Recent developments in the childcare and child protection system in Armenia

Since 2001, the Armenian Government in cooperation with international and local organizations has been carrying out reforms aimed to establish and strengthen the childcare and protection system. As a result of these efforts the number of children living in residential care institutions has decreased drastically: based on official data from 12,700 children kept in close state education and care institutions in 2001, to 1,429 in 2019.

by Hasmik Arakelyan

Since 2001, the Armenian Government in cooperation with international and local organizations has been carrying out reforms aimed to establish and strengthen the childcare and protection system. As a result of these efforts the number of children living in residential care institutions has decreased drastically: based on official data from 12,700 children kept in close state education and care institutions in 2001, to 1,429 in 2019. Yet, children with disabilities are still amongst the most vulnerable groups in Armenian society. There are 8,376 children registered with disabilities in Armenia in 2019, which constitutes up to one percent of the child population (765,300 children in 2019).  According to the Armenia Poverty Snapshot report for 2008-2018, in 2018, 1.5% of children below 18 lived in extreme poverty and 29.2% lived in poverty. One in every four Armenian children and one in four Armenian females live in multidimensional poverty (A measure of multidimensional poverty captures the complexity, depth and persistence of poverty and offers important information to complement the analysis of monetary/consumption poverty), therefore, in comparison with the entire population, children were exposed to a higher risk of both total and extreme poverty.

The key barriers and system bottlenecks leading to children’s exclusion and institutionalization in Armenia include poverty, disability, lack of community-based family support services (day care, psycho-social support, highly specialized services for families such as counselling, rehabilitation, patronage services, etc.) and family-like alternatives (kinship care, foster care and other forms of family-based care), discrimination, stigma and violence, poorly implemented policies, inadequate budgets, data gaps, quality teaching/learning processes, and inadequate social protection mechanisms, as well as the incapacity of parents and/or their absence to care for their children’s needs, especially for children with disabilities. Besides, the system of protecting children without adequate parental care, living in poverty or with disability is not consolidated, coherent and flexible enough to accommodate the evolving needs of children. The coordination between different state and non-state actors is not enough to ensure good results for children.

The state family benefit package is low and without additional support to carry out this critical role, hence placing a child in an institution is often the only option when the capacity of the biological parents is stretched too thin. Moreover, the support and oversight of kinship care is insufficient and kinship caregivers often take on the extra responsibility of the child when their existing resources are already limited. Meanwhile, foster care services are developing, but at a low pace, as the number of foster parents increased from 25 to 78 in 10 years, but this the number is insufficient compared to the actual need of foster care services.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs delegates state outsourced services to NGOs in communities, where there are no services for children. The NGO run day-care centres fill significant gaps, providing much-needed services and follow-up support for these children, but they are mainly placed in big cities limiting the access of families from remote villages and their coverage is typically limited, non-uniform, and they lack sustainability.

The state outsourced services include day care and support services for children that reunified with their families as a result of the transformation of residential care institutions. While the Deinstitutionalisation reform targets children with disabilities (with the introduction of specialized foster care and expansion of alternative community-based services), there are three specialized orphanages in Armenia for children with disabilities. The Deinstitutionalisation process of children with disabilities is more complex due to the inability of parents to accept their children back to their families and/or lack of alternative care solutions for this target group of children. A child with disabilities and/or mental health issues may need a rehabilitation service, however, the state is not able to provide the required support due to lack of those services. However, child protection experts in Armenia state that the new Government has a vision and demonstrated ownership of child protection and child de-institutionalisation process. Quantitative data also indicate this through considerable reduction of the number of children in residential care institutions for the last 4 years, from 3971 children in 2015 to 1429 in 2019. COVID-19 pandemic has also prompted the MoLSA to set the necessary preventive and social assistance (cash plus assistance) programs for children and families in difficult life circumstances, in particular children with disabilities. The demand for these services is getting bigger, due to unemployment/loss of employment of parents, increased violence in the family, social deprivations.

Summarising, further efforts are needed to ensure that initial results are not reversed: prevention of re-institutionalization of children who returned to biological/extended families should be prioritized and community-based services for children with disabilities should be expanded and made accessible to children and families where they live. Besides, mix of services should be diversified in a way that various possible situations and needs of children are considered, including children with emotional and mental health issues, with challenging behaviour, or victims of abuse.

An Economic Outlook to the Republic of Kosovo and the recent impact of COVID-19

Due to its rapid spread the government of the Republic of Kosovo, in accordance with the recommendations of the National Institute of Public Health in Kosovo, and similar to most other countries in the world, starting from March 13, 2020 imposed measures which restricted many economic activities and then restricted the movement of people.

By Muhamet Klinaku, Department of Labour Market, Employment Agency of the Republic of Kosovo

The COVID-19 pandemic which appeared at the end of 2019, first in China and then spread throughout the globe reached Kosovo in March 2020. As a result, and due to its rapid spread the government of the Republic of Kosovo, in accordance with the recommendations of the National Institute of Public Health in Kosovo, and similar to most other countries in the world, starting from March 13, 2020 imposed measures which restricted many economic activities and then restricted the movement of people. Among other measures, all hotel and gastronomy businesses, interurban transport and other businesses that sell specialized goods (textiles, etc.) were closed. As a result, most Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are already affected by the coronavirus in most countries of the world, and Kosovo is not an exception to having economic implications for the country.

