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Serbia: Release Covid-19 Data for Institutions

End to Institutional Living, Implement Right to Live in the Community

A room in the Sremčica Home for children and adults with disabilities where 292 persons, including 49 children, with disabilities live. Up to 10 people live in one room.  © 2015 Emina Ćerimović for Human Rights Watch

(Brussels) – Serbia’s government should collect and make public the data on Covid-19 infections and deaths inside institutions for people with disabilities, six organizations for people with disabilities and human rights groups said today in a letter to Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. Understanding the impact of Covid-19 on people in institutions is impossible without transparent and complete data, the groups said.

The Serbian government has not provided clear or comprehensive information about the total number of confirmed cases and deaths inside institutions from Covid-19. The authorities published data indicating that on April 30, 2020, 574 people living in residential care institutions, including those for people with disabilities, were infected. On July 29, the authorities reported that 180 people in such institutions were infected.

“It is not known how many people with disabilities living in institutions across Serbia have died or been infected with Covid-19,” said Milan Šveřepa, director of Inclusion Europe. “For example, we don’t know how many of the 574 people identified as infected on April 30 may have died. This is deeply worrisome.”

Based on government figures for 2019, more than 14.512 adults and children, including people with disabilities, live in state-run institutions. Some people with disabilities have lived in institutions for their entire lives.

Protests erupted in several cities in Serbia on July 10 and the following week, with protesters criticizing the government for, among other things, under-reporting the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths across the country.

The groups sending the letter are Inclusion Europe, the European Network on Independent Living, Validity Foundation, Disability Rights International, Mental Disability Rights Initiative Serbia (MDRI-S), and Human Rights Watch.

Since April, Human Rights Watch and MDRI-S have sent private letters to the government requesting information on, among other issues, what steps the government has taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in residential institutions for both children and adults with disabilities, and on the total number of infections and deaths. The government has not provided the information sought.

“An important part of addressing the Covid-19 pandemic is understanding the scale and circumstances of infections and deaths,” said Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Collecting this data is necessary to inform government policy, decision-making, and response. Publishing this data helps the wider public understand the impact of the outbreak on social care institutions.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided further evidence of the many risks that institutional life poses. Evidence from around the world shows that Covid-19 spreads rapidly and people living in close proximity to others in closed settings are at particularly high risk of infection.

Reports on Covid-19 deaths and infections in residential institutions have emerged from Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, just to name a few. People with certain types of disabilities, such as those affecting respiratory capacity, and older people are at higher risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19 infection.

Releasing clear data on Covid-19 deaths and infections for people with disabilities in institutions would also be a measurable demonstration of Serbia’s commitment to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, the groups said.

People with disabilities living in social care institutions across Serbia are also deprived of the freedom to move and leave institutions or to have family members and others visit. Bans on visits have been in place since March 12, with the exception of June 9 to 29, when the Labor Ministry allowed some visits under very strict circumstances.

“People with disabilities living in social care institutions are more isolated than ever,” said Maša Pavlović, project manager at MDRI-S. “Serbia’s government should ensure that any restrictions on movement and visitor policies balance the protection of people with disabilities and staff inside institutions from the risk of exposure to the coronavirus with their need for family, connection, and the right to liberty.”

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Serbia ratified in 2009, guarantees the right of everyone with a disability to live independently and to be included in the community, regardless of their type of disability or the level of support required. 

“Under the international disability rights treaty, Serbia must respect the right of all people with disabilities to live independently in the community, regardless of their disability, support needs, or age,” said Ines Bulić Cojocariu, deputy director at the European Network on Independent Living. “The government should stop placing people with disabilities in institutions against their will.”

The Serbian government should make a clear plan to phase out institutions, the groups said. The government should also develop services in the community, so that children with disabilities can grow up in families and that people with disabilities can live independently, with adequate support.

“Serbia should stop forcing children and adults with disabilities into institutions,” said Eric Rosenthal, director of Disability Rights International. “The government needs to allocate adequate financial and human resources to support the transition from institutional care to independent living in the community.”

People with disabilities and their representative organizations should be included and effectively consulted in deinstitutionalization plans and Covid-19 response and recovery plans that affect the rights of people with disabilities, the groups said.

“With restrictions on movement and other physical distancing measures in place, Serbia should also make sure community-based services continue for people with disabilities,” said Steven Allen, co-executive director of Validity Foundation. “This includes services for independent living, personal assistance, in-home assistance, family outreach services, and access to therapy and rehabilitation.”

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