The first signs of preparation by the Croatian government for the coming coronavirus epidemic could be noticed in late February. While some citizens were already aboard the infected ship Diamond Princess, there was little danger of them spreading the infection at home. The situation, however, changed dramatically with the outbreak of epidemic in Italy, as tens of thousands of Croatians work in Italy and hundreds of thousands of tourists regularly travel between countries.
Nikola Vukobratović is a historian and journalist from Zagreb. He is a former editor of the Croatian edition of Le Monde diplomatique and regional news platform Bilten.org and is currently employed in the Archive of the Serbian community in Croatia.
The first quarantines in hospitals were being prepared by 22 February, and the first patient was diagnosed on 25 February, a few days after returning from Italy. This first positive case of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 also forced the government to establish a special Civic Protection Headquarters to coordinate efforts in containing the epidemic. Stricter controls for those entering the country from Italy and Slovenia (taking temperatures, etc.) were also implemented, though they more lenient for citizens of Croatia returning from abroad.
The government announced it would introduce stricter measures of isolating all contacts of those infected (attempting to be “stricter” than Italy). However, it soon became apparent that not all those ordered to “self-isolate” were following orders, so police checks were introduced.
On 9 March, a day after the Women’s Day march, the government banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Yet smaller political meetings were still being organized as the ruling Croatian Democratic Union was in the middle of its internal elections. While the government attempted to buy new ventilators needed to keep those with severe COVID-19 symptoms alive, it was also discussing future “necessary” cuts to the healthcare budget by reducing the number of active hospitals—a measure already planned before the outbreak.
As the situation in Italy escalated, stricter measures were introduced in the western counties of the country (Istria and Rijeka), those most connected to Italy. By 13 March schools were closed in Istria, and by 15 March all bars and restaurants were shuttered as well. Over the next few days these measures were expanded to the rest of the country.
In the midst of the growing public concern, the Croatian government attempted to introduce unconstitutional rule by decree to avoid sessions of parliament, but was forced to drop this due to public outcry and opposition from other parties.
Then, on 22 March, a strong earthquake shook Zagreb, causing widespread damage, killing one and injuring hundreds more, and also leaving about 1,000 citizens without homes. Several hospitals were so damaged that they also had to be evacuated. The ground continued to shake in the following days, causing many people to attempt to flee the capital. This forced the government to ban all travel between cities to attempt to contain the spread of infection.
On 24 March, the government announced plans for blanket surveillance of all mobile phones in the country, allegedly with the purpose of controlling those in “self-isolation”. However, the proposal failed to specify the cases in which it would be used nor did it place any limitations in duration, causing widespread concern about how the ordinance could be (mis)used. It is very likely that this measure will be introduced in the next few days, although the opposition is attempting to include minor changes (e.g. limitations in duration) that would make the bill a bit less dangerous.
That the epidemic could cause economic disruptions specific to Croatia became clear as early as February with the drop in tourist reservations from East Asia. As almost one quarter of Croatian GDP is dependent on tourism, even the slightest disruptions can be felt. By early March, it was evident that the disruptions would be far from slight. A significant number of reservations were cancelled and now the entire summer tourist season is in danger. The gravity of the economic problems this could cause is difficult to calculate precisely at the moment.
The employers’ associations already began to ask for government handouts weeks before any fall in profits could be detected. On 11 March, the government responded positively to their pleas, promising tax relief for employers and cancellation of collective bargaining. It is notable that only last year public sector workers managed to force the government to strip restrictions on salaries imposed during the previous crisis in 2011. Now this is all again jeopardized.
In the private sector, where fixed-term contracts are common, firings began well before any disruptions in business operations arose. In an attempt to mitigate them, the government promised to pay employers the minimum wage for their workers if they kept them formally employed. While this will significantly reduce employers’ costs, it will also leave workers with a monthly salary of barely 425 euro ( the minimum wage), instead of the average 725 euro.
To make matters even worse, future blanket pay-cuts in the public sector were also announced, as well as cuts in social services (even healthcare) despite the pandemic and destruction caused by the earthquake. On 25 March, the government announced that it would suspend some (still not precisely defined) provisions of the Labour Code benefiting workers. Fixed-term contract workers as well as those in “independent” professions (such as artists) seem to be particularly at risk. A platform gathering self-employed and “project-dependent” workers (mostly in culture and media) demanded measures for protection of workers, not just employers and their profits.
Similarly, a housing platform demanded a moratorium on evictions and securing shelter for everyone that is supposed to “stay at home”. Some promises were made concerning evictions and employment security, but no concrete measures have yet been taken. While hoteliers, restaurant, and bar owners can already apply for state assistance, no concrete measures have been implemented for particularly high-risk workers (such as medical, transport, and retail).
On top of this, several government announcements have made it clear that the pandemic will cause the reintroduction of some austerity measures that might especially harm those in the lowest paying jobs.