Kosovo belongs to the group of upper-middle income countries group. Similar to the average growth trend in the respective group of countries, Kosovo has experienced constant growth rates over the past years. Figure 1 reveals that between 2010 and 2019 average real GDP growth was around 6%, varying between 3% and 9% over the years.

GDP growth rates have to some degree translated into increased employment opportunities and decreased unemployment throughout the years, as one of main economic issues that is challenging the Kosovo economy. According to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics, shown in Figure 2, labour force participation in the working age population has increased from 37.6% in 2015 to 40.5% in 2019, reflecting a decreasing rate of inactive people in the working age population.

In terms of women participation in employment, data reveal a persistently large degree of disadvantaging women in the labour market (see Figure 3).The same trend has followed in terms of employment rate (employed people in the total of the working age population) which has grown from 25.2% to 30.1% between 2015 and 2019. More importantly, the rate of unemployed people has decreased in the respective period, falling from 32.9% in 2015 to 25.7% in 2019. Despite small variations across the annual rates, data suggest a solid positive economic trend before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Youth unemployment also showed a decreasing trend (see Figure 4), reducing from 57.7% in 2015 to 49.4% in 2019. On the other hand, share of vulnerable groups in total employment has decreased from 22.8% to 18.8% between 2015 and 2019, which suggests for an average growing trend of more quality and decent work opportunities in the economy.

However, COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to affect the economy beyond initial expectations, so the situation remains uncertain. The Kosovo Government has estimated a GDP contraction of around 3% in 2020, while World Bank latest estimations suggests that it may be as high as 8.8%. The large decrease is due to worsening of the economic indicators, which have deteriorated as compared to initial estimations. However, World Bank outlook projections beyond 2020 are positive, suggesting for a GDP growth of over 3% in 2021 and over 4% in 2022. About 80 percent of Kosovo travel service exports are driven by Kosovar diaspora, whose arrivals in bigger numbers are expected to happen as soon as travel measures will be lifted, anticipated to influence spending and investment (World Bank Report, 2020).Despite a positive outlook that prevailed until 2019, COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, followed with restrictive policies by the government, has temporary reversed the growth trend. It has negatively affected economic activities, with stronger impact on the private sector, both in terms of income and jobs. Working hours have been reduced and many businesses offered their employees leaves of absence without pay (World Bank Business Pulse Survey, 2020). Some preliminary studies suggest that the number of unemployed has increased dramatically during the second quarter of 2020, The Kosovo Employment Agency has recorded around 80,000 additional job seekers[1].

[1] Source: Employment Agency of Republic of Kosovo , Report for 2020.

Childcare in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe

The European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research conducted research on the situation of children at risk of losing the parental care and children that have lost the parental care in Albania, North Macedonia, Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Veronica Sandu, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research

From May to December 2020 the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research conducted research on the situation of children at risk of losing the parental care and children that have lost the parental care in five countries from Western Balkans and Eastern Europe region: Albania and North Macedonia, Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine. The research was part of a broader report done in cooperation with SOS Children’s Villages Worldwide Hermann-Gmeiner Fonds Deutschland and SOS Children’s Villages National Associations in the respective countries.

The analysis was done based on the review of legislation, policy reports and strategic documents, childcare national and regional reports, and other relevant documents. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRDP) country concluding observations have been consulted as part of the desk review. National statistics on vulnerable children were collected by referring to the national and international data sets and reports. In addition, key childcare stakeholders in depth interviews have been done in all countries.

There are many causes of risk for children to lose parental care and to be institutionalised. These risks can be related to: individual attributes (e.g., disability, skills, gender, sexual orientation, etc.); family circumstances (e.g., migration, poverty, stigma, language, ethnicity, geographic area, etc.); circumstances related to a specific risk (e.g., abduction, trafficking, homelessness, domestic violence, juvenile crimes, etc.); and humanitarian situations (displacement, armed conflicts, social breakdown, etc.).

About 11 million children live in the 5 selected countries, about 3 million of them live below the national poverty line, and about 210 thousand children are children with disabilities. The institutional care remains the main form of care in almost all countries. In total, in the region, about 100,000 children receive care in large residential facilities and 78,000 children receive care in some sort of family-based type of care service. The share of children receiving care in large institutions is almost twice the share of children in family-based care. One exception is Belarus, where many children receive care in their extended families under the guardianship/tutorship type of care.

The five countries make significant efforts to develop the family-based care as part of a broader de-institutionalization (De-I) reform or in parallel to improving the quality of residential care. The most common type of family-based care is the guardianship/tutorship care followed by foster care. Both of these services though are developed unevenly in terms of child vulnerability (very few foster care services are available for children with disabilities, for babies, for children with behavioural problems). All countries lack specialised foster care for emergency situations, and for appropriate care of children with special needs. Adoption is limited in all countries, with the exception of Belarus, where the number of adopted children is close to that of children placed in foster care.

The childcare systems in all these countries are undergoing major reforms such as the De-I reform, alternative care service development, community-based service development, development of child abandon and prevention programs, and preventions programs for families at risk of being separated from their children. At the same time, various policy gaps are limiting the childcare policy impact. These gaps refer to poor financing of childcare in the region, human resources in the sector not equipped in terms of skills, knowledge and resources to support these reforms, and childcare roles and responsibilities between administrations levels not fully clarified. The public private partnership in care provision is unregulated, and quality monitoring not fully in place.

