Covid-19 and its consequences have set us all up against a multitude of new challenges. This is true on a personal as well as on a professional level. In Austria – as in most other EU-countries – most shops, all restaurants, schools and universities were closed, employees were supposed to work from home if possible and strict social distancing rules were applied. Although these restrictions are currently being revised and lifted step by step, we are still far from what has been regarded as normal before.
All activities of Weisser Ring Austria during the weeks since the beginning of the pandemic were guided by one major goal: to keep our services available to the public. And we managed. This is true for the 24-hour helpline we run as well as for all other services, some of which usually require personal contact.
Under normal circumstances, the services of Weisser Ring Austria exclusively address the needs of victims of crime. Only a small number of contacts centers around other topics. As a consequence of the ongoing crisis, this number increased: people suffering from emotional distress due to social distancing and quarantine called and were of course also taken care of by our experts.
The current situation led to uncertainty on how and when legal proceedings would take place. Although nearly all trials had been postponed, there was still a lot to do for open cases. For example, insight into files was made possible via e-mail. Thus, the colleagues in charge of victim assistance service were busy staying updated on the latest developments concerning their respective cases and guiding their clients through that unsettling time.
In case a victim of crime faces financial problems resulting from the crime, Weisser Ring has two different ways of helping out, which both remained available. A small amount of money or shopping vouchers for food can usually be offered on the spot as emergency aid. To enable such help despite the existing restrictions, we arranged meetings in the office or – as many of the people concerned belong to one of the risk groups and were therefore not supposed to use public transport – a colleague went to see them. If more is needed, for example, help with the rent, a committee has to approve. Usually, this is dealt with in person. For the very first time in the history of Weisser Ring Austria, this meeting could not take place. The members had to come to a decision via the internet, which was a completely new experience for the members of the board.
The team stayed very productive and also very close. To keep up the spirit, a list of ten tips on how to deal with the isolation and what to do with the time at hand was published, aiming to help our own staff as well as the general public. All members of staff were invited to contribute encouraging photos. This resulted in a very lively exchange and a wonderful album on the website as well as on Facebook. Additionally, those answering the 24-hour helpline were invited to contribute to a mutual photo to strengthen the feeling of togetherness.
We also used the time for training and to keep up with recent developments. So we did some research regarding how criminals have been making use of the special circumstances prevailing during the pandemic, and home training was offered. We furthermore added English subtitles to our recently published videos on victims‘ rights. The link to the playlist, for those interested, is here.
To make all this possible, it was necessary to change procedures and organize new resources at very short notice. While it was easily arranged for the 24-hour helpline to be answered from home, as the technical equipment had already existed, other tasks needed more attention. For example, the administrative staff decided to take turns going to the office in order to perform such trivial but essential things as handling the data backup for the whole team or receiving letters and taking care of invoices. Staff meetings were replaced by video conferencing. This also happened for the first time and is something which most likely will be continued on a regular basis.
Since May 4th, it is once again possible to work mainly from the office and to meet clients in person. Legal courts are reopening step by step. We perform victim assistance service wearing nose and mouth protection or face shields and sitting at a distance of at least 1.5 meters from each other to protect our clients and ourselves. Courts have established new rules which serve the same goal. Everybody is adapting to this – once again – changed environment. If we have learnt one thing from the experience of the last few weeks, then it is this: We as a team can weather a crisis well!