Lately | COVID-19

Pandemic, earthquake and more surveillance

Croatian response most stringent compared to number of confirmed cases.

By - 16.04.2020

The “evergreen” issues usually dominating Croatian society — such as revisionism or bickering over World War II — have been pushed aside ever since the spread of the coronavirus has sent the number of infected people soaring.

A tweet that seems to perfectly encapsulate the change brought about in previous weeks reads: “I can’t wait for us to get back to our usual Ustaše vs. Partisans discussion so that everything can be normal again.”

The government started rolling out precautionary measures in late January, and both preventive and restrictive measures have been increasing in number on a daily basis.

More restrictive measures began to be introduced on March 9, when the government recommended against holding assemblies with more than 1,000 people. According to another such decision, all foreign citizens coming from one of the epicenters of the outbreak (parts of China, Italy and South Korea) are to remain in quarantine for 14 days following their arrival in Croatia.

In the meantime, kindergartens, schools and universities have been closed, followed by bars, cafés, restaurants and shops that don’t sell essential products. 

Stores and pharmacies are open only until 5 p.m., while the authorities have called on people in Croatia to maintain social distancing, urging them not to assemble in groups. The measure advising against gatherings with more than 1,000 people has been replaced by a ban on assemblies of more than two people, unless it involves family members.

Press conferences by the Civil Defence Corps crisis teams — where journalists and the wider public are updated on the number of new infections, recoveries and deaths — have become a daily routine for everyone.

The “Stay Home” slogan is displayed in the corner of television screens regardless of the program, and different brands have been quick to incorporate the same message in their advertisements.

Big earthquake

The first case of COVID-19 in Croatia was confirmed on February 25. Just prior to testing positive, the man in question had returned from Milan, after which he displayed mild symptoms of the disease. From then on, the number of confirmed cases has been increasing, though not exponentially, so the healthcare system is not overburdened.

As elsewhere, the most vulnerable group, which has seen a higher rate of fatalities than others, has been the elderly, especially those with underlying chronic diseases. 

A study shows that the current measures in Croatia are among the “most stringent” in the world when compared to the number of confirmed cases.

On April 2, Croatia passed the bleak milestone of 1,000 confirmed cases. As of April 16, 1,791 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Croatia, 35 people have died, 529 recovered and 31 placed on ventilators, while a total of 20,157 people have been tested.

It is a widely held opinion that Croatia “is faring well,” the government having set itself to prevent the spread of the virus much earlier on — and far more intently — when compared to many other more developed countries.

However, a University of Oxford study shows that the current measures in Croatia are among the “most stringent” outbreak responses in the world when compared to the number of confirmed cases, even though no curfew has been introduced to date. People in Croatia are therefore still allowed to move within the limits of the municipality in which they live.

The nation is frequently addressed by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković as well as by government ministers who push forward measures for “saving the economy and workplaces” in this time of pandemic.

In early April, the government announced its decision to set aside funds from the state budget so as to finance 400,000 workers whose employers have requested grants in order to save their workplaces. Meanwhile, it was decided that employers would not be required to pay their obligatory contributions, with no postponements being involved.

In spite of these measures, what worries the public at large are long term prospects in a country whose main sector is tourism — its direct and indirect contribution to GDP amounts to 16.9%. The public debt is also expected to rise, including unemployment rates.

Then, on the morning of March 22, the carefully planned measures aimed at preventing the spread of the disease were put in jeopardy by an earthquake that struck the Zagreb area.

Half an hour after the initial 5.5 magnitude quake, there was a 5.0 magnitude aftershock. Another 200 aftershocks ensued in the following five days, although of much lower intensity.

The collapse of a building in the city center saw a 15-year-old seriously injured — she died in hospital the following day. About 20 people escaped with minor injuries, while more than 60 buildings were affected, particularly those in the inner city area.

One of Zagreb’s landmarks, the Cathedral, lost its south spire. General damage assessment is still ongoing.

Numerous people also lost their homes, which prompted them to look for temporary shelter. On the night the first earthquake hit, thousands left their homes and quit self-isolation, being forced to bypass the measure providing that the physical distance between two people should always be kept at 1.5 meters.

Fearing another series of earthquakes, numerous people left Zagreb that day, heading toward their holiday homes or hometowns, despite the government warning that these actions could help the coronavirus to spread to other parts of the country.

The day after the earthquake, the authorities prohibited citizens from leaving their permanent residences without a special pass that can be obtained for work, medical and other emergency purposes only.