The research conducted by the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research will support the Children’s Villages Worldwide Hermann-Gmeiner Fonds Deutschland and SOS Children’s Villages National Associations in policy dialogue, advocacy efforts, internal planning processes to further support the childcare reforms in the 5 selected countries.

Criminal Law Protection of People with Disabilities against Discrimination in the Republic of Serbia

Persons with disabilities in the Republic of Serbia are a very sensitive category that is discriminated against in multiple ways and excluded from the main social aspects. The mechanisms of protecting persons with disabilities, securing equal representation and their complete integration are achieved through adequate legislation and criminal laws, and also special protection in big crisis such as pandemic COVID-19.

Filip Mirić & Aleksandra Nikolajević, University of Niš, Republic of Serbia

For an open and democratic society, it is of crucial importance that all its citizens, regardless of their personal characteristics and features, have a right to education, cultural activities, recreation, access to the labor market, and equality in all segments of social life. Persons with disabilities in the Republic of Serbia are a very sensitive category that is discriminated against in multiple ways and excluded from the main social aspects. The mechanisms of protecting persons with disabilities, securing equal representation and their complete integration are achieved through adequate legislation and criminal laws, and also special protection in big crisis such as pandemic COVID-19.

In the legal system of Republic of Serbia discrimination is a crime. Firstly, we should mention the criminal offense of violation of equality under Article 128 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Serbia (hereinafter referred to as CC). Another important offence envisaged in Article 387 of the Serbian Criminal Code is the criminal offense of racial and other discrimination. The basic form of this criminal offense is committed by anyone who, on the grounds of differences in race, color, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or some other personal characteristic, violates the fundamental human rights and freedoms guaranteed by universally accepted rules of international law and international treaties ratified by Serbia; the perpetrator of such a crime may be punished by a term of imprisonment ranging from six months to five years. Apart from this, there are other forms of the same criminal offense. The same punishment (imprisonment ranging from six months to five years) will be imposed on those who persecute organizations or individuals for their efforts to promote equality.

A number of offences are punished by imprisonment ranging from three months to three years, such as in the case of anyone who spreads ideas about the superiority of one race over another, or propagates racial hatred or incites racial discrimination; anyone who disseminates or otherwise makes public texts, pictures or any other representation of ideas or theories that advocate or encourage hatred, discrimination or violence against any person or group of persons based on race, skin color, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity origin or other personal property; and anyone who publicly threatens to commit a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment exceeding four years against a person or a group of persons belonging to a particular race, color, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or other personal property. The criminalization of equality violations from Article 128 CC can be considered as a positive development. Namely, the amendments to the Criminal Code (adopted in 2016) also mention disability as one of the grounds for the violation of equality, which is in compliance with Article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia concerning the prohibition of discrimination.

Awareness of persons with disabilities is a very important factor in preventing discrimination in all areas. The results of a study conducted by Filip Mirić in 2019 on the awareness of persons with disabilities about the legal protection mechanisms available to them, show that as many as 70.59% of respondents do not have enough information on criminal protection against discrimination. In addition, the existence of a large percentage of under-informed respondents indicate the need to create active policies to raise awareness about the mechanisms of legal protection of persons with disabilities against discrimination. While the legal framework seems to be complete, it is clear that more needs to be done in terms of awareness raising on the existence and applicability of these laws to protect persons with disabilities and their right to full integration in the Serbian society. The responsibility rests, certainly, on the institutions themselves and the created social policy measures that aim at the social integration and equality of all citizens in Serbia and that can be monitored by the evaluation of established measures and factual indicators of their representation.

An Interactive OnLine Platform for students and Practitioners of Social Work in Serbia and the wider region

At the beginning of April 2020, when we all have got convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to disrupt even more the environments in which social service users and social care beneficiaries live, and to have several negative consequences for their well-being and protection, the need for united activities of all social actors became imperative.

Slavica Milojevic, FPN KONEKTAS

FPN KonekTaS is an interactive online platform that brings together practitioners, teachers and students of social work and social policy in Serbia to share new theoretical and practical knowledge, professional experiences and dilemmas and strategies for overcoming obstacles caused by COVID 19, but also in their everyday work.

At the beginning of April 2020, when we all have got convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to disrupt even more the environments in which social service users and social care beneficiaries live, and to have several negative consequences for their well-being and protection, the need for united activities of all social actors became imperative.

Along with information on the scale of the pandemic and its impact on socially vulnerable individuals and groups, information on the additional workload of social services providers in this situation has become evident. Namely, an increased demand put on the professionals in the social welfare system in the current situation to ensure health care and safety at the same time for themselves and for their beneficiaries, made them vulnerable too. In such circumstances, the feeling of helplessness began to spread rapidly and threatened to jeopardize the quality of professional work. This is particularly important within the ongoing efforts and some of the challenges the system and professionals are facing in relation to their already limited resources to perform in a timely and high quality manner.

As expected, adversity brings people together and encourages innovative solutions to overcome the problems that communities are faced with. Proactive approaches to addressing the needs and problems of particularly vulnerable groups have begun to emerge in all sectors and at all levels.

Among the first initiatives that have been raised in order to offer an integrated answer on growing problems caused by COVID-19, was the initiative from the Faculty of Political Science – Department of Social Policy and Social Work in Belgrade.  By gaining insight into the intentions of both students and professors to get involved as volunteers in fighting COVID-19, three social work practice instructors together with professors and associates decided to organize a Voluntary Service.

