The pandemic has challenged us in many ways, especially when it comes to equality. In many parts of the world, those in the most vulnerable situations have become even more vulnerable. On the other hand, it has affirmed the crucial role of equality bodies in combating inequality and building up the readiness to build back better in the pandemic’s wake.

On 20-22 October 2021 under the auspices of the president of the Republic of Slovenia, Mr. Borut Pahor, Slovenia’s Advocate of the Principle of Equality, Mr. Miha Lobnik, hosted in Ljubljana the Fifth Regional Conference of Equality Bodies from South-East Europe. The events’ sessions focused on the effects and the consequences of and the equality bodies’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the development of their mutual cooperation.

The conference hosted participants and speakers from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia as well as the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet). The Office of the Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia was represented by Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter and Deputy Ombudswoman Dijana Kesonja.

“In 2016 the equality bodies from South-East Europe gathered to exchange knowledge, experiences and best practices, to develop together the highest institutional standards and the highest level of protection of their citizens,” said Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter at the conference’s opening at the Presidential Palace. The year behind us has been challenging for all of us and has confronted the citizens with numerous challenges in all areas of life. Social gaps have increased and the situation of those belonging to the most vulnerable groups has worsened, underscored the Ombudswoman.

Following the beginning of the pandemic, it was important to monitor its effects on the citizens’ human rights and equality. With that goal in mind, Equinet gathered the data on the activities and the responses of equality bodies from 28 of its member-states and created the corresponding database. The data was then used to draw up an informational overview of the complaints received by equality bodies from several Equinet member-states, revealing specific examples of discrimination their citizens had been facing and providing an overview of the activities and the challenges faced by the member-states’ equality bodies since the beginning of the pandemic. The strengthening of equality and solidarity among the citizens builds up the society’s ability to deal with the future crises; thus, equality and non-discrimination need to be the pillars of the post-COVID recovery policies, stressed Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter on the conference’s second day, echoing the main messages of  Equinet’s  2020 publication “Recommendation for a fair and equal Europe: Rebuilding our societies after COVID-19”.

Speaking at the panel on equality challenges posed by the pandemic, the Ombudswoman recounted the experience of the Croatian Ombudsman as a multimandate body, emphasizing the fact that the already most vulnerable groups were clearly in the most difficult position and were often discriminated on the basis of one or more discrimination grounds. Thus, our institution approached the protection of the citizens’ rights and freedoms first and foremost from its equality body role. In that, special focus was placed on ethnicity, age, social origin, the citizens’ health and financial status and the areas such as labor and employment, access to goods and services, education and health care.

The main messages at the very beginning of the pandemic in the Republic of Croatia emphasized solidarity and care for the wellbeing of one’s fellow citizens. However, it has made more pronounced the already existing citizens’ lack of thrust in the institutions. The key debates have been focusing on the decision-making process during the pandemic (i.e. whether the decisions should be adopted via the regular procedures, following the usual democratic processes, or whether the state of emergency ought to be declared), on communication with the public, as well as on data collection, especially those on specific and vulnerable groups – both of which are the elements crucial for the successful implementation of the epidemiological measures introduced to curb the spread of the disease.

“The pandemic has taught us that a better and a more efficient response by the government and various state services makes for the more successful handling of the consequences of the crisis. This applies to not only the current but also the inevitable future similar situations. Several elements are crucial here: the importance of the roles of experts in various fields needs to be recognized – not only of epidemiologists and other members of the academic community but also others, such as social workers, human rights defenders, communications experts – and they must be included in the decision-making processes. Along with transparent decision-making, this can contribute to building the trust of the public and, consequently, to the successful implementation of the measures. At the same time, focus needs to be placed on the vulnerable groups and potential intersectional discrimination must be taken into account, noted the Ombudswoman.

Deputy Ombudswoman Dijana Kesonja spoke at the panel dedicated to the specific areas in which equality was significantly affected by the pandemic. More specifically, she talked about its effects on labor and employment – the areas in which the Ombudswoman usually receives the highest number of complaints. “During this crisis the citizens complained about various types of rights violations: in the very beginning of the pandemic, those whose employers sent them to work from home but failed to provide them with the necessary equipment, such as a computer, an internet subscription or a telephone line, complained about discrimination based on financial status, while others contacted us because they were unable to reach their workplaces due to the suspension of public transport because of which they were served with termination notices. A number of citizens contacted us because, despite their doctor’s recommendation, they were not allowed to work from home or because of the way in which the financial aid for the businesses affected by the pandemic was being distributed. At the moment, we are also receiving complaints related to the recent introduction of the obligatory use of the COVID certificates in the health care and the social welfare sectors. This issue is currently being discussed by the Constitutional Court as well, since on the one hand, it entails the protection of the vulnerable groups, such as the infirm and/or the elderly, and on the other, it limits certain rights of other groups of citizens.”

Clearly, the pandemic has led to a creation of a new reality and new norms of behavior unimaginable in our societies only two years ago. This is not just a public health but also a social and economic crisis. Keeping that in mind, placing equality at the center of our response to it will benefit all. The precondition for that are strong, independent national equality bodies. However, in order for these institutions to reach their full potential and provide efficient support to both the decision-makers as well as to other stakeholders, their important role needs to be recognized and they must be provided with strong mandates, independence, sufficient resources and efficient internal structures, Ombudswoman Šimonović Einwalter concluded.