Demolishing of the National Theater Tirana May 17, 2020. PHOTO: Nikola Đorđević, Emerging Europe.

Demolishing of the National Theater Tirana May 17, 2020. PHOTO: Nikola Đorđević, Emerging Europe.

Okategoriserade The pandemic experience and the lockdown in Albania

We can all agree that this pandemic is hard to manage and that the saving citizens’ life is the most important issue to deal with initially, but let us reflect on the consequences of the responses. The pandemic experience and the lockdown in Albania, among other perspectives, can be analysed by answering two main questions: 1. What is the socio-economic cost of the lockdown for almost 3 months? 2. What are the implications for the democratic system, is the freedom challenged?

Published on on May 18, 2020

No Comments on The pandemic experience and the lockdown in Albania Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

In early December 2019 in Albania, the public opinion and the state institutions’ attention was concentrated on the damages that the November’s earthquake caused the country. Apart from the severe material damage of the earthquake, 51 citizens lost their lives. The whole society, media, citizens, and of course the government were all focusing on how and when to recover from the consequences, and to what costs. In the beginning of 2020 life however was more or less back to normal in Albania. Covid-19 were, at that time, not a topic on the agenda, although it was discussed in the daily conversations between the citizens. Even when the first confirmed cases were found in Europe, there were no immediately reaction from the authorities in Albania.

In February, Italy was, as is well-known, hit hard and rapidly by the Covid-19 and in a few days Albania were included in the map of high-risk spots. Yet, no serious measures were taken, even though approximately 500.000 citizens travel between the two countries each day as Albania and Italy have strong relationships both economically and culturally. By early morning March 9, 2020 the first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Albania, a father and his son that had travelled from Lombardy to Tirana a few days earlier. This first case is in the Albanian debate referred to as patient 0. The panic and confusion among the citizens spread quickly, especially in Tirana. In the capital city the first reactions noticed was that people stored food, and the pharmacies soon reported lack of face masks, disinfectants, and other sanitary products. But this situation was soon under control and new goods were delivered.

Thereafter the prime minister, in a press conference, introduced to the citizens the first restrictions to fight the pandemic: the kindergarten, the elementary schools, high schools, universities, and the academic life and other possible working places, such as private companies, were requested to work from ‘home’, and this for a period of two weeks. The following days confirmed cases of Covid-19 started to grow, and tracking the cases seemed a challenge. Citizens would not tell about their traveling history or if they have been in contact with others who may have been infected.  After one week therefore stricter restrictions were introduced that lead to the close down of: public transportation, public spaces such as parks and bars, restaurants, beauty salons, gyms. The restrictions this time had no time limit but were set until a new decision were made, depending on how the situation will develop.

Still citizens were free to walk, to go out at any time of the day, and self-protection with masks and gloves was not mandatory. The doctor’s and medical’s information about the need and effectiveness of masks and gloves were confusing. Those first two weeks in March can be characterized by a strange feeling among the citizens, trying to cope with this unknown enemy Covid-19. A certain fear was in the air as no one could predict when life could be back to normal.

It must be mentioned that the medical care workers, the nurses, doctors, and the public health system were, and they are doing still, the best that they can under hard conditions as the system for health care and intensive car is not very well-developed in Albania. Some of them put their lives in danger and have also been infected, partly due to the working conditions and partly because the patients for various reasons didn’t inform about their symptoms and that they might be infected with Covid-19. The pressure on the health care system was also one of the main reasons behind the decision by Rama’s government to put Albanian under a total lockdown and thus announce an emergency situation. This time it was different from the emergency situation announced due to the earthquake in November. The Albanian government now altered and applied the law of war, to keep citizens disciplined.  By March 28 Albania was under the siege state, with curfew hours and citizens were allowed do go out only 2 hour per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoons. They were only allowed to leave home for the purpose to fulfill basic need such as buying groceries or medicine, and this only under authorization by the state police, which could be taken from the e-Albania platform or by phone SMS (most of the cases the site and SMS line were not working properly).

A reflection to bear in mind is that Albanians socially overall are not self-disciplined, obeying citizens. Many do simply not take into consideration the risk to not follow the regulations, on the contrary most of the citizens’ response was, and still is, “I am not afraid of a simple flu”, or “I have survived harder situations like this”, or even “Albanians are strong and have a strong immune system”, etc. In this perspective, the emergency lockdown was, probably, the only way to act for the purpose to reduce the damages of Covid-19 as much as possible. Today, May 18 in Albania there are 946 confirmed cases, recovered cases 715, and 31 deaths.

