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Between an Earthquake and a Virus: A Report from Croatia

By: Antipolitika and Good night macho pride

We write as members of the editorial of Antipolitika – the anarchist journal from the Balkans and of Good night macho pride, a queer punk collective based in Zagreb. Our current fear regarding the pandemic is that, now more then ever, people see the state as some benevolent protector and are therefore more likely to accept surveillance and control. The atmosphere of fear and urgency is pushing people to believe that any solution to a problem is good, and to question the implications of some solutions less than they would have before. Leftist individuals and groups only contribute to stances that reinforce the state as they glorify some measures taken by the government as socialism (such as putting a stop to any price rises in food or hygiene products, and having a still relatively functional health and education system). Also, some groups are using this moment to invoke tactics such as the popular front or the conquering of state power. Finally, even though many mutual-aid groups and networks were organized, we fear that they might end up with a solely humanitarian character, becoming an auxiliary to the state in times of the crisis of social reproduction, instead of contributing to a culture of continuous independent organizing despite and against the state. While speaking about conserving the health of the nation as being everybody’s responsibility, the government looks favorably at these mutual-aid networks, while at the same time continues with violent push-backs against migrants at the borders and makes it very hard to organize support and solidarity with them. Even though the experience of mutual-aid networks might contribute to a long-term change in people’s everyday lives, mutual-aid is also becoming part of the pandemic spectacle by being co-opted by the state, the media and companies.

The first case of infection with coronavirus was diagnosed in Croatia on the 25th of February. Over the last two decades, the public health system has been weakened by commercialization and privatization. Some of the previously existing medical infrastructure, such as the institute for immunology that used to produce vaccines, has been weakened or destroyed. There is also the problem of lack of staff and equipment. Furthermore, two earthquakes (5,3 and 5 points on the Richter scale) damaged some of the hospitals in Zagreb which created an additional challenge for the medical system amid the pandemic. Nevertheless, the healthcare system is for now relatively stable.

Prohibitions and Surveillance

The penalty for breaching self-isolation is a fine of 8000 kunas (1042 EUR) for the first time, and 120 000 kunas (15,623 EUR) for more than one breach. So far more than 1500 people have been fined for breaching the imposed self-isolation. Many people are reporting their neighbors, sometimes even just for seeing them drying their laundry on their balconies.

As part of the strategy for the “prevention” of the spread of coronavirus, the government suggested an amendment to the electronic communications act which would allow, under the guise of monitoring people who violated self-isolation on suspicion of having coronavirus infection, the tracking and surveilling of the movement of all people via their cellphones, without exception, without a time limit, as well as the non-transparent use of the collected data. The constitution allows for such changes to the law “in times of war or the immediate threat to the independence and wholeness of the state, and in case of major natural disasters”. The passing of such an amendment has to be decided by the parliament by a two-thirds majority of all MPs, and if the parliament cannot meet, is decided by the president at the proposal of the government and with the signature of the prime minister. This idea was initiated by the prime minister’s special adviser for national security, but it was not supported by the minister of the interior even though they are both from the same ruling right wing Croatian democratic party (HDZ). Nevertheless, it was adopted by the government on the 25th of March. The unconstitutionality of the adoption of such an amendment without a vote in parliament was warned of by all opposition parties, and some MPs stated that this would lead to dictatorship and a police state. However, most parties did agree with the idea of tracking people, only with some limitations: for example, the leading opposition party – the social-democratic party (SDP) – would support it if it was limited to the people who have been prescribed self-isolation, if these people are informed about it, if there is a time limit and if the collected data is destroyed after the pandemic is over. The prime minister, who was most vocally pushing for this, said that he does not understand all the fuss about this since everyone is already giving their private data to corporations such as google and Facebook.

Labour

Already on the 17th of March, the government adopted a total of 66 measures to assist the economy in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. The measures concern a total of eight ministries, many of which relate to the preservation of the liquidity of companies, which is always promoted as a way of preserving jobs.

In order to prevent the loss of jobs in economic sectors affected by the coronavirus, the Ministry of Labour and Pensions introduced policies such as the temporary suspension of some measures that were meant to support the employment of certain groups of precarious workers, such as young people and women. They also introduced support for firms that are employing people with disabilities and they prolonged a measures for seasonal workers that guaranteed them at least the minimum wage for 6 months for the period when they are “non-active”. The state is co-financing pension insurance benefits for them during the period of the corona-crisis.

The main support measure is financial support for firms affected by the corona crisis to prevent dismissal of employees by which firms get circa 425 Euro (minimum wage) for each full-time employed worker and 212 Euro per part-time worker for a period up to 3 months starting from March, with the possibility of eventually extending this period. Recently they increased the wage for full time workers to 100 Euro. Workers can get money from their employers on top of this, but most of them probably do not. Also, this wage is being handed on the 15th of each month for the previous month which is not good for many people. It is estimated by the government that around 400,000 jobs can be preserved in this way, including jobs in tourism, transportation and storage, manufacturing industries (textiles, clothing, footwear, leather, wood and furniture) and jobs in any firm that, because of the decisions of the civil protection headquarters, are unable to carry on with their business. This support does not apply to firm owners, founders, managers, etc. except for very small businesses and crafts.

