Annual Human Rights Conference: Panel Discussion “The Impact of COVID-19 Epidemic on Human Rights in Croatia”

As a part of the Annual Human Rights Conference, the Human Rights House Zagreb organized a panel discussion on the impact of COVID-19 epidemic on human rights in Croatia. The online panel discussion took place on 9 December in collaboration with the Human Rights Film Festival. The discussion was moderated by Ivan Novosel, director of programs of the Human Rights House Zagreb.

The impact of the epidemic on the human rights situation and possible solutions based on human rights and the protection of vulnerable social groups were discussed by:

Anka Slonjšak, Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities,
Eli Pijaca Plavšić, Executive Director of the Forum for Freedom in Education
Ivica Belina, President of the Coalition of Health Associations
Iva Ivšić, member of BRID and a longtime activist in the field of labor and social rights.

Novosel emphasized that this discussion is taking place at the time of the coronavirus pandemic whose impact on human rights is already unprecedented, and it will have numerous consequences for the realization of political, social, economic and cultural rights in Croatia and in the world. We are witnessing great challenges in exercising human rights, especially of the most vulnerable and marginalized social groups and individuals. It was to be expected that the pandemic would cause stagnation in the areas of human rights where progress was recorded in 2019, and that there would be deterioration in the realization of human rights in the most vulnerable areas: access to health, especially of the elderly and those living in isolated areas, the rights of persons with disabilities, children’s rights, but also workers’ rights.

The Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities, Anka Slošnjak, warned that the pandemic has contributed to the display of shortcomings in the system of protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, children with disabilities and their families. She emphasized that people who need more significant care and nursing and people living in institutions or specially organized forms of care have especially been facing violations of their rights for the past 10 months. Also, she raised concern that institutions and organizations do not actually have a real insight or a systematic overview of the situation. According to complaints received by the Office of the Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities, the pandemic has consequences on the physical and mental health of persons with disabilities,  as well as on the process of deinstitutionalization. Problems consist of the unavailability of information to visually and hearing impaired persons and persons with intellectual disabilities due to unadjusted reporting methods, discontinuity and denial of various medical services (medical rehabilitation, home physical therapy and health care), increased risk of domestic violence, as well as restriction and denial of the right to freedom of movement of users of social care institutions. The restriction of movement, which was also in force during summer and the relaxation of measures, distanced people who live in institutions from their families and friends, and there was also a decline in their physical and mental health. A number of beneficiaries have temporarily moved out of institutions due to difficulties of coping with the isolation, but those who use social care services, especially in homes for the elderly, were still obliged to pay accommodation costs in order not to lose their place in the institution. In addition, it is necessary to enable access to information and communication through digital technology because not all people have access to it due to socio-economic or other reasons. Digital technology is becoming increasingly important for providing information and maintaining everyday communication and it can also mitigate the consequences of isolation. In response to this crisis, it is necessary to involve representatives of persons with disabilities in the adoption of epidemiological measures in an advisory role when it comes to issues concerning their position and rights, but also in individual cases of provision of services and support. In addition, the system needs to be more flexible and user-oriented, and a more developed network of social services in the community would reduce the difficulties that people with disabilities face in the conditions of the corona crisis.

Ivica Belina spoke about the impact of the pandemic on the rights of patients and users of the health care system, with consideration to the fact that the availability of health care is generally limited. This entire situation has intensified the already existing problems in the system – territorial differences in access to health care, difficult access to health care for the elderly living in isolated areas, differences in health care quality, unevenness of informatization of primary health care and hospital system, and lack of professional staff. However, it is very difficult to talk in general about the situation in the system because of a lack of a complete overview of the situation. The impossibility of visiting the sick, especially children and the elderly who are being treated, is especially problematic. With respect to people infected with coronavirus, in some cases there is a lack of health care after overcoming the disease in a way that patients are not checked for the possible consequences of the disease. In addition, there are less preventive examinations due to the pandemic and sometimes health care is not even sought in cases when it may be needed, which could have serious health consequences in the long run. With respect to ​​mental health, there are currently no additional Government measures to contribute to this area. One of the risks that is certainly worrying is the financial sustainability of the system and the consequent possible limitations of the availability of medicines and health care.

Iva Ivšić presented the results of a survey conducted in April by the BRID association among workers in homes for the elderly and among employees of non-governmental organizations that provide home care services and personal assistance to people with disabilities. She also presented results of a survey conducted in the same period by the Croatian Chamber of Nurses among 400 nurses, and which show similar results with respect to working conditions in the care sector. Research has shown that violations of workers’ rights occur in the system – for example violations of the right to annual leave, to paid overtime, the problem of lack of staff as well as protective equipment. It is additionally worrying that in the BRID survey only 6 percent of workers stated that there is a trade union active with respect to their work with their employers. Special attention was given to the assessment of working conditions of personal assistants who provide services to people with disabilities, and a number of problems was detected with that regard – from minimum wages, fixed-term contracts, to work insecurity and project financing. The pandemic additionally pointed to insufficient investments in the care system, but also to the tendency to leave the provision of social services to the nonprofit sector which is dependent on project financing. The social welfare system needs to be reorganized, especially in the area of ​​care and nursing for the elderly and persons with disabilities.

Eli Pjaca Plavšić pointed out that during the crisis it was shown through various levels of the educational system that solutions for systemic problems must be sought. In preschool education, it is necessary to include children at risk who for various reasons do not attend kindergarten. One of the key reasons is the lack of kindergartens and large regional differences in access to education at all levels. In the preschool system, there was a lack of support from the state and founders to conduct online education during kindergarten closures. With respect to primary schools, it was shown that there were large differences in the material conditions of distance learning, as well as that due to lack of material conditions, basic conditions for learning from home, support and computer skills, it was difficult or impossible to attend distance learning for certain vulnerable groups in society – children belonging to national minorities, children at risk of poverty, refugee children. Support for children who were in a certain difficulty depended on the enthusiasm and resources of teachers, principals and professional services providers in each school. As for higher education, there is an assumption that during the pandemic more students dropped out of the system. All of the above requires strategic and long-term planning to address the consequences of the pandemic on the right to education. The key issue that education policy should address is the well-being and mental health of students who through distance learning experience significant loss in terms of knowledge, but also in social and emotional terms. The solution could go in the direction of ensuring that schools have more autonomy, ensuring school equipment for quality work, improving the material status of teachers, investing in quality teacher training and professionalization of principals, and generally putting quality, equally accessible education high on the agenda of political priorities.

The Human Rights House Zagreb is a Knowledge Center in the field of protection and promotion of human rights within the Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development. The views expressed are the sole responsibility of the Human Rights House and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.