We can all agree that this pandemic is hard to manage and that the saving citizens’ life is the most important issue to deal with initially, but let us reflect on the consequences of the responses. The pandemic experience and the lockdown in Albania, among other perspectives, can be analyzed by answering two main questions: 1. What is the socio-economic cost of the lockdown for almost 3 months?; 2. What are the implications for the democratic system, is the freedom challenged?

Regarding the first question, the Albanian state’s ability to cover the socio-economical cost of this total isolation is non-existence. What then is the plan for covering the economic damage? During these 3 months of isolation the Albanian government have presented only 2 financial packages to support local businesses and their employees, who lost their jobs because of the pandemic lockdown. For a few cases, these financial packages have actually worked out, but for the majority of the private sector it has not. Due to the complex method of applying many in the private sector are excluded from the right to profit from the so-called ‘war salary’. Also many employees are working on the hour and thus there is no “real” employment to claim compensation for. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable groups, the workers-in the factories, mines, and in calls centers continued their work every day and their working place/conditions are high-risk potential for the spread of the viruses. Same as in overpopulated prisons and jails.

Another issue, which is been less discussed in Albania is the effect on domestic violence. According to the Albanian Institute of Statistics  (INSTAT) and the State Police reports (March 2020)  there have been 245 reported cases, by which 33 led to arrestment. Comparing to one year ago the reported cases the same period now are three times more. Domestic violence (including also LGBTQ+ community) in Albania is a serious issue even in normality. Women in Albania are more or less always dependent financially on their husbands,  who in the majority of the cases of domestic violence are the abuser, and this dependence, among other reasons, means that many actually never report domestic violence to the police.

In the analysis of the socio-economic consequences of the lockdown it is crucial to consider the impact on education at all level. As soon as the academic life was suspended the Ministry of Education decided that students should be given classes through looking at by the teachers recorded videos on TV at home, or, if possible, via online teaching. The online platforms used by the teachers varied, some used WhatsApp groups, some used Viber for the undergraduate education system. An initiative that turned out to be a total failure was online groups with parents, children, and teachers communicated with each other. A major challenge overall for the distance teaching is access to Internet. Only Tirana or the bigger cities have the possibility to Internet access, but it is often unstable even there. In the rest of the cities and villages in Albania Internet is not available at all, or at least not stable enough, furthermore necessary equipment such as smartphones or computers are luxuries for many Albanians. The educational situation has caused big problem for the graduating high school students, that need to pass the state exams to be able to apply for the universities. The high schools students find it hard to learn via looking at the recorded videos on the TV without possibilities to interact. Online education isn’t functioning satisfactory, especially for modules such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, the later subjects also requiring access to laboratories. The situation for students in the universities is also challenging regarding the access to Internet. Approximately 40% of the students cannot afford Internet bills in order to be online. The universities in Albania have now decided to organize extra teaching hours the whole summer, to be able to catch up with lost teaching during the spring.

There are other issues regarding academic research, especially at the University of Tirana,  concerning the Ph.D.-programs and has to do with the result of the earlier higher education reform. At least for two years since the new reform the Faculties and the Rectorate have been in disagreement with each other. Every single bureaucratic step that is needed to finalize any academic research or entitling academic titles have been delayed. For example, the new legislation does not clarify how the new faculty structures are to regulate the defense commission or the defense date for the Ph.D. students. During the current situation some Faculties simply have been carrying on working according to the old legislation while others have done their own interpretations of the new legislation. In all cases the Rectorate does not approve the legitimacy of the entitled PhDs. May 12, 2020 there should have been a new election for all posts; Rector, Deans, and the faculties senate, which may have been a solution to overcome the present situation, but the election was – due to the pandemic  – postponed until a new decommission in the future. The lack of a coherent legislation and agreed regulation wasn’t solved before the pandemic, but at least discussed, while during the pandemic the whole question has been set aside and not prioritized, which, of course, will lead to even further delays for the PhD-students and halter their academic carriers.

Democracy vs Pandemic

To answer the second question, if democracy is challenged by the pandemic in Albania, I will bring up the issue of the combat to save the old National Theater building and what happened on May 17, 2020.

The National Theater building was the only modern building of the architectural project by Giulio Berté (Italian architect) initiated in January 1938 and finished on May 17, 1939. The project included the buildings which nowadays are the governmental center, the main boulevard and the biggest city center square. Based on this architectural project Tirana became the capital city. The National Theater building with its 13.000m2 was supposed to be a social-cultural center named as Italian-Albanian society ‘Scanderbag’, including a bar, a library, theater scene, a swimming pool, a big garden etc. Experts on architecture and historians at that time stated that the new building was the most modern one in the region. Albania, that had been under the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, now in this modern building could take a step into modern life, and for instance for the first time Albanian women could swim with swimsuits. Later on in 1945, after the Second War World, Enver Hoxha’s regime used this building for trials. In the building hundreds of citizens opposing the Hoxha regime was sentenced to death. By May 17, 1945 the building was inaugurated as the National Theater building. For more than 50 years the National Theater building hosted and developed Albanian theater, and the most influential and famous Albanian artists dedicated their professional life to the National Theater. In 2003,  this area was included in the national cultural heritage, having a legal status as a cultural monument. The building status changed a few times depending on the political parties’ interest, but in 2015 the National Theater building was given the status of the second most important cultural monument in Albania.

