I am writing this post as Chair of the Executive Board of Equinet, but also as Deputy Ombudswoman of Croatia, and as a woman and a mother, in these challenging times of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Let me start by saying, as Chair of Equinet, the European network of equality bodies, that as equality bodies and as Equinet we cannot stay silent in the face of all the challenges.
We are facing the COVID-19 crisis, a crisis that is testing institutions, governments, health systems, economies… but most of all testing people. Many governments have taken strong and decisive action and adopted restrictive measures to try to contain the virus from spreading. There are no questions about the necessity to act to prevent the worst possible outcomes, threatening the lives of so many.
Nonetheless, these measures must not undermine or question the importance of the value of equality and non-discrimination as key human rights principles and the institutional framework built to promote and protect it.
Equality bodies, as national public institutions to promote equality and tackle discrimination, play a fundamental role in the national equality architecture. We assist victims of discrimination, monitor and report on discrimination issues, and contribute to an awareness of rights and a societal valuing of equality. The importance and urgency of our work as equality watchdogs has not ceased or decreased with the current situation as equality and non-discrimination are not luxury goods necessary only in good times. That is why it is good to see that across Europe, our efforts in making sure that everyone is protected from discrimination are continued, and we are working to make sure the newly introduced restrictive measures are not used in an abusive way.
Age, health status, disability, gender, racial or ethnic origin, socio-economic status and other grounds and their intersections should be paid due attention to. Unfortunately, some groups of the population are more effected and are already feeling the negative aspects of this crisis, reinforcing the discrimination and violence they were facing previously.
The virus itself is particularly dangerous for older persons and those with underlying health conditions, so their right to health and other rights and needs must be vigilantly protected and fulfilled.
There are also many other societal groups feeling the negative effects of this crisis, with reports of discrimination related to COVID-19 flooding the news and national equality bodies receiving complaints daily. There are reports of racist and xenophobic hate speech and hate crimes being committed against individuals perceived as Asian, but also against foreigners more generally; an increase in cases of domestic violence against women during these periods of isolation in households; discrimination accessing the health care system; discrimination incidents faced by caretakers and parents, especially women, unable to balance their work and care duties; job losses and further ones announced, accompanied by a corrosion of labour rights, which will particularly impact those least well-off; mistreatment and abuse of institutionalised persons; discrimination and abuse of persons with disabilities…the list goes on and on. We should keep in mind that all this is even more difficult for persons living in poverty and likewise recall the situation of migrants, homeless people and Roma living in segregated settlements, without access to basic infrastructure.
In addition, it remains yet to be seen what the aftermath of this health crisis will bring, namely what the overall economic, social and political impact will be and what we as equality bodies will need to focus on in the times ahead of us.
The tense social atmosphere in which we live, exacerbated by the restrictive measures and suspension of the freedom of movement and other rights taken by governments to slow the spread of COVID-19, has resulted in major challenges to equality and human rights. We are aware we need to be supportive of good efforts by decision makers, in order to bolster trust in institutions and experts and to be constructive and available to advise governments to ensure that measures taken do not have unwanted inequality implications. However, at the same time, we want to make it clear that national equality bodies are monitoring the situation in their countries and are available to people reporting discrimination. When measures to cope with this health crisis place restrictions on the exercise of rights, we must be vigilant regarding such restrictions (and derogations in time of emergency), so they do not create unlawful discrimination.
Let me also say, as Deputy Ombudswoman of Croatia, responsible for our institutions’ work as an equality body, that I know that doing this work at the national level is challenging – we are trying to analyse restrictive measures as they are announced and to quickly respond to incoming complaints and questions for information, while at the same time having practical problems of how to organise our work during this pandemic. We need to be as accessible and to respond as quickly as possible to people who need our help, while looking after the safety and wellbeing of our staff, which requires organising our work in new and creative ways. Our institution has also suffered from the effects of the earthquake in Zagreb, which destroyed our main office. Therefore, having faced multiple organisational problems concurrently, I know that it is not easy.
Finally, I want to make this personal and say, as a mother of three working long hours from home, while at the same time trying to help them with schoolwork and look after them, all this can get overwhelming. But then I remember all those who have it a million times worse, frontline healthcare workers and other professionals and volunteers who are the heroes of this time, or people that we are trying to help, people who currently cannot access certain vital services or are in hospitals and need medical attention or who have just lost their jobs, reminding myself of why we do what we do.
In these difficult times, we need more solidarity and more unity. We need more solidarity and unity in Europe, as well as globally. We need more solidarity and unity as equality bodies. And we need more solidarity and unity as people, because only staying together and on an equal basis, will we overcome this crisis.
We are here to ensure that no one is left behind.
At Equinet we have planned this post as the first one in a series, with the idea that we will use this blog to:
I hereby invite all equality bodies to write further posts, to share and reflect together, so that we can learn from each other and support each other, in order to better protect equality and the rights of those who need our help in these difficult times.
mr. sc. Tena Šimonović Einwalter, MJur
Chair of Equinet, the European Network of Equality Bodies,
Deputy Ombudswoman, Office of the Ombudswoman, Croatia