The starting idea was to invite all students and teachers willing to be engaged in the activities aimed to support social welfare professionals in all the activities addressing problems caused by the pandemic. Due to the circumstances of the pandemic, it was decided to organize an online resource, which will offer information and opportunities for volunteering in accordance with all the social work professional principles as well as other aspects of maintaining personal and collective health security.

The idea was widely supported, and so FPN KonekTaS was established in collaboration with UNICEF and with the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The very first activity was conducting a survey to get insights into the needs of communities of practitioners in the social protection system for necessary services in an unprecedented situation. The survey results have shown the common need for stronger cooperation among all of us involved in social welfare in Serbia. A mapping of local initiatives created in response to the pandemic followed, and all relevant services and contacts were posted on the platform. Meanwhile, social work students have been engaged in continuous needs assessment for psycho-social and other support for social service workforce during the pandemic.

The data obtained through the survey, mapping and interviews with colleagues in the field, indicated that practitioners need to connect with other colleagues, to discuss current issues related to the pandemic, to learn from the experience of others, to hear the results of research, to get acquainted with the latest research, to get familiar with best practices, and to access maps of newly established services that arise in response to the urgent needs of particularly vulnerable social groups. And, most importantly, there was a need for concrete materials for practical and rapid use. Accordingly, we all quickly realized, that social care practitioners in the whole region are faced with similar problems and have a strong need to connect with colleagues from other countries, especially with those speaking the same language and having common professional backgrounds.

That is how the FPN KonekTaS, driven by the needs of a social workers’ community that is online and offline began to grow rapidly from a volunteering platform to a digital destination where social care practitioners in the social welfare system, the academic community and students of social work and social policy can meet and network with colleagues, can ask and get peer support, where they can share ideas and  experiences, and where they can be safe and professionally protected.

Since its beginning in April till the end of July 2020, the FPN KonekTaS platform has gathered over 850 contributors from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, and organized 8 webinars, 5 regional meetings, 10 supervision meetings and 20 discussion groups on the platform. The topics were conceptually oriented towards “helping helpers” and from the beginning they were a response to their originally examined needs. In this sense, the topics covered a wide range of needs: from specific techniques of personal mental health care in stressful situations, through the possibility of emergency care due to domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis up to webinars on the role of the Red Cross during the COVID-19 crisis. The number of realized interactive activities in these circumstances seems impressive, but the development processes that followed them are actually an occasion for learning and articulating new models.

As resource for practical use for all, there are printable materials posted on the platform, including translations from different sources, such as IFSW Europe – International Federation of Social Workers, EASSW — European Association of Schools of Social Work, The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, National Bank, etc, as well as different materials of  practical use authored by colleagues from Serbia and the neighbouring countries.

Convinced that we are connected by common goals that guide us in the education of social workers and that our academic activities contribute to improving the competencies and professional credibility of social workers, thus improving the quality of professional work and the quality of services we provide, we are inviting both students and professionals across the region and beyond to cooperate within the joint activities which we organize online through the FPN KonekTaS platform.

To get involved in already planned events or suggest new activities that we could implement together, to the satisfaction of all of us and in the interest of our users, contact us at  konektas@fpn.bg.ac.rs

You can also share information with your students, social work practitioners and teachers: http://www.fpn.bg.ac.rs/konektas.

The impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities across Europe

Persons with disabilities are among the most affected groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently reported that the pandemic continues to affect the provision of essential services such as education, healthcare, community-based support and transport for persons with disabilities.

Magdi Birtha, European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research 

The Coronavirus outbreak still presents a major challenge at national and local levels across the EU and beyond. Persons with disabilities are among the most affected groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently reported that the pandemic continues to affect the provision of essential services such as education, healthcare, community-based support and transport for persons with disabilities. Children with disabilities are facing particular barriers when it comes to accessing education and support, including challenges to take part in distance learning, without their assistants. In some countries, FRA noted that physical, occupational, speech and language therapy services for children with disabilities were suspended (e.g. in Malta) (FRA, 2020).

Service provision for persons with disabilities

Similarly, to the devastating impact of the pandemic on older people in residential homes, persons with disabilities who are living in institutional settings also face increased mortality rate due to COVID-19. For example, in Romania, 10% of the total COVID-related death were of persons with disabilities living in institutional care (FRA, 2020). While the majority of residential care facilities for persons with disabilities remained open during the outbreak, the service delivery had to be re-organised significantly, for instance by longer working hours for staff, operate with reduced staff (family duties, sick leave, burnout, resignations, etc.) and face additional administration (EASPD, 2020). Measures to ban visitations have been in place, in order to protect residents and limit the risk of contagion, often leading to isolation and difficulties to maintain contact with family members. The strict confinement measures and diversion from the routine may have negative impact on the well-being and mental health of persons with disabilities, thus the use of digital communication technologies or safe visitation forms are of key importance (EASPD, 2020).

Social and health care services, provided in the community or in-home have been suspended during the pandemic, leaving many persons with disabilities without access to essential services. As FRA reports, this includes cut-backs on personal assistance (e.g. in Slovakia), cancelling rehabilitation services (e.g. in Estonia) and the lack of access to psychosocial services (e.g. in Austria) (FRA, 2020). The European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) reported that in 18 European countries, home care services were provided mostly online, during the pandemic, leaving thousands of people without adequate support (EASPD, 2020). The suspension of home-care services also put additional pressure on family members who needed to fill this gap and provide more informal care.

