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Podcast: Examining the COVID-19 response in Albania

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In our first episode of Policy in Pandemics, we talk to Etjen Xhafaj, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Albania, about the crisis so far in the country

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Today we’re launching OPM’s podcast series, Policy in Pandemics. The podcast looks at the current Covid-19 crisis from the point of view of governments and policy makers around the world.  We’ll be speaking to all kinds of people – both inside and outside of government – to learn how they are responding to covid-19, what challenges are emerging, and what lessons are being learned.

To start the series, we’ll be focusing on bringing you perspectives from inside government in low and middle income countries,  exploring how the crisis is unfolding in very different contexts.  We hope these conversations will help illuminate the different policy problems being faced in different contexts, and how different places are solving them.

In our first episode (available here and here), we talk to Etjen Xhafaj, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Albania, about the crisis so far in Albania and how they have responded. Albania is a fascinating case – a small Western Balkans nation with a distinct story of transition from communism into democracy. Although one of the poorest countries in Europe, the country has been growing steadily for the last five years and has been striving to enact reforms to be able to join the EU. Last November, Albania suffered a major earthquake in the country, and was still in recovery when Covid-19 began. The country also has one of the biggest Diasporas – over half of Albanian passport holders live outside the country, many in neighbouring Italy – many of whom have been returning to the country since the crisis started.

Despite these challenges, Albania’s epidemic handling is emerging as a success story so far. The conversation was recorded a couple of weeks ago, but Albania’s epidemiological statistics have not changed significantly. As of May 3 Albania had under 800 cases, 31 deaths and no new deaths recorded. Etjen tells the story of how the government took some of the big early decisions around lockdown, and the tools they used to make sure people were able to comply with it – using existing platforms and structures to reach and protect vulnerable groups. This innovative approach holds lessons for other governments.

The big challenge for Albania is the economy. We discuss the immediate economic impact on the country, and look to the medium and long term challenges they face. After several years of hard-won growth, the pandemic is devastating for the country, and we talk about the difficulties for a small country to apply economic stimulus when borrowing is limited. The challenges are huge, but there are also rays of hope: on 24 march March the country received momentous news that the EU will open formal accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia – the realisation of a national dream decades old.