A room in the Veternik Institution for children and adults with disabilities where 540 persons, including children with disabilities live. Up to eight people live in one room. © 2015 Emina Ćerimović for Human Rights Watch

Serbia has taken a positive step to better protect people from Covid-19 by agreeing to release data on the total number of Covid-19 infections and deaths inside social care institutions. People inside institutions are some of the most at-risk during the pandemic.

The Institute of Public Health of Serbia’s pledge, which it made July 31, followed the release of a joint open letter by Human Rights Watch and five other nonprofit organizations.

This is no small step.

Based on government figures for 2019, more than 14,512 adults and children, including people with disabilities, live in state-run residential institutions. Some people with disabilities have lived in institutions their entire lives.

Six months into the pandemic, evidence from around the world indicates that Covid-19 spreads rapidly among people living in closed settings, where they are at a higher risk from infections, complications, and death. Such reports have emerged from Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, among other countries.

Because our previous research on Serbia’s institutions showed neglect and overcrowding, we reached out to the Serbian government in early April to ask, among others, what steps it 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.

Since the pandemic’s beginning, the government has been publishing daily data on the number of infected people who live in these institutions, and since end of April, it has also been publishing data on the total number of institutionalized people who have recovered. It is unclear why it has not yet released the total number of infections and deaths. Until now, we still do not know how many people who live in social care institutions have died.

The key is to make sure Serbia releases this data and that other countries do so too.

An important component of effectively addressing the Covid-19 pandemic is understanding the scale and circumstances of infections and deaths. Collecting clear and comprehensive data is necessary to inform government policy, decision-making, and response. Releasing this data helps the wider public understand the impact of the outbreak on social care institutions.

But more importantly, the risk of the pandemic for those who are institutionalized should be a wake-up call for all governments to end the practice of institutionalizing people with disabilities, and to ensure they can live independently in their communities as equals.