In general, there was little coordination or exchange of experiences or good practices within the care sector, or at national and European level.

Involvement of persons with disabilities in COVID-19 responses

Evidence shows that the voice of persons with disabilities was mostly absent from discussions on how to best respond to the crisis (FRA, 2020). The European Disability Forum, an umbrella organisation of persons with disabilities that defends the interests of over 100 million persons with disabilities in Europe, published several resources in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities.

They provide recommendations to authorities, for instance on exit measures for transport services, in light of COVID-19 or on how to make public health communication accessible for persons with disabilities. EDF called authorities across Europe to put non-discriminatory measures in place, i.e. when health care professionals cannot provide the same level of care to everyone due to the lack of equipment or underfunding.

How to recover from the impact of COVID-19?

The economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still not fully assessed and will largely depend on the developments in the coming months, concerning a potential second wave. EASPD closely monitors the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities and on the care sector. The EU has launched several recovery programmes for EU Member States, but there are also some instruments available for countries in the Western Balkans and in the Eastern Partnership. EASPD organised a webinar on 17 June 2020, dedicated to these COVID-19 EU funding opportunities for non-EU Member States, including:

Resources:

EASPD (2020), The impact of Covid-19 on disability services in Europe, EASPD Snapshot report, available here

EU Fundamental Rights Agency (2020), Bulletin #3: Coronavirus pandemic in the EU – Fundamental rights implications: with a focus on older people, available here

Crisis in Serbia: Economic Measures regarding the Coronavirus Situation

In periods of crisis caused by major social upheavals such as the current coronavirus pandemic (SARS-CoV-2), society is derailed with great consequences to social institutions and people’s lives. The states’ response to this challenge is varied, although most countries are implementing measures to regulate the market and its basic principles in order to meet the subsistence minimum and ensure the socio-economic security of their citizens.

Aleksandra Nikolajević, Teaching Assistant, University of Niš

In periods of crisis caused by major social upheavals such as the current coronavirus pandemic (SARS-CoV-2), society is derailed with great consequences to social institutions and people’s lives. The states’ response to this challenge is varied, although most countries are implementing measures to regulate the market and its basic principles in order to meet the subsistence minimum and ensure the socio-economic security of their citizens. Globally, we are witnessing various market shifts such as increasing government interventions, extensive capital expenditures, the emergence of alternative supply chains, and the like. Although the range of state intervention measures is very broad and varied depending on the country, we will also look at the packages of measures that the Government of the Republic of Serbia recently adopted as a “tool” for combating the socio-economic consequences caused by the coronavirus.

The measures adopted by the Serbian Government have mostly already been implemented, while it will take a longer period of time to see their effects.  The adopted socio-economic measures are aimed at preserving the well-being and living standard of the people, with a special emphasis on maintaining the achieved level of employment and strengthening entrepreneurs significantly affected by the crisis. In times of major turbulence, it is a special challenge to find an effective formula for the sustainability of public revenues and expenses, adjusting tax policy, and reorganizing budget funds. A great impoverishment of the population, mass layoffs, and a decline in living standards are just some of the burning problems that the Republic of Serbia is facing during the pandemic. Overcoming the crisis and remediating the mentioned consequences are possible only through state intervention and the implementation of a set of socio-economic measures that, in the case of Serbia, come in the form of tax-policy, stabilization, and comprehensive socio-economic measures.

First of all, tax-policy measures aim to relieve entrepreneurs (employers) of the great pressure created by the suspension of trade and production, the ban on public gatherings, and the introduction of a curfew, which has stopped many economic activities. The initial idea is to empower employers in the period when they are conducting business with large losses and to maintain the liquidity of business entities and taxpayers in order for them to successfully cope with the crisis (and keep their employees). Specifically, this set of tax-relief measures for the economy means that 1) all private companies are allowed to defer the payment of payroll and contribution taxes during the state of emergency (at least over a three-month period); 2) the payment (advance) of profit taxes is deferred for the second quarter of 2020, and 3) taxpayers that donated equipment/funds for remediating the consequences of the pandemic are exempt from paying VAT.

In order to prevent the “economic virus of illiquidity“, other direct assistance measures for the private sector were introduced in the form of providing assistance to all entrepreneurs over a period of three months in the amount of three net minimum wages for large, medium, and micro-businesses. Special measures were aimed at large enterprises, which were granted assistance in the amount of 50% of the net minimum wage (for employees who have been sent home). Additional planned financial incentives for preserving the liquidity of business entities include favorable loans from the Development Fund and loans from commercial banks. Companies that fulfill the conditions for exercising the rights to financial incentives include those that have not reduced the number of their employees by more than 10%, and that have not stopped their operation during the state of emergency.