The police have reiterated that any person seen violating lockdown orders should be reported by witnesses.

The passes can be obtained online. However, this approach has been reported to be largely impractical since there are cases where a person needs a pass to reach a supermarket located only a few kilometers away from their home, but in a different administrative unit.

Moreover, for many elderly people less accustomed to using the internet — or for those who do not have access to the internet — producing an electronic pass proves to be a major obstacle.

Meanwhile, the police have reiterated that any person seen violating lockdown orders should be reported by witnesses. Police patrol units are also performing ID checks in the streets, roads and at town or city entry/exit points around the country.

First offenders can be fined 8,000 kunas (about 1,050 euros), while repeat offenders are facing fines that could amount to as much as staggering 120,000 kunas (about 15,700 euros). 

Growing fears of freedom restrictions

One of the most worrying developments for many Croatians is proposed changes to the Law on Electronic Communication, which would enable mobile phone users’ locations to be monitored for the purpose of epidemic containment or public health protection.

Different protective measures are already in place across the world; in mid-March, Israel began monitoring mobile phones belonging to Israeli citizens suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. On 23 March, the Argentinian government announced that everyone entering the country is obliged to install an application through which the authorities will be able to check whether the person is complying with mandatory two-week self-isolation.

South Korea developed a readily available application allowing users to track the location of infected persons using a map.

Mobile phone surveillance would be carried out with the aim of controlling whether people are abiding by isolation requirements.

As life in China is slowly but surely returning to normal, it is now mandatory for Chinese people to have software tracking their health status on their phones. Each person is assigned “a color” corresponding to their current state — yellow for those who should be in isolation, red for those who should be quarantined — that can be scanned by a member of the police or any other official at any given moment.

Fact-checking non profit website Faktograf reports that the Government of Croatia has proposed that the Law should include a provision stating that “location data processing is allowed by way of derogation for the purpose of national and/or public safety protection.”

In line with this provision, public communication network providers would have to share mobile phone location data with the state government; mobile phone surveillance would be carried out with the aim of controlling whether people are abiding by isolation requirements.

Đorđe Gardašević, an assistant professor teaching in the Constitutional Law Department at Zagreb University’s Faculty of Law, says that such a law would need some legal safeguards.

“Bearing in mind that such a law infringes upon human rights and freedoms — the right to privacy primarily being at stake — it requires a two-thirds majority to pass in the Parliament,” Gadašević says in a telephone interview. 

“This means that there ought to be a wider consensus on how this provision should be implemented and what is the reasoning behind it. Furthermore, such a provision must have a time limit, because — even if it might be appropriate in an emergency situation like this — it is certainly not appropriate in a democratic society in a time of peace.”

According to the Croatian Constitution, the changes to the law could not be passed by simple majority nor fast-tracked. Gardašević also explains that multiple amendments have been put forward, which would regulate and impose a time limit on the implementation of the aforementioned measures.

Civil society groups warn that such measures could lead to a breakdown of trust in government and that they are “dangerous and downright ineffective.”

“It has been proposed that the provision should not apply to everyone, but only to people who have a self-isolation order, i.e. to those who might be in a position to infect other people by leaving self-isolation,” he says, adding that another proposal has been to introduce some sort of system that would allow for parliamentary monitoring of the implementation.

“Additionally, one of the amendments involves the government formally notifying a person that these measures [would] apply to if they were to be implemented,” he says.

Civil society groups have issued a joint response to the government’s proposed changes, warning that measures like this could lead to a breakdown of trust in government and that they are, essentially, “dangerous and downright ineffective.”

Their response also mentions an apparent attempt by the prime minister to have the parliament’s powers handed over to the government.

In a meeting with the representatives of parliamentary groups held on March 16, PM Plenković brought up a proposal suggesting that the parliament should authorize the government to pass laws. Parliamentary group representatives turned down the offer.

Gardašević says that such a procedure is not even foreseen by the Constitution.

“In case where the parliament is no longer able to convene, which could happen very easily given the current circumstances — if, for example, MPs are unable to attend sessions due to illness — the Croatian Constitution provides that the legislative function of the parliament should be assumed by the president of the republic, who passes so-called ‘emergency decrees’ instead of laws,” he explains.

The president and the government would thereby become joint legislators for the duration of the emergency.

As of April 16, the parliament continues to hold regular sessions, while the proposed changes to the Law on Electronic Communication have not yet been passed. Rather, they have been sent for a second reading in the parliament on April 7.K

Feature image: Jelena Prtorić.