Against the backdrop of its specific histories, the impact of the pandemic on women particularly in the Balkans also demands specific attention.
Controlling the Covid-19 pandemic and the immediate healing are the priority. But the pandemic has unearthed fissures and structural deficiencies in our societies and governing systems. It is a wake-up call and an unexpected—possibly catalytic—opportunity to forge a sustainable new European future. The progressive and social-democratic family is advocating transformative policies for a just transition, for a more equitable social Europe, for ambitious and bold recovery plans.
Women have borne a sizeable burden of the pressures of the pandemic and the lockdown. They comprise most medical staff, caregivers, domestic workers, teachers, service and social workers. Lockdown measures have resulted in multiple problems for women and families—from domestic violence and increased childcare challenges, including home education, to financial hardships, especially for part-time and seasonal workers.
Through recognising these differentiated needs and applying a gender-sensitive lens to the recovery strategies and the associated deployment of European Union resources, we can ensure gender-equality concerns are mainstreamed in future policies. Within that, the Central and Eastern European Network for Gender Issues, in co-operation with PES Women, has analysed the specific situation of women during the crisis in the Balkan region and explored solutions to the social and economic challenges they face in the wake of the pandemic.
This region has gone through five economic shocks—if we exclude the Balkan conflict itself—from the transition period to the 2008 economic and financial crisis. Each has affected the very fabric of societies, with neoliberal measures and diminished investments in social and human capital creating more poverty, especially among the most vulnerable.
Serbia is expecting a deep recession in the autumn, deeper than the one in 2008. This would mean fewer resources, especially for social spending, as governments focus on economic stimuli. In most Balkan countries about a third of the population live under the poverty threshold. Even in a more developed EU member such as Croatia every fourth child, according to UNICEF, cannot afford a hot meal at school. Social transfers and one-off financial injections (in Serbia €100 to pensioners, for instance) are palliative measures.
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During the coronavirus crisis family and societal relationships have also been changing—from the negative rise in psychological and physical violence to the positive intergenerational (even inter-ethnic in Bosnia-Herzegovina) solidarity and support. Multi-generational families in the Balkans are more the norm than an exception, providing care for the elderly and children and mutual family support, including financial. So far these demands have fallen primarily on women’s shoulders, however—both those who are working outside the home (as a double or triple burden) and elderly female pensioners.
The crisis will be felt more in the social sectors, such as care and education, where women dominate. We are witnessing changing labour patterns, such as home-based work with both parents working from home, women as emerging breadwinners (since most are employed in the service sector), part-time and precarious contracts and a rise in unemployment. These will also affect social patterns of care work (for children and the elderly, with men taking more responsibility), as well as social mobility. They will demand that we revisit our social-welfare systems to adapt to the new circumstances or, at least, address their pitfalls.
We should be ready for a new social stratification as a result of the new economic and social circumstances. The lower-middle and especially the working class will be sliding into poverty. There will also be enhanced polarisation between those working in industrial sectors and those employed in the public sector, especially in terms of contracts, remuneration and job security.
A new ‘stratification’ is emerging too through the lockdown and online schooling. While governments have made an effort to provide web-based curricula and classes, there is increased evidence of the burden it has created for parents who, apart from being playmates, care-givers, domestics and online workers, had to be educators—to monitor, if not assist, the child’s education and school performance. But limited attention and support was given to children of disadvantaged parents, marginalised children, those living in rural areas without computer and internet facilities and those whose parents are unable to provide guidance and ensure educational support. The gaps created in this situation are still there, including as we look to the autumn.
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An additional problem which has arisen in providing social care has been the declining certainty of remittances from the many who left the region to seek a better future, initially because of the wars associated with the collapse of Yugoslavia and later to seek employment, better wages and working conditions in a more democratic, less corrupt environment. The shortage of medical staff, from nurses to doctors, due to their ‘migration’ to wealthier countries in western Europe, is meanwhile overstretching health and social-care systems in the region.
Coming back to the wider European canvas, we need to ‘retool’—to address the consequences of neoliberal policies for our social-welfare systems, to synchronise the new labour patterns and social structures and to address inequalities, including gender inequalities, and rising poverty. A renewed Europe after the pandemic cannot have gender equality as an afterthought: this must be an integral part of political decision-making and of economic and social policies.
The EU has to support sustainable development and human capacities in its neighbourhood, because we are one continent which needs stability and progress. Maybe this is the opportunity for a Europe-wide restart, akin to that after the second world war yet before the cold war began.