Serbia’s broken health care system means that sick children must often rely on the charity of strangers to send text message donations to finance expensive treatments abroad. Fearing exposure of its own ineffectiveness at helping critically ill children, pro-government media has launched an attack on the humanitarian organizations that assemble these campaigns.
As Serbia faces countless challenges on its path to the EU, ranging from the resolution of the Kosovo issue to economic development, the country has not found the motivation nor the strength to tackle its long-standing health care problem. Many children with life-threatening and terminal illnesses that cannot be treated in Serbia receive minimum to no assistance from public funds when they need to seek treatment abroad. Often, they must rely on friends, family and donations to finance expensive medical bills that can cost from several thousand euros up to more than a million euros. While there is a government fund to help these ill children that must be sent to Western countries for treatment, a system-wide solution is not yet in sight. The fund simply does not have sufficient resources to cover the costs for all Serbian children that must seek treatment abroad or face low chances of survival.
The result is the emergence of many humanitarian organisations that operate privately. These humanitarian organisations are the last resort for many children that fall below the government safety net and are unable to receive fast enough support when timing is the most crucial determinant for a chance to survive. Private humanitarian organisations receive most of their donations via text messages, the most efficient and common way of donating money in Serbia. Each message sent is worth around €1, and it often takes hundreds of thousands of them to save one life. To offer one example, $2.6m was collected in 2013 for a heart transplant of an eight-year-old girl named Tijana Ognjanovic through text messages and direct donations. In a matter of weeks, the Serbian public, whose salaries average around just €415 per month, managed to collect all money required for her treatment. In the end, it was too late for Tijana, who passed away at the beginning of her treatment. Her death opened up a debate and posed a crucial question to authorities in Serbia: why are we saving the lives of children with text messages in the 21st century?
One such humanitarian organisation is called Podrzi Zivot (Support Life) and was founded by the well-known Serbian actor Sergej Trifunovic. His organisation was responsible for Tijana’s campaign, as well as around 70 other similar campaigns that mostly saw success in raising funds. The most recent campaign was for a four-year-old boy named Dusan Todorovic who was in a critical condition and needed immediate cancer treatment in Barcelona. Around 733,000 messages were sent, and the necessary €191,000 was collected when Man United player Nemanja Matic became a hero with his €70,000 anonymous last-minute donation. Unfortunately, the funds were not collected on time, and Dusan passed away in Barcelona several days later, on the 29th of September. The public outrage grew larger when the government delivered the promised assistance of €250,000, but only after the money was already collected and when it was already too late. After publicly calling for change and many outbursts against the government’s approach to the problem Trifunovic faced attacks from pro-government tabloids and TV channels. These attempts at character assassination are not uncommon in Serbia and they are the reason why so many do not trust the media anymore. But this was different. Sick children were involved. Sergej and his foundation were on the front pages of the tabloid Srpski Telegraf for several days in a row. The headlines labelled Sergej a “drug addict” and someone who “steals money from sick kids”, while openly calling for his humanitarian foundation to be investigated for fraud and other “criminal” activities.
On TV, the campaign focused around “analysts” who praised government’s successes with sending kids abroad for treatment while labelling Trifunovic a fraud who only seeks self-promotion and money. Some ministers even got involved in attacking Sergej. Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar openly called for an investigation of Sergej’s foundation while some other Ministers used the opportunity to attack opposition leaders who supported Sergej’s actions. The whole situation reached a new low when parents of ill children who had been helped by Sergej’s foundation had to publicly deny accusations by the media and government officials. One mother even filmed a video with her ill daughter lying in a hospital bed in which she claimed Srpski Telegraph and other tabloids had made up quotes attributed to her and used her for attacks against Trifunovic, who saved her daughter’s life. She asked that her daughter be left alone.
The whole situation is damaging in several ways. First, the constant discrediting of Trifunovic’s work is an attempt to discredit all humanitarian organisations that operate in Serbia, and people will trust them less and be less willing to donate their money next time. Despite the fabricated nature of the allegations, the tabloid’s messages will certainly resonate through certain spheres of Serbian public. Secondly, the toxic campaign takes attention away from actual problems with the Serbian health care system. Instead of focusing the debate on how to improve the system, and to create one in which every child will have the same opportunity for a healthy life, the debate shifts to provocations, misinformation and vilification of those who want to help. The only victims are the children. They are not responsible for this situation but they pay the ultimate price.
The solution to this problem is for the government to start listening to voices from below and consider the opinions on the subject of healthcare from everyone, even the opposition. The media must stop attacking and vilifying people who genuinely want to help. The country needs to develop a systematic approach to treating these kids and therefore increase the chances of every child getting treatment on time. Only by doing so can Serbia hope to move forward and ensure that children’s lives will not depend on the number of text messages sent and the generosity of its citizens.