Since early 2000, when Edi Rama (today prime minister with a background as a painting artist)  was Minister of Culture, there have been debates over the need to establish a new theater building. The discussion has not so much been if a new building is necessary, but foremost if the old National Theater can be restored, replaced, demolished or must be saved. The last decades, Albania has gone through hard condition, especially financially, and less investment is done for the art in general. In 2017, the government planned to build a smaller theatre on the same site through a public-private partnership, giving the rest of the land in the same area to the private partner. The suggestion met disapproval and protests from the artist community, Tirana’s citizens, as well as the civil society. The protests won support by the broader public opinion.

The resistance was also successful, and the National Theatre building was — for the moment — saved. During these last 3 years the resistance has continued. For the ‘Alliance for the protection of the theater’, the failure of the public-private partnership plan was a victory and the resistance got the international community attention. Earlier this year “Europa Nostra”, a Europe-wide organization, classified the building as a European cultural heritage monument and engaged for the protection of it. The artists in the “Alliance for the protection of the theater” have kept protecting the building by watching it 24/7 by turns and were determined to continue doing so. This was also done even under the times of pandemic restrictions, and curfew rules. However, May 8, 2020, the Council of Ministers decision no.377 proclaims that the National Theatre building is a property of Municipality of Tirana. The president refused to enactment (this is a repeated pattern) and denounced it to the  Constitutional Court (the Constitutional Court has currently only 1 member instead of 3, as the member judges did not pass the anti-corruption reform. They are therefore not working at least for 4 years still no replacement have occurred). The same day, May 8, the artists protecting the National Theater building asked for the immediate mobilization from any citizens how could to come and be in the building to secure it from the threat to be demolished any moment. The artists’ call was heard.  They were supported by the architect community, citizens, and represents from the civil society. In spite of Tirana being in the red zone from the pandemic, people came. They kept to the allowed timeline to be out, and there was a schedule when people kept coming and going to the building. A few days later, the Municipality council at one online meeting, unanimously decided to demolish the building. For almost one week, meetings and discussions between the artists and the rest of the theater supporters were held, all respecting the pandemic protocols. It is expected that the cost for the new building would be 30 million euros, and it is argued that the reconstruction of the old (which survived the earthquakes in 1979 and 2019) cost less and that this money could be used to build people’s homes, lost from the earthquake, and build a less modern theater somewhere else in Tirana.

But on May 17, 2020, on the 75th Anniversary of the building, without an announcement, not respecting the pandemic protocol and the rules, not respecting and approving the law procedures, at 4:30 AM the state police intervened brutally in the building and arrested the citizens inside. Half an hour later the demolishing of the National Theatre building was reality. This happened when people still were inside, some of the artists climbed up on the rooftop, many others tried to save whatever they could from the theater legacy, such as furniture, pictures, books and voice recorders. According to witnesses, this episode and behavior were brutal, disrespectful and unacceptable for a democratic country. Some of them even felt the situation to be life threatening. Later that day, on the streets of Tirana there were protests; by the artists, the engaged community, represents from civil society and social organizations and citizens at large. The protests occurred in spite of the curfew and the lockdown, and therefore 68 citizens were arrested. In a public announcement related to the events around the National Theater building, the major of Tirana, Erion Veliaj declares: ‘We have taken into consideration all options, the building was old and saw dust, had no value anymore and people soon will forget about it.”

To conclude, Albania is going under important reforms due to the EU recommendations, indeed to build the democratic state institutions. Public space is an important concept for the democracy and the civic mobilization. Once the public space is transformed or even used by the political elite interest, as it was the case of National Theatre building, under the pandemic conditions, it could be said that Albanian fragile democracy is being used by the decision-makers to achieve their goals. It is necessary to emphasize that strong repression of individual and collective freedoms, brings societies depended on governments decisions, including a big challenge for the activist to make the typical forms of protests impossible to carry out- these crises are also given occasion to the accumulation of profit by dispossession, for the experimentation of the authoritarian governments. (quoting Donatella della Porta).

  • by Gilda Hoxha

    PhD in political science, University of Tirana. Research interest in social movements and democratic dialogues.

  • all contributors