The next set of measures are of a stabilizing character and are aimed at maintaining the stability of the currency, which the Western Balkan countries mostly achieve by borrowing on the domestic and international capital markets. Serbia has recently borrowed more than 29.3 billion RSD (around 249 million EUR) in order to partially remedy the budget deficit and implement economic measures to mitigate the consequences caused by the pandemic. A goodly portion of those funds will be spent on providing financial incentives as well as direct financial aid to all adult citizens, which was criticized by the Fiscal Council itself. While the Serbian Government sees the latter measure as stimulative to consumption and conducive to economic growth, a significant part of the expert community strongly criticizes this move by the government. The argumentation presented by the expert community indicates the lack of an adequate explanation of the manner and form in which the direct assistance to citizens will be paid. A well-founded question arises as to why the aid was paid in cash to the citizens’ bank accounts and not through vouchers for the purchase of provisions, which unequivocally ensures the growth of consumption and stimulates domestic production. The next point of criticism deals with the (un)selective character of the financial aid and the non-existence of a material census as a qualification criterion for this incentive. It is estimated that this budget expenditure for financing the one-time assistance to all adults would not only be enough to cover the funds for social assistance beneficiaries over a five-year period, but also significantly affect the generosity of measures aimed at the poorest strata of the population. The adverse attitudes of the general public are influenced by the visible irregularities in the method of applying for the financial assistance and the existence of citizen groups who are excluded from material aid (e.g. children in a well-to-do family of four whose members are all adults receives 400 EUR, while a single mother with three minor children receives only 100 EUR; or people from rural areas without digital skills and information on how to apply), causing the general public to interpret this monetary incentive as “purchasing political votes” (the presidential elections are expected to be held in June / July, despite the pandemic).

It should not be overlooked that the state passed bylaws that especially protect the elderly population – they banned the reduction of pensions, awarded pensioners one-time assistance payments in the amount of approximately 35 EUR, postponed the payment of utilities, and introduced a moratorium on loan payments (the latter is a universal assistance measure for citizens).

Finally, the last set of measures is mainly geared towards workers in the public (state) sector and aims to maintain the workers’ safety (which cannot be regulated in the private sector). Namely, layoffs in the public sector were banned, employment contracts that were to expire during the state of emergency were automatically extended, and salary reductions were abolished. As expected, the private sector suffered the most. The data on the number of dismissed workers since the introduction of the state of emergency vary. While state monitoring institutions provided data on the number of dismissed workers amounting to only 15,000, the SECONS Development Initiative Group together with FES presented the data of its research which cites the number of laid-off workers on an incomparably higher level (about 200,000 people lost their jobs). Private company employees at the highest risk of losing their jobs are workers in the hospitality, trade, and construction industries, including self-employed and informally employed workers, as well as those who worked with fixed-term contracts.

It is still difficult to assess the extent and character of the devastating effects the state of emergency and the suspension of socio-economic life had on human lives. Undoubtedly, most of the adopted measures were a necessary basis for stimulating the economy and maintaining the liquidity of business entities in Serbia, but it is still impossible to give objective data on the long-term effects of adopted and implemented socio-economic measures and incentives. If we want to see the real effects of state interventionism and what consequences this crisis has left behind, it is necessary to evaluate the mechanisms for implementing these measures, insist on transparency of all processes, and point out irregular practices and the (political) abuse of public funds and institutions. It is still unclear how much the proposed measures and the manner of their implementation will succeed in preventing economic contractions caused by the current crisis, and what consequences they will leave on the labor market and the economic sector (the economy of the Serbian society). Non-governmental researchers and trade union representatives warn that the real consequences of the suspension of economic activity caused by COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) can be expected only after the state incentives have ceased (as early as in September). Unlike the countries of the region, where state measures and interventions are prescribed for a period of 6 months, Serbia plans on ending its incentives after just three months. After the three-month state programs come to an end, union representatives expect mass layoffs in the private sector, an expansion of grey economy, a deterioration of the position of workers in the labor market, as well as an increase in poverty and a decline in living standards.

UNNECESSARY VICTIMS: Older persons in the covid-19 pandemic

At first glance, there is a solid ground for singling out older people during the current pandemic as a special group: the mortality related to COVID-19 is increasing with the age and for those 80 and above years old it is five times the global average based on WHO data.

Alexandre Sidorenko & Alexey Golubev

This entire pandemic was invented to mow down the elderly.

Irina Denisova, writer, Russia

“Boomer Remover” [is] a mean nickname for the novel coronavirus COVID-19… The term … references the higher mortality rate among older people infected with COVID-19—particularly among people over 60, including the Boomer Baby age cohort approximately between the ages of 56 and 74.

Andrew Whalen, Newsweek

The above quotes are just two typical manifestations of the situation and feelings of older persons during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These quotes are also reflective of the thriving ageism which has just found a new content in marginalising older people and excluding them from society.

At first glance, there is a solid ground for singling out older people during the current pandemic as a special group: the mortality related to COVID-19 is increasing with the age and for those 80 and above years old it is five times the global average based on WHO data.  About 95 per cent of those who have died from COVID-19 in Europe were over 60 years, and more than half of them were over 80 years. This tragic statistics has prompted governments to focus their anti-epidemic measures on older persons by often demanding their self-isolation for the period beyond the terms set for younger population.

We have analysed data on COVID-19-related mortality in Spain, Italy, and Sweden and found the following*: in the range of ages from 30 to 90 years, the dependency of the logarithm of mortality upon age is linear in all three countries. Moreover, the regression lines are strictly parallel to those related to the total mortality in these countries, which is in accordance with the Gompertz law. In all analysed cases, and irrespective of the stage of epidemic, the doubling time of mortality in this age range is close to 7.5 years. Our calculations based on limited data reported from Japan and Iran have also revealed that the rates for SARS-Cov2 infection diagnosed on the basis of the symptomatic manifestations of the disease and on serological tests are dependent on age significantly less. Meanwhile, the self-isolation measures reportedly aimed at limiting the spread of the infection, which are quite justified in principle, in their most severe forms are imposed precisely upon the population of 65+ years old.

