• 2020-06-16

Testing Solidarity During the Pandemic

Author: Vesna Marjanović

Three months after the declared state of emergency and one month upon its cessation, the Center for Democracy Foundation organised a debate on the subject ‘Solidarity During the Pandemic - Civil Society’s Response in the Local Community’. In line with this topic and the current situation, the debate was held on 15 June in a form made popular during the pandemic - the webinar. This open dialogue allowed for insight into the experiences faced by different civil society organisations during the pandemic in their efforts to provide their local populations with support, 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 local self-governments.

When an emergency situation arises, it is natural that priorities change, that new priorities emerge, and one of these is definitely the mobilisation of society and the establishment of solidarity networks and support provided to the population, in particular those who are most vulnerable. At the Center for Democracy Foundation (FCD) as the organiser of this discussion, it was important for us to assess how apt the society was at increasing its capacities, especially in relation to its most organised segment, i.e. civil society organisations.

When looking up the word solidarity’ online today, what you find is hundreds of new headlines and texts dealing with this subject. It is evident that in searching for support during the pandemic, a new meaning of this word is again being sought, or examples of where solidarity has been shown in action. Or perhaps solidarity has been sought after more from a safe physical distance than through direct human contact?

What, however, has become of those who are most vulnerable, who do not have access to the internet, nor are able to satisfy their most basic needs?

Testimonials collected by civil society organisations from within the field, have shown that the greatest issues were the initial lack of disinfectants, protective equipment, but also certain basic foodstuffs, resulting from the stockpiling (‘panic buying’) psychosis that took place at the start of the pandemic.  This period was also marked by the inflation of various legal acts (decrees, decisions and resolutions) which required quick interpretation and application, but also the ability to quickly adapt, due to the frequent changing of measures. The third, and by no means less important segment is the restriction of certain human rights as a consequence of declaring the state of emergency, and the need to monitor the implementation of measures and examples of these restrictions.

The need for accurate, objective and timely notification demonstrated itself to be particularly important. People in local communities were informed about the epidemic via national media, while many local stations had limited access and possibility to report on the numbers of infected persons within their own municipalities (Snežana Pavković). This opened the way to alternative channels through which the public was able to access information, i.e. via social media, information which often went unchecked, without official confirmation or was completely false even. Contributing to this confusion was also the Conclusion on Information Centralisation of the Government of the Republic of Serbia rendered by the Government and thankfully, quickly revoked, under public pressure and the reaction of the EU.

After adopting the term ‘fake news’ or ‘post-truth’, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it one additional phenomenon appropriately named ‘infodemics.’  The Center for Democracy Foundation has already dealt with this term in its analyses, and it talks about the worrisome situation in the media, the manipulation of public opinion via tabloid content, the irresponsible statements of individual political representatives and primarily, the people’s loss of trust in independent journalism and democratic institutions. This deep-seated social and systemic issue, unfortunately, has yet to be turned around and to start on the path of recovery, even though we are in a situation where the health of the people must be a priority.

Where the collaboration of local government and the civil sector is in question, this was left out, as is the case under normal circumstances (Dejana Stevkovski). Despite the recommendations of the National Convention on the European Union (NCEU) and the Office for Cooperation with Civil Society, most local crises headquarters failed to include the existing capacities of civil society organisations. 

In the eyes of the public, the situation in Bor has remained the most negative example of a lack of understanding of the powers of local self-governments during a state of emergency, and the role of civil society organisations. Let us be reminded that the Emergency Situations Headquarters in Bor adopted 11 orders introducing measures derogating from human and minority rights, referring to the Law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Management, although an emergency situation was not declared in Serbia, including the town of Bor, but rather a state of emergency. In the opinions of most civil society organisations that reacted to this decision demanding its revocation, the Headquarters in Bor rendered measures that resulted in the derogation of human rights, for which it has no authorisation to do, under the Constitution and the laws. In addition, the Headquarters formulated its decision so as to "introduce the obligation to make all human resources of citizens' associations available" in such a way that its interpretation may refer to the introduction of forced labour, prohibited by the Constitution. Even volunteering at the crisis headquarters of local communities was subject to politicisation. In contact with the public and in providing assistance, priority was given to activists belonging to the network of volunteers of the ruling parties, which may be considered part of the pre-election campaign that was officially interrupted by the introduction of the state of emergency (Branislav Markuš).

On the other hand, in the Municipality of Knjaževac, where the Timočki Club offices are located, the local government failed to even address civil society with special requests, although, despite their being small, these organisations had the capacity to help. Despite all of this, the assessment from the field is that the municipal government reacted very responsibly and in a timely manner. The protection of the elderly with accommodation in homes was completely satisfactory, the geronto housekeepers system (assisted living) continue to function and local government distributed packages with protective masks and hygiene products to everyone, without discrimination. And the textile industry in Knjaževac also produced free masks for the needs of the local population. It is evident that in other communities, solidarity was most quickly and most clearly shown in engaging a workforce to produce i.e. sew masks.

