Shocked N.Macedonia mourns for victims of Covid clinic fire

North Macedonia was reeling on Thursday after an explosion and fire ripped through a hospital treating coronavirus patients, killing 14 people and prompting the authorities to declare three days of mourning to start straight away.

The fire broke out late on Wednesday at a temporary building joined to the main hospital in Tetovo, west of the capital Skopje.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev spoke of a “huge tragedy” and promised to investigate the causes of the fire, which occurred just as the former Yugoslav republic was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence.

“People were screaming inside,” Tetovo resident Sabedin Elmazi told AFP. “When I went out, there were flames, only flames.”

Emergency crews sealed off the area on Thursday, with police and firemen at work in front of the blackened walls of the Covid unit, which was only built earlier this year. 

“I have lived here in this street 40 years. What happened yesterday, we have never seen before,” said neighbour Nexhmedin Aliti. “I tried to get to where the fire was, but I couldn’t do anything.”

– Investigation demanded –

The prosecutor’s office said it had ordered autopsies on all 14 victims, adding that some would need to be identified by their DNA.

“We are looking into whether there are others dead,” the office said in a statement, adding that no medical workers were believed to have died.

Tetovo deputy fire chief Saso Trajcevski said his crews were called on Wednesday evening and took 45 minutes to tackle the blaze.

As attention turned to the causes of the blaze, the health ministry demanded a “quick and efficient” investigation.

Trajcevski suggested earlier that the clinic — a prefab unit — contained a lot of plastic, which helped to fan the flames.

The health ministry insisted there were no problems with the construction.

– International response –

While some of those injured in the fire were transferred to the capital for treatment, local news outlet Sloboden Pecat reported that 12 patients from the Covid unit were now being treated in the main Tetovo hospital.

“All the patients who survived the tragedy when the Covid centre burnt down were saved by the medical staff,” Dr Ilber Besimi told the outlet.

Zaev led the expressions of sympathy earlier, sending “deep condolences to the families and of the deceased”, while reactions came in from the diplomatic community in Skopje.

“Our thoughts are with the people of Tetovo this morning,” tweeted David Geer, EU envoy to North Macedonia, adding that he had offered “every kind of assistance” to Zaev.

“Saddened by the horrific events last night at the COVID hospital in #Tetovo,” tweeted US ambassador Kate Byrnes.

North Macedonia, with a population of around two million, is a poor country with a rundown healthcare system.

Hospitals are overwhelmed in some areas, particularly where vaccination rates are low.

The country has reported a rise in coronavirus infections recently, with the daily death toll reaching around 30.

It has recorded more than 6,100 fatalities in total since the start of the pandemic.

Covid-19 hospitals in other countries have been hit by explosions followed by fires.

In Iraq, dozens of people were killed in fires that occurred after oxygen cylinders exploded in April and July.

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