The above analysis combined with the review of literature sources leads to the following conclusions:

– Older persons are the main victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are not the main agents of spreading the SARS-Cov2 virus.

– Nevertheless, older persons are often treated as the principal target of measures aimed at controlling the spread of SARS-Cov2 infection, which is not justifiable, especially as forced isolation of older persons is more dangerous for their health and even life compared with younger people, moreover, it compromises health-maintaining practices available for older people, and thus is discriminatory and unacceptable.

One more conclusion is based on the international policy frameworks on ageing, such as the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing: older persons should be seen as contributors “to the reestablishment and reconstruction of communities and the rebuilding of the social fabric following emergencies”. We believe this conclusion is of particular relevance as the humanity is gradually moving to the recovery.

* This blog entry is based on recent research published by the authors:

G. Golubev, A. V. Sidorenko (2020) Theory and practice of aging upon COVID-19 pandemic. Uspekhi Gerontologii [Advances in Gerontology]. 2020. Vol. 33(2): 397–408. (In Russ. with Engl. summary)

Dismantling health and social care systems kills

Research carried out by the European Centre had already shown pervasive inequalities in access to care as well as in the coverage of health insurance and potential remedies. The Covid-19 crisis brings the evidence to the headlines of the news that social inequalities and the dismantling of health and social welfare systems are killing people. The current crisis also shows that health and social care are not a ‘product’ which can be produced low-cost and provided to those with sufficiently large incomes only.

Kai Leichsenring, Executive Director of  the European Centre

Research carried out by the European Centre had already shown pervasive inequalities in access to care as well as in the coverage of health insurance and potential remedies. The Covid-19 crisis brings the evidence to the headlines of the news that social inequalities and the dismantling of health and social welfare systems are killing people. The current crisis also shows that health and social care are not a ‘product’ which can be produced low-cost and provided to those with sufficiently large incomes only.

Yet, inequalities persist. While many of us continue to work in secure home offices, a great number of people have to keep working to provide our basic necessities including water, energy supply, waste collection, pharmaceuticals, groceries, and health care. Older people and persons with disabilities, in particular those living in isolation or in care homes, have complex care and support needs and were already disadvantaged before the pandemic, now they are additionally confronted with triage mechanisms and even total neglect as social services are suspended. Professionals in health and social care have struggled with working conditions already before the crisis. Now they are facing Covid-19 and a high risk exposure to the disease while many still try to maintain operating levels of standard care services. Moreover, inequalities and inequities in health care systems, in social determinants of health and in access to health care mean that those who are already disadvantaged are less equipped to deal with the virus itself – and some countries are better prepared to protect their citizens than others. It does not help to blame decisions made in the past, but we should learn from the damage done. If we really strive “to leave no one behind” we need to address Covid-19 and its consequences as a global challenge with global policies. This can be illustrated by a brief example that is much discussed in the context of Covid-19.

A key argument for implementing drastic measures to flatten the curve of new infections has been to avoid the breakdown of the hospital system in any affected region. All of us have seen the ‘red line’ in simulations marking the health care system capacity, i.e. the number of very sick people that can be treated in hospitals. Of course, no health system in the world is designed to have enough beds to counter the unprecedented Covid-19 emergency. However, the ‘red line’, i.e. the number of beds in hospitals, has been lowered over the past decades in all countries due to budget cuts, alleged efficiency gains and market-oriented governance. To a certain degree it is certainly recommended to reduce the role of hospitals, if countries invest in alternative care pathways such as primary care centres or long-term care in the community. However, many regions were not able to do this second step after reducing hospital beds. In this context, quantity of beds in itself is certainly not the most robust indicator – without infrastructure, sufficient staff and technical devices at disposal, a ‘hospital bed’ is nothing more than a piece of furniture. And yet, reality has shown in many regions that the ‘red line’ of hospital capacities has been exceeded rather quickly. The figure below shows the extent of reductions in hospital beds as of 2017 (latest available data) highlighting Italy and some of its regions. While hospital capacity had already been reduced before 2005, further reductions could be observed over the past years (e.g. Italy). This has made it so difficult to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak in the relatively wealthy northern regions of Italy (Lombardia, Veneto, marked in orange) with particularly hard and deadly consequences. Not only Italian authorities are worried about a potential spreading in the southern regions (e.g. Calabria), where cuts in health care infrastructure, starting from a weaker baseline, have been even stronger. The consequences of comparable imbalances between regions and countries regarding the allocation of resources to health care can also be observed in Spain and the UK, and other countries and regions are likely to experience similar impact.

These regional differences point to the necessity of European or even global strategies of cooperation also in health and social care. Rather than leaving individual regions alone to tackle the Covid-19 crisis and to compete for ventilators, masks and protective gear, we need exchange and coordination of knowledge, professionals and material across Europe and beyond. This is even more important with a view to potential learnings after the crisis to which we shall contribute with further research:

  • How can we address inequalities and inequities by social policies and research during and beyond the current crisis? We have seen a wide range of measures that are putting human rights and even democratic principles ‘on hold’. We therefore need to make sure that these restrictions will be removed as soon as possible and to establish new approaches to ensure democracy and human rights for all in post-growth societies. The Sustainable Development Goals can serve as a rough guideline, but there will be more about social justice, values and new mechanisms to shape and support individual life-courses through a more equal distribution of life-chances, income and work.
  • How can we avoid further cuts in public expenditures on health and social care during times of enormous and rising public debt? The leverage of billions of Euros (Dollars, Pounds …) has been a necessary intervention by national governments and international organisations during the crisis. The challenge for the very same institutions will be to ensure the promotion of social inclusion, equal opportunities and international partnerships in the context of the economic downturn, nationalist approaches and the widening gap between rich and poor.
  • How can we work together to ensure universal health coverage and decent funding mechanisms for health care that are not discriminating by race, gender and age? Further cooperation to build bridges between research and policy-making beyond existing silos will be necessary to underpin a post-crisis scenario with a policy focus on human rights, social inclusion and public health systems that ensure social equity and care for all.

