Up to 15,000 people in the Western Balkans will receive health checkups, hygiene services, and COVID-19 information through the “Leave No One Behind” project coordinated by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Serbia.
Designed to combat the spread of COVID-19 among society’s most vulnerable groups, the effort will benefit people without permanent homes, members of the impoverished Roma minority, and people living in remote areas. The “Leave No One Behind” project will be implemented in Serbia, Albania, and Bulgaria.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought health risks to the whole population, stressed the already understaffed and under-resourced health-care system, and exposed socially vulnerable groups to greater poverty,” Igor Mitrović, country director for ADRA in Serbia, said.
“People who are without homes or who live in substandard conditions in Roma settlements have an especially difficult time protecting themselves from COVID-19,” Mitrović added. “They cannot afford to see a doctor if they get sick. They do not have sufficient information on how to protect themselves, awareness of the importance of preventing COVID-19, or knowledge about the vaccine as an option. They do not even have basic facilities for washing their hands or taking baths.”
To lessen the impact of the pandemic, ADRA will focus on helping people without permanent homes and Roma communities gain access to medical care and health information. Doctors and nurses will provide essential medical checkups — such as measuring blood pressure and blood sugar — and counsel recipients on ways to improve their overall health. ADRA’s community in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, will offer free checkups at various locations in the Roma settlements and at ADRA’s Drumodom (RoadHome) bus that serves people without homes in Belgrade.
“Underlying conditions such as heart disease and diabetes are significant risk factors for serious illness from COVID-19,” Mitrović said. “The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long history of educating and empowering people to prevent and reverse lifestyle diseases. Now, because of COVID-19, this mission is even more crucial. ADRA is extending Jesus’ healing ministry to those who have had limited opportunities to learn and practice a healthy lifestyle and often suffer from untreated medical conditions.”
ADRA expects to provide about 4,000 free medical checkups in Serbia, Albania, and Bulgaria over the next nine months. For those in need of additional treatment, the medical team will refer patients to a private health-care practice, accompany them to appointments, and cover the costs of doctor visits and any needed medications and tests.
Many people in these marginalized communities lack the personal identification cards and medical IDs required for using the health-care system and accessing government benefits, including basic health insurance. Medical IDs are also necessary for those who choose to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. ADRA staff and volunteers will help individuals apply for ID cards and provide legal assistance for those lacking proper documentation.
“Here in Serbia, we have been providing free medical assistance to people with no permanent residence for the past three years,” Mitrović said. “Thanks to ADRA’s generous donors around the world, we will be able to expand this program to meet the increased needs during the pandemic.”
Caring for the medical needs of people without a home entails many challenges. “Our beneficiaries are scattered all over the capital,” Vesna Santrač, coordinator of the medical team, said. “Reaching them is time-consuming, given the distances. We do our best to have priority lists and pray that traffic will not additionally slow us down. At the end of the day, we try to feed off the sheer gratefulness of these people we support. It means the world.”
In addition to offering health care, ADRA will continue providing basic hygiene services to people without a home through the Drumodom, an adapted bus that travels throughout Belgrade, giving people with no homes a place to use the toilet, take a shower, get a haircut, and wash their laundry. The Drumodom began operating in 2018 and serves 30 people per day on average.
“The needs in June and July 2021 have risen dramatically. Daily we have up to 70 demands for our services,” Marija Milić, coordinator of services for the Drumodom, said. “We try to meet them all, but sometimes we feel overrun. We do our best.”
Educating Underserved Communities about COVID-19 Prevention
Since the fall of 2020, the Western Balkans region has experienced three significant waves of coronavirus infections, including a current surge in cases. While Serbia has enough COVID-19 vaccines to completely immunize the entire population, less than half of residents have gotten completely vaccinated, and demand has stalled, according to local reports. The situation is even riskier in neighboring Albania and Bulgaria, where less than 25 percent of people are fully vaccinated.
“In all three countries, we see widespread ignorance and misinformation about COVID-19, and often outright opposition toward vaccination and even toward basic preventive measures such as wearing masks and physical distancing,” Mitrović said. “This is especially true among the Roma, people without homes, and other vulnerable groups. ADRA is reaching out to these neglected communities to educate them and help them to protect themselves.”
Volunteers from Adventist churches and the community will distribute 15,000 leaflets containing information about COVID-19. ADRA will also present lectures and informational sessions in the targeted communities.
“We want these underserved communities to have reliable information on how to prevent COVID-19 through a healthy lifestyle, good hygiene, and immunization,” Mitrović said. “We will seek to address the concerns and fears that people have about the virus and the vaccines.”
Mitrović emphasizes that ADRA’s response goes well beyond the current crisis, encouraging individuals to make long-term changes to improve their health. “Lifestyle decisions such as avoiding tobacco and alcohol, eating a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, and getting adequate rest play a significant role in building immunity and immune response. Investing in healthy lifestyles is increasingly important given that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to stay with us for a long period, or other pandemics will occur. The Adventist Church and ADRA are committed to promoting healthful living so all may enjoy the quality of life that God intended.”
ADRA, the global humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world and has assisted millions of families during the pandemic. ADRA’s emergency relief activities include distributing food and other essentials to people in need, providing personal protective equipment and medical supplies to hospitals serving vulnerable communities, and educating the public on combatting the virus.