The problem with this is that, employers will be able to decide if they actually want to distribute the 525 Euro of government support to actual workers or not. Apparently there will be no control over how firms spend public money meant for preserving jobs.

When it comes to the violation of workers rights, we still do not have much data about it. There are some examples, like in the grocery chain Plodine where, despite overtime work, the employers cancelled the workers’ bonus of around 195 Euro and reduced their “Easter wage”, while also not distributing necessary protective equipment and ignoring the need to test workers who had recently arrived from Italy.

Apart from chains of grocery stores, another very problematic group of employers are delivery platforms such as Glovo, Wolt etc. Since they are just “platforms” and not “real employers” (deliverers are called “associates” and not employees since they do not have a standard contract and are instead considered to be “self-employed”), all the burden of adapting to the new situation is on the shoulders of the deliverers. So, this “platform” business model enables these firms to free themselves from the classic obligations of providing their workers with health and social care, and allows them to shift all these costs, as well as the risk of doing business, to workers. Apart from the risk of being infected (because of the many social contacts with costumers), deliverers in Zagreb are also risking their lives moving amongst damaged buildings after the earthquake. In fact, the platform was pushing deliverers to deliver orders just after the earthquake when the city center was in ruins and many people (some probably infected) were out on the streets due to the fear of another earthquake. Also, since people are increasingly making orders form grocery stores (and not just restaurants), the official maximum weight of an order, which recently was 9 kilos in Glovo, was raised to 25 kilos without giving prior notice to the workers.

Another problem that is not discussed enough is the gray economy. It is estimated that about 30 percent of the Croatian GDP comes from these so called “shadow economies”. Therefore, existing measures don’t address the financial situation of a significant proportion of workers to whom the gray economy is the sole source of income. Also, these workers, who do not have official contracts, cannot ask for unemployment benefits from the state if they lose their jobs.

The Minister of Finance announced that some state and public employees will also be fired in order to direct money towards the financial measures intended to save the domestic market. However, he also said that they are considering raising wages for health workers, the army and police employees and firefighters, although there has already been a disproportionately high investment in the army and police in comparison to other civil protection sectors.

Apart from the above mentioned measures, the government is working on changing the labour law itself. The president of the Independent Croatian Trade Unions issued a statement stating that the new law will include unlimited possibilities for employers, including powers to change contracted wages, material rights, working hours, the place of work, remuneration due to work stoppage caused by the epidemic, forcing employees to take holiday, and exclusion of the obligation to consult and seek consent from the works council, etc.

Housing

According to the Facebook profile of the Croatian Network for the Homeless, the abandoned wagons at the Zagreb main train station provide shelter to between 50 and 70 people. According to the homeless, this figure is closer to 100. They say that there are at least 700 people on the street alone in Zagreb, while the NGO Fajter estimates that the number is as high as 1000, perhaps even up to 2000. The exact numbers, though, are very difficult to estimate due to the specificity of homelessness, since homeless people are regularly on the move and their total number in Croatia is not known. The coronavirus epidemic is closing down associations that provide the homeless with vital assistance. The Day Care Center for the Homeless, which provides the homeless with a place to hang out, drink coffee and eat something, have some rest, wash their clothes, take a shower two to three times a week, has stopped working. Also various homeless shelters that are run by religious orders or other religious institutions (which also includes the only shelter in Zagreb which accepts people without a written referral from the national social care center) are being closed down due to the pandemic. Some cities, like Rijeka, provide special shelters were people can stay during the pandemic and where they receive some care, but elsewhere most of the homeless have no possibility of self-isolating, personal hygiene, “immune system busting”, medical care or for getting the needed information.

As more and more people are either losing their jobs or getting wages for sick/holiday leave that are too low, they are also losing their homes because they are not able to pay the rent. Many people in Zagreb also lost their homes (around 1000 people) because of the earthquake damage, but for them the state provided a “solution”. They forced students from a student dorm hall to move to another smaller hall thus opening 1800 bed spaces for the displaced people. The process of urgently moving so many students out also increased the risk of the virus spreading, since many people were at the halls at the same time. During this process, they moved the belongings of the students who were not there without asking and put it into black trash bags. As a result of that, many students lost their belongings. Nevertheless, this was seen as a much more “logical” solution than accommodating these people in some of the many empty hotels or airbnb apartments.

Since there were extra places in the student dorms, people who lost their homes to corona started to apply for temporary shelter there, but their demands where declined on the basis that this accommodation was only for earthquake cases.

Homelessness became particularly critical in smaller towns where there are no shelters or care centers. In some tourist regions like Istria, many people who worked there were migrant workers who had lost their jobs due to the crisis and consequently also their accommodation, but who were unable to go back to their countries.