This blog was first posted at the European Centre’s Covid19 blog site.

Building Awareness on Dementia in Ukraine before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

According to Ukrainian legislation social services are provided from municipal social protection departments for free to old lonely people without any mental health problems. Old people suffering from mental health problems must be cared for from special agencies. Unfortunately, these agencies do not exist, yet.

Galina Poliakova, Executive Director, Ukrainian Charity “Turbota pro Litnih v Ukraini”

The Ukrainian Charity “Turbota pro Lintih v Ukraini” (Age Concern Ukraine – TLU) is a national voluntary organisation uniting about 1500 volunteers aged 60+ whose aim is to protect the rights and interests of older people. The TLU has been working on dementia related issues in co-operation with the Austrian Diakonie, a merited charitable voluntary organization of Protestant churches, since 2017. The main areas of focus have been raising awareness on dementia related problems, consolidating the efforts of various stakeholders, and elaborating various approaches to meet the needs of people with dementia and their carers.

According to Ukrainian legislation social services are provided from municipal social protection departments for free to old lonely people without any mental health problems. Old people suffering from mental health problems must be cared for from special agencies. Unfortunately, these agencies do not exist, yet. In other words, nowadays in Ukraine there are neither public nor private services to provide care for people with dementia or any other agencies to support their informal carers – the families caring for their parents and/or grandparents with dementia. The prevailing majority of informal carers are women. They often sacrifice their career, their personal development, private life, and so on. These people find themselves alone with their own pains and needs. Quite often they can hardly understand the roots of the problem, have neither practical skills nor theoretical knowledge of caring for people developing the symptoms of Alzheimer Disease Related Dementia (ADRD).

To respond to the need for support, the TLU has established self- and mutual-help groups (SMHG) in 9 Ukrainian cities. The SMHGs are already bringing together several hundred families caring for their relatives with dementia and are open to new members. Interested people who come to the SMHG receive advice and/or information and take part in training sessions or other forms of consultations. SMHG participants can also provide support to each other, share their experience, as well as find sympathy and understanding. Consultations with psychologists, rehabilitation experts, notaries, lawyers and other professionals are also organized upon request. Each SMHG group is run by TLU trained volunteers.

As the staff of the municipal social services that deal with this category of clients does not necessarily have any special training, the TLU team has developed training programmes for informal carers and for carers working in the municipal social services departments as well as other providers. So far, training sessions have been organized in 18 Ukrainian cities to enable 1800 formal and informal carers to learn new skills and knowledge.

In addition, it is not a secret that people with dementia may suffer from elder abuse or become abusers because of the symptoms related to dementia. That is why TLU developed a training programme for the employees of the National Police. More than 500 District Police officers in 18 cities attended the training sessions. A study video was also produced and made available to the police officers and wider public on YouTube.

During our fieldwork we realized that lonely old people with the symptoms of ADRD may not visit doctors to discuss their symptoms and may also not recognise their own problems. As their behaviour may look rather odd, it often attracts the attention of police officers during their routine work or when certain people with dementia have interactions with the police because of issues that might be caused by hallucinations or other ADRD symptoms. So, police officers are often on the front-line and are the first to come to the scene of the incident.

Another target group have been schoolteachers and school psychologists. Traditionally Ukrainian families in the same household consist of three or even four generations. As the life expectancy is growing steadily children may have both grandparents and great-grandparents. Whilst their parents as breadwinners are busy at work all day, we assumed schoolchildren have usually more contacts with the elder generations and may recognise certain changes in their behaviour. Hence, we organized meetings with school psychologists in 18 cities. They confirmed that schoolchildren are indeed involved into the family matters of that sort. They also suggested that together we work out some appropriate and non-traumatising study materials (preferably in video format) to inform schoolchildren about signs and symptoms of ADRD and what to do in these cases. This initiative is still ongoing.

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread in Ukraine, a number of restrictions to mobility and quarantine measures were put in place. The quarantine and other restrictions meant that TLU had to put on pause the activity of the SMHGs. This had an immediate disadvantageous effect – people felt abandoned and isolated. While the SMHG meetings could not be held anymore because persons with dementia and their carers are in the high-risk group, we took alternative measures to continue to provide some support. To support elder informal carers, TLU developed a “Forget-me-not” scheme: volunteers made telephone calls to these families at least twice a week. These telephone conversations helped to break isolation, to provide moral support, to reveal most urgent needs and to find the tool for its solution. Old people in Ukraine seldom have personal computers and access to Internet, that is why the “Forget-me-not” volunteer service has also proved to be a valuable and reliable source of the much-needed information and practical support for these target groups. Volunteers reveal the problems and make the necessary arrangements to find a proper solution, contact the corresponding agency or official, or simply provide emotional support. The effort continues.