Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Representative in Serbia: The Crisis Caused by the COVID-19 is a Crisis of Children’s Rights

We know that children are less likely to get the virus, but now we must act so that they do not become hidden victims. The most vulnerable children – such as those affected by poverty, exclusion or domestic violence – are at even greater risk, cut off from existing support

It is clear that we need to react immediately in order to ensure that the consequences of this crisis are remedied as soon as possible.

If we work together, we can ensure that COVID-19 does not jeopardize social and economic development in the long run and help families and communities to be more resilient. Investing in our common future must be a priority. We need to take this opportunity to build a better and greener future. By investing in education, child protection, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, we will reduce the damage caused by this pandemic, but it is also a way to avoid a future crisis. This global health, economic and social crisis requires global solidarity,” says Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Representative in Serbia.

What was the size and scope of your assistance to the health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic?

UNICEF operates in more than 190 countries and territories and annually helps to overcome about 300 crises in the world. Our mandate combines the establishment of standards, development, and action in crisis situations, which allows us to respond quickly to crises, as well as to work strategically to boost the system’s resilience. As part of the overall UN response to the COVID-19 contagion, UNICEF has played a leading role in informing about the risks and reaching to the most vulnerable groups in many countries, including Serbia. Our response in support of the health system included the delivery of the most necessary equipment and the bolstering primary health care services. We have the largest humanitarian warehouse located in Copenhagen, with a network of more than 1,000 medical suppliers, long-term partnerships and a large number of people who support us. We have strategic contracts with various manufacturers thanks to whom we were able to supply 50 Draeger ventilators, which are compatible with our health system and can be used invasively and non-invasively, 61 oxygen flowmeters and pulse oximeters for the most vulnerable patients, 71,900 pairs of surgical gloves, 5,200 protective aprons. 25,116 protective gowns, 99,950 surgical masks, 1,549 hazmat suits, 5,376 visors, and 9,000 N95 masks for health workers who were on the first line of defense against the disease. In addition to the procurement of medical equipment, UNICEF supports the health system to secure that maternal and child health services ensure continuity of care for families and children, especially the most vulnerable ones. This includes unhindered access to obstetric, neonatal, and preventive pediatric health care, immunization, community nursing services, and early intervention.

In what areas of your expertise were you the most active in supporting children during Covid19?

At the very beginning of the crisis, UNICEF in Serbia redefined the priorities of its resources to respond to the urgent needs of children and families.

Through providing public information on preventive measures related to COVID-19, we have helped to slow down the virus contagion, especially in the most vulnerable communities. In line with the needs of the Serbian government, we have supported the health, education and social protection systems to ensure the continuity of services for children and their families. We also provided almost 12,000 hygiene packages for families in Roma settlements and almost 4,400 packages for foster families. Hygiene packages were also distributed in 19 residential institutions and 4 asylum / reception centers for refugees and migrants, and we covered almost 2,300 people. We also procured 3,200 family learning and play packages for vulnerable families.

To ensure continuity of education, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education in developing a national response plan for the preschool education system to combat the COVID-19 epidemic through targeted work with preschoolers and their families (inter alia through access to relevant play materials on social media, having distance learning platforms on TV, and through weekly messages and advice to parents regarding their activities with children). When the functioning of communities is disrupted, children, who are already at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse, become even more vulnerable. That is why, in partnership with the Faculty of Political Sciences, we have established an online platform for the exchange of information, knowledge and good practices in order to empower employees in social services to provide continuous and quality child protection services. Also, to ensure that children affected by the coronavirus virus have access to adequate conditions for alternative care, we have prepared guidelines for preventing unnecessary separation of children from families in the context of COVID-19. We moved young people to get involved in volunteering on the Internet by establishing an online platform for peer volunteering, which allowed them to be active in 4 areas: participation in communication about the risk of COVID-19 on the Internet, translation of educational materials to reduce language barriers in education, providing peer support online and promoting the U-Report.

Given that quarantine time was perceived as a time of increased risk of violence against women and children, how did you respond to that potential risk?

In coordination with other UN agencies, we have been carrying out activities related to supporting reporting about high-stress home environments that may increase the likelihood of domestic violence and abuse, causing additional psycho-social difficulties for children and which also may lead to an increase in online. We supported coordination, dissemination of information and practical advice to on-call telephone SOS centers in terms of timely provision of telephone and online psychosocial support and emergency counseling for children and their families. We promoted positive parenting and advised parents on how to organize time with their children. In partnership with Radio and Television of Serbia (RTS), we launched a daily professional advice service for parents, namely, how to deal with the crisis, how to help their children overcome the crisis unharmed, how to deal with their fears, how to structure a day during quarantine, etc. RTS and UNICEF for Parents was a segment in the RTS Morning Program in which experts advised parents every day for over 60 days, i.e. from the very beginning of the crisis. Through working with adolescents and young people, we have provided peer support and information sharing among young people to support their mental health. In late May, despite the crisis, the Government of Serbia adopted the Strategy and Action Plan for the Prevention and Protection of Children from Violence 2020-2023. UNICEF gave its support to the Plan and we hope that activities in this segment will be significantly expedited, as there is evidence that violence in its various forms and environments has been increasing.

What is your assessment of the longterm socio-economic impact of the pandemic and the resources needed for recovery in the long run?

The COVID-19 epidemic has further increased the vulnerability of people living in precarious circumstances. The socio-economic impact of the crisis will be felt most by those most at risk. Many people are already living in poverty, and the consequences of response measures to COVID-19 lead to the risk, associated with their situation, deteriorating further. Hence, UNICEF is helping the government expand social protection measures – programmes and policies that connect families with life-saving services. As a priority, we have identified families that need help the most – 500 single-parent families and families with a large number of children who did not meet the criteria for receiving financial social assistance in the previous 3 months. We strive to provide them financial support, including via direct money transfers. UNICEF has also prepared guidelines for employers on how they can support working parents and create innovative solutions that meet the needs of society, while, at the same time, being profitable for companies.

To what extent have Serbian companies supported UNICEF in the fight against this crisis that has befallen us all?

The business community in Serbia has demonstrated strong sense of responsibility. Thanks to the support of the private sector, we were able to raise $ 1,103,469 in aid. The IT industry inspired other industries and companies and reacted as early as the first weekend of the crisis. Employees at Nordeus, Symphoni, Schnieder Electric and Nutanix made personal donations in addition to company donations, which speaks to a business culture that nurtures solidarity. The Digital Serbia Initiative reacted immediately and encouraged its members and partners to donate to UNICEF in Serbia. Our national ambassador, Ana Ivanović, was also among the first to donate, and promptly invited her friends and partners to get involved, as did business people who live and work outside of Serbia.

Thanks to such a response, Serbia stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, Denmark and China in terms of the speed at which the business sector reacted to UNICEF’s appeal. Once again, I want to thank everyone for recognizing us as the right partner even in times of crisis. We now have the opportunity, together with the business community, to chart the path ahead and be aware of what we can do together in the recovery period, especially by using the power of innovation, family-friendly business policy opportunities and co-creation to re- imagine sustainable and inclusive recovery that puts children, young people and the planet itself in the spotlight.

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