The so called safe houses for victims of domestic violence are currently in an impossible position. First of all, the number of cases of domestic abuse has increased, but the shelters are afraid of accepting new people before testing them for coronavirus in order to protect people who are already resident. However, testing has not been organized. The Ministry for Demography, Social Policy, Family and Youth said that if a potential resident doesn’t have any symptoms, they can be accepted in the shelter. Nevertheless, one NGO from Split sent a public request via the media asking people who have empty apartments or houses to donate them temporarily to victims of domestic violence, to reduce the risk of contagion.

The life of users of other homes, like homes for the elderly and the sick, for children and minors without proper parental care, for people with physical or intellectual disabilities etc., has changed a lot since the pandemic was declared. They are not able to leave the home unless they suffer from serious health issues and must receive treatment in hospitals, and they are not allowed to receive visitors.

Migrants

Since the borders are now almost completely closed and more heavily surveilled, it became even harder for migrants to enter Croatia. Violent pushbacks are continuously happening, and a few have been documented since the pandemic has been declared. On the 23rd of March and on the 6th of April, two people were brutally beaten by the Croatian police. The friends of the second person, the one beaten in April, had to build a stretcher with wood to transport them back to Bosnia. A local called the Bosnian police because the ambulance refused to pick him up on the border in Sturlic.
Before the pandemic was declared, migrants at the borders at least had some help from volunteers and NGOs, but now, since strict restrictions to movement have been imposed, this became difficult to organize.

There was news that asylum seekers in the shelter in Porin in Zagreb were not allowed to leave. A fence started to be constructed around the building on the 13th of March. Human rights NGOs who reported this news, later said that it appears that Porin did not become a gated camp. However, this is hard to say. It was said that this was planned before the pandemic, however, people who live in the shelter were not informed about why this fence was built nor how this would affect their lives. Furthermore, NGOs are not allowed to be present in the shelter to do their activities. Only people from the Red Cross and Doctors of the World (who perform the initial checkups) are allowed to enter. It must be emphasized that the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 in a pandemic is a form of medical emergency, which means that treatment is supposed to be free of charge for all refugees, asylum seekers, and “foreigners” who have a so-called “irregular” status.

One person was taken into self-isolation at the Ježevo detention center due to suspicion of coronavirus infection. This is a person who had been deported from Austria and had previously been granted asylum in Croatia. It is not clear why this person, who has approved international protection and almost equal rights with croatian citizens, was placed in a detention center and not in some of the facilities that the city of Zagreb intended to be used for the purpose of self-isolation.

Organizing

Right after the first recommendations were given from the crisis headquarters for the self-isolation of people who exhibit symptoms, people who came from abroad and elderly people, a group of people in Zagreb organized a mutual-aid network called Jedni za druge (this could be translated as something like “For each other”) for the sole purpose of bringing groceries and medication etc. and providing transport for people in isolation. They set up a free telephone line and a Facebook group where people could ask for support or offer help. They also printed leaflets and distributed them in buildings so people who needed assistance could reach them. Many people got involved straight away and the number is still growing, so the coordination got very complicated very quickly. The group has already changed dramatically from its original purpose because people are not just asking for help with groceries but also for money, shelter, jobs etc. Actually, in recent times this is the most common request – people are losing jobs, apartments etc. and many have nobody to ask for help. This caused many problems within the group with people experiencing burnouts as a result of not being able to help. There were some discussions about how to approach these issues but with no major success because the group is very heterogeneous – some people want to stick to the original idea and not do the work they think is the work of social workers, some people work for charitable NGOs and have a lot of contacts and so they want to do everything, some people think the group should be doing advocacy actions and so on. For the cases that we are aware of, a lot of the people who asked for some help got answers from other people offering them food, car rides, money, accommodation etc. Also, similar groups were organized using the same model in many other towns. So, it is positive that some sort of mutual aid was organized really quickly and that the needs of some people were met. Nevertheless, there are many problems. One of them is that from the start the network was very ambitious and the organization became over complicated really quickly. Consequently, new people who join are often not aware of how things work. Therefore, they rely on the knowledge of people who have been in the network for a longer time which leads to hierarchisation and a lack of discussion. The need for discussion is, however, urgent, since the mutual-aid network is now becoming more of a humanitarian network auxiliary to the state social system and the Red Cross, which is problematic.

The organization of solidarity kitchens such as the ones organized by anarchist Food-not-bombs collectives in several towns was made impossible after farmers’ markets were initially banned and later re-opened with strict measures. These collectives depended on farmers giving them free leftover food which was only possible in such markets because they are outside of the taxation system.

There has been no autonomous organizing regarding the problem of housing for now, as far as we know. The NGO The Right to the City made an appeal to the government asking for the establishment of a moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures, a demand that all the rental payments for a person’s primary home should be cancelled for those who have lost their income, urgent housing for all the homeless etc. You can read the whole text in English here (https://pravonagrad.org/four-requirements-for-the-safety-of-home-during-the-crisis/)

When it comes to workers organizing nothing so far has really come from below apart from some Facebook mutual support groups. Some NGOs/unions set up emergency phone-lines that workers can use for legal advice, some are organizing campaigns in support of delivery workers etc and others are speculating about the possibility that some groups of workers will organize themselves soon.

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