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A Letter from the Frontline – Croatian civil society faces a double crisis

15 April 2020

Civil society organisations have been badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis. In Croatia the earthquake on 22 March increased the burden for NGOs and charities. Cvjetana Plavsa-Matic, urges the EU to reflect the needs of NGOs and charities in the COVID-19 bail-out packages.

By Cvjetana Plavsa-Matic

This article was published as an opinion in Euractiv.

The day was slowly breaking over Zagreb. Sunday, 22 March 2020. It had all the makings of a quiet day, with no people in the streets as we are all in isolation to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The weather forecast predicted low temperatures, perhaps even snow.

And then, at 06:24 am, a horrific, almost unreal, sound and tremor drove nearly a million residents of the Croatian capital out of the warmth of their homes. An earthquake of the magnitude of 5.5 on the Richter scale had struck Zagreb. Everyone running out into the streets, downtown covered with rubble, terrified faces helping the elderly and snow starting to flutter down. Over 5,000 buildings were damaged by the earthquake, and 12,000 people unable to go back to their homes.

Unity and acting for the benefit of all have now become the watchwords in Croatia. The following are just some of the actions which attest to this:

  • The Croatian Government has adopted 63 measures to help all economic activity affected by the pandemic and the earthquake, and to provide for workers’ salaries. Special support has also been announced for the media, which is crucial in this time of isolation.
  • Healthcare professionals and the entire healthcare and social welfare systems have again – just as in the war tribulations 30 years ago – shown their efficiency and dedication to helping and working for the citizens’ wellbeing, despite a lack of proper equipment and protection.
  • The Croatian Philanthropy House in Zadar now serves as a place of quarantine for logistics drivers, and this helps ensure the continued supply of food and other goods for citizens.

I am the Director of the  National Foundation for Civil Society Development, the biggest supporter of civil society in Croatia. Together with cities, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, we have launched the ‘Community Potential’ initiative. The aim of this programme is to make strides towards mitigating the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic that may be expected to arise in its aftermath.

The implementation of this proactive initiative, which seeks to prepare the country for faster recovery from its current double crisis, will also involve numerous partners of the National Foundation from Croatia and abroad, in order to unleash community potential for a better and more sustainable world we now have a chance to build.

Civil society has been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis in the same way that businesses have. I therefore welcome measures taken by the EU and by national governments which aim to provide assistance to the economy and to reduce the pressure on the financial markets across Europe. But in order to succeed with our ambitious and urgently needed activities in Croatia, the EU and its Member States must look beyond the business sector and consider supporting civil society organisations along the same lines. The non-profit sector is a key actor in the response to the crisis, as I experience day by day in Croatia.

From my front-line experience I can clearly see the need for employment-focused relief or stimulus legislation that expressly also applies to employment at tax-exempt organisations. Non-profits must be expressly included in tax, financial and other relief packages targeted at small businesses. Any economic stimulus proposals aimed at helping adversely affected industries and geographic areas must recognise the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the non-profit sector. Funds are urgently needed to pay for the unprecedented increased costs and demand for services arising as our economy and safety net were not built for a pandemic of this magnitude.

In this difficult, doubly challenging period for Croatia, I wish to send a big thank you to all our friends, colleagues and associates from Europe and the world over who have sent us their messages of support, care and solidarity. We need to stay together in this moment.

Cvjetana Plavsa-Matic is the head of the National Foundation for Civil Society Development in Croatia.

Provided by the Philanthropy Advocacy Team