The town of Šabac stood out as the best example of good practice and partnership cooperation between local self-government and civil society organisations. Their cooperation, especially with Duga and Caritas, organisations that work with vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV, people with disabilities, and the poor, has been successful for years, increasing the town’s capacities during the pandemic. An international workshop was recently held in Šabac, within the European project Solicris - Solidarity in Times of Crisis, which includes a network of local self-governments of EU countries and candidates for EU membership, where experiences were exchanged on how to involve citizens and volunteers in the activities of local self-government during times of healthcare crises. This example speaks in favour of the thesis that bridges of solidarity are primarily built under regular circumstances, and that the epidemic has caught us at a time when the social divide is already quite large.

The epidemic has brought to the surface the issues facing vulnerable categories of the population who are in the most difficult situations - the poor, the homeless, and those living in collective shelters. For these particularly vulnerable groups, there was no special crisis headquarters nor special measures. The conversation showed that the principle of fairness was not consistently respected when it comes to providing social assistance to all vulnerable categories of the population. Pensioners received the most support, but families with children as a particularly vulnerable category, especially those families who were left without any income, failed to receive adequate support.

It was also noticed that the power, i.e. public influence of certain social groups, was also reflected on certain Government measures. As an obvious example, the issue of walking dogs was mentioned relatively quickly, while the problem of movement of children with autism was resolved only at the very end of the state of emergency. Public pressure therefore had an impact on the Government's decisions, even under extraordinary circumstances (Žarko Šunderić).

One issue was singled out has having potential, long-term effects, and this is the fact that many were left unemployed as a result of the epidemic. This topic was dealt with, in particular, by the Center for Democracy Foundation. According to data provided by the Republic Bureau of Statistics, compared to Q4 2019, the number of employees decreased by 60,800, of which most (51,400) of those left unemployed, worked in the informal sector. The very important role of trade unions with their expansive infrastructure was emphasised, with the reminder that the United Branch Trade Union Independence sent an open letter with ten questions to the Ministry of Labour on health and labour protection measures for employees immediately after the introduction of the state of emergency.

The experience of living through a pandemic is significant only if society learns certain lessons and uses this information to prepare for future challenges. The previous period has shown that civil society organisations did not self-organise quickly enough, nor did they have an incentive to do so from the state. The behaviour of executive government within local self-governments demonstrated their unwillingness to involve members of the general public who wanted to help.

The need for better and more efficient coordination among civil society organisations has proved to be a priority. In this way, by relying more on their resources, civil society can have a stronger influence on the government to recognise the need for mutual cooperation. Thus, without the need to double capacities, the necessary volunteer services, help of activists, provision of services, education and networking would be organised more efficiently. In this regard, the real danger is that local self-governments will further reduce project funding and that about 50% of municipalities and towns have already done so, as well as that current plans do not see new projects which would address the consequences of the pandemic or prevent the consequences a possible second wave of the epidemic.

It is necessary to map the specific needs of each individual vulnerable group. During the discussion, so-called geographic targeting when aid to vulnerable groups is in question was also proposed. Those living in substandard settlements are certainly poor, and this way of organising aid would be most efficient and would have the lowest margin for error.

The COVID-19 epidemic, which has forced people to distance themselves from each other and has increased our reliance on new technologies, has shown the need to establish more direct contact with the population. It has also shown the need to restore the trust of the people in institutions, to invest in education and to provide the public with accurate, trustworthy information. It also initiated one additional topic that has been under debate in international organisations such as the Council of Europe for years now, and one that has not been sufficiently addressed in Serbia, which is this: nowadays, should access to the Internet be considered a special category of human rights, one that is accessible to all?

Vesna Marjanović

*Introductory speakers of the debate - ‘Solidarity During the Pandemic - Civil Society’s Response in the Local Community’: Dejana Stevkovski from Civic Initiatives, Branislav Markuš representing the Zrenjanin Social Forum, Snežana Pavković on behalf of Timočki Club from Knjaževac and Žarko Šunderić from the Center for Social Policy. Mediator Danica Vučenić, journalist.

Partaking in the discussion were Željko Mitkovski from the Divac Foundation, Olivera Jovičić, Deputy Secretary General of the Ombudsman of Serbia and Sanja Popović-Pantić, President of the Association of Business Women of Serbia.

Speaking on behalf of the Center for Democracy Foundation, Nataša Vučković.

The webinar was organised within the Connecting the Dots project, with financial assistance from the Balkan Trust for Democracy and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.

This text reflects the author’s opinions and it does not represent the opinions of the Balkan Trust for Democracy or the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.

The text was written as part of a project, implemented through financial assistance provided by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshal Fund of the U.S.- BTD and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.


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