Finding opportunities in crisis: a view on the post-COVID-19 future in Serbia

July 9, 2020

Photo: Marko Risovic

Now that the worst of the pandemic appears to be over in some parts of the world, the biggest risk I see is that everyone will just go back to normal, that we don’t learn from this crisis and that it will have no impact on the future of development.

The crisis showed us that people and institutions can make massive adjustments in our lives overnight and that in crisis, we can work together to help each other. For me the uplifting takeaway from the crisis is that many recognized that the ‘old normal’ was not good enough and that there are opportunities from the crisis to create a different way of living.

The Western Balkans has – so far - been relatively sheltered from the impact of COVID-19. Governments and people recognized the seriousness of the threat to fragile public health systems. Here in Serbia, by the time we offered to procure medical supplies, the government had already done it but lacked an efficient means of transport. UNDP Serbia quickly organized 15 cargo planes with 720 tonnes of ventilators, protective equipment and COVID-19 tests to help weather the immediate health crisis. In parallel, the government introduced strict curfew measures, limiting movement, and fiscal measures, limiting impact on business and employment.

Because of this decisive response early on at the beginning of the epidemic and Serbia’s limited integration in global supply chains, the impact of the first wave of COVID-19 was not as bad as it could have been. But as movement restrictions across Europe relax, the risk of a second wave of infection increases. And beyond the health crisis, a recession in Europe could trigger a deterioration of the situation in the Western Balkans, with its reliance on European markets.

Opportunities for Serbia to seize

I see three areas of opportunity in Serbia where we can learn from the crisis and build back better: strengthening health systems, creating decent work opportunities, and building resilience.

The health crisis starkly brought home the importance of investing in a strong and universal public health system and the importance of prevention and not just treatment.

Serbia now has the opportunity to invest in medical and support staff, boost local capacities to produce medical supplies and build on its already significant advances in digital transformation to update the health system.

In March, UNDP Serbia organized a Challenge Call for local corporate and research & development solutions for health resilience. In partnership with the Government, Germany and USA we have already secured financing for four of the finalists. Their solutions will ensure production of protective masks and other equipment in Serbia, as well as ventilators. A system for monitoring hand disinfection in health facilities will also be developed.  In addition to increasing the national public health system capacities to respond to similar challenges in the future, the Challenge will stimulate local business development, innovation and entrepreneurship. This is particularly important because the second wave of epidemic brings additional impact on the economy.

The economic impact of COVID will leave many people vulnerable, especially in Serbia’s large informal economy, and is likely to be deeper and longer lasting than its health impact. According to ILO, 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, nearly half of global workforce, is at risk of losing livelihoods. Countries need to find ways to protect and harness the informal economy and provide good quality work.

The lockdowns have shown us that a different way of working is possible, with more flexible working arrangements, use of digital tools and opportunities in e-commerce. Online presence improves reach and increases the competitiveness of enterprises while ensuring economic resilience for possible future market disruptions.

UNDP is supporting the Government-led Socio-Economic Impact Assessment so that we can better understand the impact of the crisis on work, including for those in the informal economy. Together with the Returning Point, a diaspora organization, we are exploring how to retain several hundreds of thousands of Serbian migrants who returned to Serbia in the wake of the crisis and how to attract digital nomads and other skilled workers to work from Serbia, thereby addressing the huge challenge around depopulation.

COVID-19 also exposed the importance of the environment for our resilience and how, conversely, over-exploitation of the natural world created this crisis in the first place. People also intimately understood the link between environment and health, with air pollution and respiratory diseases increasing people’s vulnerability.

I hope that people’s expectations have changed through this crisis as they realise that adjusting their behaviour can have a positive impact on biodiversity, lower greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. The climate action needed is radical, but the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that it can be done, making this a good time to invest in the green agenda.

We are supporting transition to a greener economy, helping the government to switch to renewable energy sources such as biomass, which creates new jobs and brings investments to rural areas. We also want to ensure that new funding and financing made available in the COVID response has a broader impact on the Sustainable Development Goals and increases access to finance for small and medium sized enterprises. We are working with the Ministry of Finance to develop the capital market, including instruments such as Green Bonds. This finance sector innovation can help increase new kinds of investment in Serbia and money collected from bond issuance would be invested in protecting the environment and mitigating climate change.

Importance of solidarity and human capital

While physical infrastructure, such as medical facilities and equipment are critical in the health crisis, the social capital is just as important for building resilience. As proven before, communities with stronger social connections and trust are more resilient to shocks. The solidarity that binds people together and builds trust in institutions is the glue keeping people safe and helping them cope and build back stronger.

In partnership with the Government Office for IT and e-government, we were able to accelerate the outpouring of solidarity between citizens and between citizens and the state. We set up a digital platform connecting volunteers and the elderly and other vulnerable groups during the lockdown. In parallel, we helped businesses and cultural institutions to offer their services and content online. Now our focus is on ensuring that new digital solutions are accessible to all, including the elderly, Roma and people with disabilities, to avoid deepening the existing digital divide.

We are focused on doing what we can to ensure COVID-19 epidemic does change the future of development. Working with key leaders across society, business, the tech industry and Government, we can recover in ways that bring a wiser, kinder, greener future. The odds are stacked against us due to political and economic pressures to go back to before. But COVID is a crisis that brings a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tap into the potential of social and human capital and power of technology to bring the future we want.

*The article was published in Vreme magazine on 09.07.2020.