The COVID-19 Diaries: How are We Finding the Connections & Managing Disrupted Routines?

FROM: Sven Dominković, Anesa Hadžić , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 27. April 2020

Staying optimistic in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic may seem difficult when we think about the scope of the impacts: now and in the future. This is especially true in countries like Bosnia & Herzegovina where the governance system and collective action are creating a ‘crisis within a crisis’. Yet, we’re searching for and finding our ways to adapt and continue – shifting to new modalities, evaluating new ideas, or putting extra efforts. So, the pandemic isn’t about less work, but more intensified and different ways of doing things. In the process, we’re learning two key things: first, the future of work is increasingly becoming a thing we do, not a place we go to. And second, at the local level – in the municipalities and surrounding areas where we live – our perceptions are also changing. We’ve started appreciating things that we had taken for granted before the pandemic.

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A multilayer political system…. Complex political structures…. Disagreeing and mistrusting political elites…. Lack of quick and clear decisions…. What else?!  

Without exaggerating or being an alarmist, these are some of the facts of the governance system that the international community imposed on Bosnia & Herzegovina right after the war in the 1990s.

Feeling isolated? Not at all. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bosnia & Herzegovina aren’t much different from other countries in the world. Of course, the lockdown is stricter compared to some countries. Most services are closed. People under 18 and above 65 cannot leave their houses. And no movement of people is allowed between 8 pm and 5 am.

Add the pandemic to the above complex institutional and political landscape and it then becomes more disruptive and devastating.

So, how are we adapting and finding our ways in such a situation?      

Unfolding impacts, emerging opportunities

The restrictions have affected the whole country and many people started to work from home. Of course, this applies to those who are having formal employment. Some had to accept a lower salary for the same work. The ‘unluckiest’ ones lost their job immediately – more than 7,000 people and counting. Small and micro enterprises are out of business. Recovery after the pandemic, if any, is going to be an overwhelming task.

The impact is severe on the disadvantaged who rely on daily wages. With a weak social system, limited unemployment benefits, or lack of ‘short-time work’ or ‘reduced working time’ (Kurzarbeit) system, families are struggling to earn just enough to pay for daily necessities.

At the personal level, too, the impacts are recognizable. We’re development practitioners living and working in the country. We work for an initiative called Moja Budućnost[1]. With the lockdown, we all decided to work from home. Our two offices, one in the capital city Sarajevo and another in Mostar, 130 kilometers south of Sarajevo, were our hubs for managing public and private partnerships and discussing and generating ideas.

Few of our partners have substantially scaled down their activities, while most have shifted to different ways of working. Schools and universities are closed. Thus, certain training programs that would lead to direct employment are suspended or moved to online formats.

Before the pandemic hit, we practiced how to learn and change course when things don’t work. You may call this one way of doing adaptive management. It’s helping us a lot to continue with interventions in the best possible way. We’re shifting to new modalities, evaluating new ideas, or putting extra efforts to ensure regular implementation of current activities.

The daily number of calls and emails has increased. Our partners became more demanding in terms of adjusting the implementation of activities. Most contracts, budgets, timelines need to be adjusted. So, the pandemic isn’t about less work, but more intensified and different ways of doing things.  

But everybody is trying to get used to the ‘new normal’. Vocational education and training schools, in-company training, and research activities are now being organized online, wherever possible. Primary schools, for example, started to use TV-channels for general education, and universities profited quickly from newly established e-learning platforms and websites.

Our implementing partners are offering online training programs that are responding to the current needs of private sector enterprises. The benefits are especially a lot for young people living in remote and rural areas. Public Employment Agencies with whom we work with also provide Motivation Training online, which is accessible to a much broader audience.

There is a silver lining to the pandemic. Such initiatives offer additional opportunities for unemployed young people. Although relevant digital solutions cannot replace the ‘personal touch’ when meeting in-person, they are surely reducing the travel costs and the amount of air pollution. They’re allowing us to increase our efficiency and accessibility to additional beneficiaries (in an affordable manner).

What have we learned?

The routines and patterns that we were used to before the pandemic – for our personal and professional life – are now different and will most likely remain different after the pandemic. Yet, such routines and patterns don’t exist in isolation from the systems that support or prevent them.

Here’s what we mean by this.

First, at the national level, in addition to the strict lockdown, the talk in Bosnia & Herzegovina is all about which country is helping and what kind of aid is being offered. Media outlets are broadcasting blaring daily news about the help coming from the US, Turkey, Russia, the EU….

It’s increasingly becoming difficult to sift through useful information – especially about basic services and updates about measures taken by the authorities. This is creating more confusion about what comes next. It undermines public trust at a time when this is so badly needed.

Second, at the local level – in the municipalities and surrounding areas where we live – our perceptions are also changing. We’ve started appreciating things that we had taken for granted before the pandemic. We’re buying locally made food and other things. Our eggs and vegetables come from the neighboring farmers and even fish from around the corner.

Before the pandemic, we used to rush to the nearby supermarket next to our office to buy things which are mostly imported. Our changing consumption behaviors may contribute to a healthy life and work, which, in turn, also support smallholder farmers and local family businesses.

For sure, we’re working longer hours now than ever before. It was easier to pack up and unplug at the end of a long workday. Now, we aren’t running to beat traffic or make the next bus. Yet, productivity has increased among the team, even though working from home also creates additional family burdens.

For us, the future of work is increasingly becoming a thing we do, not a place we go to. Perhaps COVID-19 could permanently shift working patterns. This calls for increased investment in the resilience of the public and private sector and civil society organizations. It also means supporting community well-being by embracing virtual collaboration tools and practices. Surveys targeting millennials confirm the importance of work-life balance and flexibility, besides financial benefits and opportunities to progress.

Such a vision rightly fits the work of Moja Budućnost, which means ‘My Future’ – that is, the future of young generations to have the skills and opportunities for decent and productive work.

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[1] Moja Budućnost (‘My Future’) is a project of Medicor Foundation and Hilti Foundation from Liechtenstein. It is implemented by Helvetas.

Sven Dominković, Project Manager of Moja Buducnost Project in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Sven worked many years in the Swiss Finance Industry and gained Marketing experiences in different international enterprises in Germany, before joining Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, shifting to the world of development work and then moving to Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2018. Sven has an academic background in Economy, Business Administration and Balkan studies from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia. His current interests are in economies of education and particularly in education systems of the Western Balkans.
Anesa Hadžić is the Monitoring & Results Measurement and Communications Manager at the Moja Budućnost project. She joined the Team just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project focuses on reducing the gap between the supply of and the demand for skills in Bosnia & Herzegovina, by establishing new or better training programs in VET-Schools and companies, and by exploring/providing new (self-) employment opportunities to youth. The project profits from her comprehensive experiences in monitoring and evaluation of USAID project in Bosnia & Herzegovina, as well as in different researches of the private sectors` labor market.
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies