• 2020-05-25

How have the measures put into place to mitigate the effects of the epidemic impacted society?

Author: Ivan Sekulović

The traditional folk saying "measure thrice, cut once" does not seem to hold much clout in Nemanjina Street. Not a single decision rendered by the Serbian Government during the COVID-19 epidemic was done so on the basis of prior analyses of their expected impact on society. Moreover, there was no indication of initiating any form of public debate in this regard, not even as a symbolic gesture. Rendering decisions at the highest level was shrouded in an obscure veil of ‘let’s let the experts handle this’ (crisis headquarters were set up, where medical staff had the last word). This was initially viewed upon by the public as a form of salvation, but as time went by, said public began to take these expert opinions with a grain of salt. One of the principles of the analysis of the effects on society which states that “expert opinion should not be the only criterion in deciding on planned (public) interventions”, a principle forged by Groningen University professor Frank Vanclay, possibly the greatest international expert in this field, was forgotten (or was altogether unknown).

On the one hand, the speed in which decisions (which affected all of us) were adopted, was understandable and justified, to some extent, because of the sudden spread of this unknown infectious disease. Yet, those in charge forgot to take into consideration the wide spectrum of potential effects caused by such measures, measures that were supposed to cover only the protection of human rights, most importantly, the right to life and health. For instance, it is clear that it was necessary to urgently adopt a decision which would organise work in both public and private sectors, but wasn’t the 2 months following its adoption enough time in which to allow for its amendment based on the comments of the public (trade unions, employers and employees)? This is especially true when it comes to decisions which deviated significantly from our constitutionally guaranteed rights as was the case with acts that limited freedom of movement for persons over the age of 65 and quarantining full-time and contracted individuals working in institutions and social protection organisations at their place of work.

It is not like we never expected that a catastrophe of such nature and magnitude could be possible. At any rate, the United Nations established the ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ a few years ago, as one of the 17 most important goals of all countries. This goal prioritised implementation of ‘integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and resilience to disasters. All UN member states agreed to this, including the Republic of Serbia. All states were presented with a clear methodological framework to endure future natural and social and economic crisis and risks - Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. This approach is based on understanding risks for the purpose of prevention and implementation of adequate measures, whereby ‘systematic assessment, collection, sharing and public reporting on losses due to catastrophe’ (including epidemics and pandemics) as well as understanding their impact on society, is crucial.

Simultaneously, the question arises: How can we expect to raise awareness of social issues within social groups, when these groups are comprised of individuals whose personality traits and value systems differ to such an extent that, occasionally, if not often, they are completely unable to understand each other? For instance, a highly empathetic and sensitive person will not perceive a case of family violence that happens in his/her home town the same way an unempathetic, insensitive person from the place would. Yet, more often than not, we tend to artificially categorise them in the same, homogeneous categories, such as ‘individuals’, ‘citizens’ or ‘member of the general public’. We will never be able to steer social change in the direction of greater solidarity and care for all members of our society until we accept the fact that there is more than just one definition of what it means to be human. Or, as Simona Kustec, professor at the University of Ljubljana said, “our assessment of social and political decisions and activities may be different, even opposite at times”. However, she suggests that this should not be perceived as controversy or a form of insurmountable social conflict, but rather as an innate characteristic of human beings and social structures. She therefore proposes that our task (this refers to experts in the field, in particular) should be to recognise, point out, understand and explain these differences and the assessments we derive from them.

We could say that one of the crucial impediments to the undisturbed development of civilisation in the direction of humanism, is the absence of available prominent historical interpreters of reality. Just imagine San Simon entering a modern supermarket or factory, looking around in disbelief while commenting on the situation in which workers find themselves. But, despite the shortage of historical intellectuals and philanthropes, the good news is that each one of us has ‘levers of power’ at our fingertips, and are able to influence society, at least minimally. Eager to contribute to this subject, the Center for Democracy Foundation has prepared the Overview of International and Local Methodologies for the Analysis of the Effects of Public Policy on Society. This document offers very interesting, and we might say, trending guidelines for people engaged in public policy (whether as professionals or activists), not only in the area of social issues. From World Bank methodologies, such as the Poverty and Social Impact Analysis – PSIA), to the United Nations approaches, such as the UN’s Human Rights-Based Approach – HRBA) and the Health Impact Assessment – HIA), to the Guidance for the Economic Reform Programmes) and local methodologies – Guidelines for Assessing Impact on Society, drafted by the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit (SIPRU) and questions for analysing effects on society in line with the RS Law on the Planning System, i.e. the Regulation on the Methodology of Public Policy Management, Policy and Regulatory Impact Assessment, and Content of Individual Public Policy Documents. This document includes some very useful questions that interested parties could provide answers to when assessing own public policy proposals, as well as questions formulated by public institutions, such as: Who are the winners/losers of the intervention? What are the benefits of the intervention for the local community, and what are the benefits for the wider community? Does the proposed option affect the health and safety of individuals and the population? Does this option affect the quality of working conditions? What social groups, in particular which vulnerable groups, would be affected by selected options?

What’s for certain is that we will spend months, years even, researching the far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the decisions rendered by public institutions and imposed on the citizens of Serbia. Several days ago, the Council of Europe reminded us of this, emphasising that in managing the economic consequences of the pandemic, Serbia should “monitor and assess the implemented measures and additionally improve the process of public consultation”, focusing, for the first time, on structural reforms pertaining to the public healthcare system, employment and social protection policies, rather than on economic policies. Paradoxically, however, we are running out of time for such in-depth analysis as we expect the second wave of the pandemic, while we have yet to collect and systematise the lessons learned from this first wave. For this reason, it is essential to include all of the perspectives and experiences of the people, to take a good look at reality and formulate true and adequate answers to the changes it has gone through. Especially since new challenges are just around the corner, in the form of new pandemics, climate changes or something else we cannot even surmise. Can we afford the luxury of not worrying about the consequences our individual and collective decisions may have on society - starting with the building we live in, our neighbourhood, city/town, region and eventually the entire country? Can any of us, without deep introspection, make a decision while facing the dilemmas of a citizen, parent, consumer, decision-maker: to wear or not to wear a protective mask? Should I take my child to kindergarten during the pandemic, or not? Should I buy a second-hand, diesel-fuelled car, or not? Should we investigate the effects of certain strategy proposals on society... Or, perhaps not?

This is the text that reflects the views of the author and does not represent the views of either the Balkan Democracy Fund or the Embassies of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.

The text was written as part of a project funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshal Fund of the United States (BTD) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.


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