases of coronavirus infection there. With a total population of some 366,000, the infection rate in Iceland is 1 case per 203 inhabitants. That is high, but largely put down to the high level of testing done.

In Montenegro, some are skeptical of the government's claim the country may be coronavirus-free, arguing that possible infections may be lurking due to not enough testing and a lack in some cases of symptoms.

"I don't feel any better or safer, because they tested very few people in Montenegro," Podgorica resident Desanka Rakcevic said in comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "And how would they know how many among us are without major symptoms?"

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.