Debate - ‘Solidarity During the Pandemic - Civil Society’s Response in the Local Community’
On 15 June 2020 the Center for Democracy Foundation organised a debate on the subject ‘Solidarity During the Pandemic - Civil Society’s Response in the Local Community’. The debate was organised in the form of a webinar and an open dialogue aiming to collect the experiences faced by different civil society organisations during the pandemic in their efforts to help their local populations, and the manner in which they responded to the challenges which arose from the infectious disease Covid-19, the introduction of the state of emergency and the measures introduced by the Government and the local self-governments.
The moderator of this debate, journalist Danica Vučenić, noticed that today, several months since the start of the pandemic, when you search the word solidarity online, what you find is hundreds of new headlines and texts dealing with this subject.
Healthcare protection and aid for the sick were of course, in the foreground. However, faced with the isolation of the elderly, the lack of available protective equipment at the start of the state of emergency, the lack of public transportation, the limited working hours of public services and shops, the people demanded quicker responses from their communities. Access to the most vulnerable groups, organising supplies for elderly citizens, allowing for the application of protective measures for the particularly vulnerable, to mention just a few of the tasks facing local communities. Local self-governments, civil societies, local civil movements applied various methods and approaches in resolving these issues in a situation that was completely new to all and one that nobody was prepared to deal with. What have we learned? What was collaboration like between the local self-governments, civil society organisations, healthcare institutions, social protection institutions and the providers of other public services? How did civil society organisations act within their respective local communities during the state of emergency? What programmes and activities need to be developed in the coming period in order to more effectively combat infectious diseases, and more effectively respond to the needs of vulnerable groups?
We received some answers to these questions from representatives of the civil sector and keynote speakers of the debate: Dejana Stevkovski from Civic Initiatives, Branislav Markuš representing the Zrenjanin Social Forum, Snežane Pavković on behalf of Timočki Club from Knjaževac and Žarko Šunderić from the Center for Social Policy.
Dejana Stevkovski presented activities undertaken by Civic Initiatives during the state of emergency. This organisation mapped the needs of civil society organisations and the public across Serbia, to obtain specific insight into the realistic needs of the population under emergency circumstances. From the field, organisations reported on the impact of initiated measures on the activities of civil societies within their local communities.
Snežana Pavković stated that within the Municipality of Knjaževac, where Timočki Club’s offices are located, the local self-government did not need to address any special requests. The elderly population was protected within two nursing homes within the territory of this municipality, in which a total of 300 elderly citizens are housed, and no single case of the virus was reported. The geronto housekeepers system (assisted living) continued to function as it had prior to the onset of the pandemic, and the local self-government distributed packages with protective masks and hygiene products to everyone without discrimination. Furthermore, Knjaževac’s textile industry manufactured free masks for the needs of the local population.
Branislav Markuš on behalf of the Zrenjanin Social Forum feels that in Zrenjanin, the government refused to accept aid nor did it wish to collaborate with the civil sector. Unfortunately, in most cases, local government did not view civil society organisations as partners, but as the opposition. He gave an example of how labour rights were endangered, and how the concept of solidarity was misunderstood within a number of Zrenjanin-based companies, where all employees received 65% of their salaries regardless of whether or working hours were reduced or not. He claims that Draxlmaier, a company seated in Zrenjanin, immediately dismissed over 1,000 workers as soon as the state of emergency was declared.
Žarko Šunderić from the Center for Social Policy emphasised that pensioners received the most support, but also that families with children, as a specific sensitive category, did not receive adequate support. He highlighted that the Center for Social Policy advocates for so-called geographic targeting when aid to vulnerable groups is in question.
Nataša Vučković in representing the organiser, the Center for Democracy Foundation, highlighted that civil society organisations failed to self-organise quickly. On the other hand, the behaviour of executive government within local self-governments demonstrated their unwillingness to involve the civil sector. She emphasised, in particular, the issue of the large number of people who were left unemployed due to the epidemic and asks the question: what happened to solidarity?
Partaking in the discussion were Olja Jovičić, Secretary General of the Obudsman of Serbia and Sanja Popović-Pantić, President of the Association of Business Women of Serbia, and the end of the webinar was marked by a disucssion on the lessons learned and recommendations that would improve the self-organisation of civil socieites and eventually the establishment of better collaboration with local self-governments.
To read more about the discussion and what conclusions can be rendered based on the above provided experience, read Vesna Marjanović’s article on our blog: ‘Testing Solidarity During the Pandemic‘.
Disclaimer: The webinar ‘Solidarity During the Pandemic - Civil Society’s Response in the Local Community’ is organised within the Connecting the Dots project, with financial assistance from the Balkan Trust for Democracy and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.
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