BELGRADE -- Having seemingly kept their country free of the new coronavirus so far, officials in Serbia have appeared more at pains to fight the "infodemic" that global health officials warn could worsen the COVID-19 problem.
Over the course of several days last week, Serbia's president and foreign minister offered an uncorroborated conspiracy theory that the virus that has killed thousands around the world and infected nearly 91,000 is part of an economic "war" on China, and jokingly implied that drinking alcohol could prevent its spread.
Roughly 3,000 Chinese have died of COVID-19's pneumonia-like symptoms and 80,000 have come down with the disease.
The virus has also infected more than 10,000 people outside China -- including outbreaks that have killed dozens in Iran, Italy, and South Korea.
Throughout the Balkans, Croatia reports nine confirmed COVID-19 cases, Greece eight, Bosnia-Herzegovina's predominantly Serb entity Republika Srpska two, and North Macedonia one, with no known deaths from the disease. Serbia has no confirmed cases.
After a meeting with health specialists and epidemiologists on February 26, President Aleksandar Vucic seized on questions about the efficacy of alcohol applied externally to kill the virus to make a joke. "Once again, I joke on my own account," he said. "After they told me -- and now I see that Americans insist it's true -- that coronavirus doesn't grow wherever you put alcohol, I've now found myself an additional reason to drink one glass a day, so.... But it has nothing to do with that alcohol [liquor], I just made that up for you to know."
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that the external application of alcohol is not useful in killing viruses that are already inside the body.
Then it was Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic's turn.
On their return from a two-day visit to China that the ministry described as "in the midst of coronavirus epidemic...[as] a token of Serbia and its people's solidarity with China," Dacic and his entourage underwent special screening for the virus at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport on February 28.
Then Dacic -- a former prime minister and onetime aide to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic who led their Social Democrats back into the political mainstream after the military conflicts of the 1990s -- twice went on Serbian television to suggest that the coronavirus was a foreign plot targeting the Chinese economy.
"China is the second-largest economy in the world today, so it's not out of the question that [the coronavirus crisis] is part of a special war against China," Dacic first told privately owned Pink TV.
He did not elaborate.
Two days later, on March 1, Dacic told Serbia's public broadcaster: "China is a very cautious country. They're not coming out with it yet, they are testing, but I've heard information from them that they suspect that it is not of organic origin but rather was created in the laboratory and now needs to be further determined how it originated, why it originated, and how it got to China."
Chinese officials have never publicly alleged that a foreign power was behind the outbreak, which is thought to have begun late last year in Wuhan, China.
Huge swaths of China have been paralyzed by curfews, quarantines, and other efforts to stop the virus's spread, and many countries have suspended travel to China and other places.
On March 4, Italy, one of the worst-hit European countries, announced it was closing all schools until mid-March.
Economists around the world have lowered forecasts for growth as countermeasures and viral fears have taken hold.
The International Monetary and Financial Committee that reports to the International Monetary Fund's leadership acknowledged on March 4 that "the economic and financial impact has...been felt globally, creating uncertainty and damaging near-term prospects."
Dragan Djukanovic, a political-science professor in Belgrade, warned that such insinuations of an "inserted virus" by a country's top diplomat "can contribute to...disrupting the country's relationship with other actors."
WHO officials on the front lines of battling the outbreak around the world have repeatedly warned of "a massive 'infodemic' -- an overabundance of information -- some accurate and some not -- that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
The organization even created a "WHO technical risk communication and social-media team" to track and counter "myths and rumors." "Due to the high demand for timely and trustworthy information about [COVID-19], the WHO technical risk communication and social-media teams have been working closely to track and respond to myths and rumors," the WHO announced weeks into the crisis.
The Serbian Health Ministry has launched a special website that reports at least twice a day on testing and other coronavirus-related topics, and includes tips on how to reduce risks while avoiding panic.
It confirmed early on March 4 that no one had tested positive for the coronavirus in Serbia.
"The statement by the foreign minister is an irresponsible, political response," epidemiologist and retired professor Zoran Radovanovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "This deviation from the actual situation is only detrimental," he said. "On the contrary, if such misinformation from the Internet is supplemented by statements made by experts or politicians from various press conferences who can only drive citizens crazy, then the effect is even more devastating."
Serbian authorities have launched a possible criminal investigation into an anonymous, minute-long audio clip that has been circulating on the WhatsApp messaging service.
In it, a female voice claims that a doctor from a Belgrade clinic for infectious and tropical diseases had called her to tell her that coronavirus had been confirmed in Serbia and that two people at the clinic had died. Doctors, the voice claimed, had been ordered not to share any information with the public.
"Officers of the Ministry of the Interior's Department for fighting high-technology crime, on the basis of a warrant from the prosecutor's office in charge, are working intensively to identify the person who made this audiotape, because there are grounds to suspect that she committed a criminal act -- causing panic and disorder," the ministry said in a statement.
Anonymous, highly active Twitter accounts in Serbian have meanwhile spread accusations that included a description of the new coronavirus as "the perfect tool for manipulating humanity, spreading fear, and destroying China. An artificial virus created in the UK kitchen...."
A suspicious, mostly Serbian-language Facebook account linked to a conspiracy-theory website's article alleged cryptic connections between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the coronavirus outbreak (and others like Ebola and Zika).
It was eventually flagged by Facebook's fact-checkers as "false information."