An online conference was held on “Poverty during the COVID 19 pandemic and in post-crises period in the Republic of Serbia”, on 20 May 2020, with the aim of highlighting key takeaways from the Covid-19 pandemic, and creating a dialogue on recommendations for the ensuing period. The conference was organized by the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of Serbia, with the support of the Swiss Confederation.
The first panel of the conference was dedicated to the challenges and problems encountered by the organizations in their work with beneficiaries during the national emergency in Serbia, and to how they tackled these. As highlighted by the panel moderator, Danijela Jović from the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of Serbia, fieldwork and outreach experiences are an important basis for creating a framework that will define the recommendations for future action.
Jelena Hrnjak from the Atina association pointed out that the crisis triggered by the pandemic has delayed and in some cases even prevented the recovery process of victims of violence and trafficking in human beings. “The crisis has shown that violence doesn’t go away, it just changes form. Many of our women clients struggled to make a living as a staggering 75% lost their job”, stated Hrnjak and explained that the Atina association managed to cope with the new circumstances and problems by reorganizing the way they work. “We made some operational adjustments in our Bagel Bejgl social enterprise and launched home delivery services during lockdown. We managed to secure psycho-social support for our beneficiaries, and almost 80% of our supported housing capacities were full.” Based on its own experience, the Atina association pointed out that institutional mechanisms alone are not sufficient in the post-crisis period, and that collective civic action is required, founded on the responsibility of the entire society.
“This is the first time that we organized humanitarian aid especially for the elderly”, stated Nataša Todorović from Red Cross of Serbia. “We distributed over 26,000 food parcels on a daily basis and, in addition to that, we delivered 2,500 cooked meals daily to the homes of elderly citizens. Particular difficulties were encountered in reaching remote rural areas, where the help of local communities and volunteers was vital”, said Todorović and explained that the elderly in rural areas were particularly affected by the crisis as they could not sell their agricultural produce, and that many people who never received any assistance in the past are now in need of additional support. The Red Cross of Serbia made 127 telephone lines available for providing information and support to the elderly, as well as a large number of volunteers. The biggest concern was the possibility that the virus might spread among Red Cross staff and volunteers. As Todorović said, this would have prevented a large number of beneficiaries from getting the help they needed. The experiences of this organization confirm the importance of providing updated information and planning for regular and extraordinary circumstances in a timely manner, of coordinating activities, investing in health care, and promoting volunteering.
The “Roof Over Your Head” campaign had to cope with the exacerbation of the problems of the users of their services, including the most vulnerable ones, such as the homeless and families at risk of being evicted. “The housing problem was aggravated for these people during the pandemic, as they had nowhere to stay or practice proper hygiene, in other words they were not able to act in accordance with the recommendations for prevention of exposure to the virus”, stated Isidora Petrović from this organization and emphasized that 1,660 families in Serbia were particularly at risk because they were unable to pay the house rent in this period. “If there is another epidemic wave, it is important that we provide for accommodation, food, hygiene, availability of public baths, and, most importantly, identify the prevalent causes of homelessness and take action to avoid having people end up on the street in the first place”, concluded Petrović.
Dragan Gračanin, president of the Association of Roma Coordinators highlighted some of the key problems encountered by the Roma community in the previous period. “It was extremely important to prevent the virus from spreading in Roma settlements, as this crisis amplified already existing problems, considering that 5,000 families have no access to drinking water, while a major part of the members of the Roma community earn their daily living by collecting secondary raw materials, selling goods at green markets or playing music, which was not possible in the time of the pandemic”, explained Gračanin.
In the second panel of the conference, participants examined various lines of action for mitigating the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic. The panel was moderated by Biljana Mladenović from the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Team of the Government of Serbia.
Nevenka Žegarac, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, reminded that a lot of time passed from the outbreak of the pandemic before vulnerable groups gained recognition as a special category, whose needs are different relative to the general population, which reflects, more than anything else, the way in which society treats the most vulnerable.
As Gordana Matković from the Center for Social Policy explained, if there is another wave, it is important to consider expanding the horizontal and vertical social security nets. “Those who are already assistance recipients should be granted additional assistance, because supplementing their income in a pandemic situation is impossible. On the other hand, the coverage rate should be expanded, considering that only 50% of the (absolutely) poor in Serbia are receiving some form of assistance”, stated Matković and underlined that 57 countries are expanding their assistance schemes, also thanks to the fact that they have social registers. She concluded that now is the time for local governments to prepare their registers which would serve as a database in case of a new epidemic wave.
World Bank expert Trang Van Nguyen characterized the current crisis as an “unprecedented shock” and highlighted that 2/3 of the people who were impoverished during the crisis are left with no support. “In the forthcoming period action should be taken to mitigate the impact of the crisis on vulnerable social groups and provide services in areas such as health care and education. In addition, the severe impact on household income should be alleviated and support should be provided for recovery”, said Van Nguyen. She explained that payroll and company liquidity subsidies are forms of state aid for the formal sector, but the informally employed who were not protected by social security measures even before the crisis were left outside the support system. “There is a need to expand coverage and deliver services through the formal sector. Those who have social registers were readier and quicker to mobilize, as social protection should be developed according to social registers”, emphasized Van Nguyen and concluded that special attention should be paid to access to education for all, to avoid widening the educational gap.
Nevena Petrušić, Professor at the Faculty of Law, talked about the legal aspects and difficulties in accessing justice in the times of crisis. She emphasized that, in the future, there should be a clear contingency programme for situations like this, defining the roles of all relevant stakeholders, considering that, for instance, civil society organizations licensed to provide support were excluded from the system. Petrušić pointed to the problems in the judiciary system due to the failure to recognize persons in need of some form of assistance. “Marginalized groups have difficulties in accessing justice, among other also because of the fact that free legal aid is only available to recipients of financial social assistance”, explained Petrušić and reiterated that lack of information is an additional problem in this respect. “In developed countries, collective rights protection mechanisms are available that make it possible for all such cases of rights violation to be resolved in a single proceeding, thereby saving time and costs”, concluded Petrušić.
In the final panel, Priska Nydegger-Depnering, Director of the Swiss Cooperation Office in Serbia reiterated the importance of targeted action for all segments of society, while, on the other hand, the United Nations Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals can serve as a general framework to help articulate these actions. “The way the same challenge is tackled by different countries enables comparisons, which can be an important starting point for developing these actions further”, said Nydegger-Depnering and concluded that Switzerland will continue to support and assist institutions and organizations in Serbia.
Slađana Čabrić from the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs indicated that care of the elderly has been a priority during the epidemic in Serbia, and that institutions took all measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the homes for the elderly. She highlighted the effectiveness of the cooperation between the Ministry and the local government in this period.
The conference was closed by Dragana Jovanović Arijas, Manager of the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of Serbia, who reiterated that the pandemic situation highlighted the importance of having targeted support for specific groups, rather than having universal measures that fail to recognize special needs. In the times that lie ahead, she said, we need to create the conditions for members of vulnerable population groups to take a proactive role in overcoming the negative impacts of the crisis. To achieve this, she concluded, it is important that we have a clearly articulated strategic vision.
Watch the recording of the conference: