We should learn from the past: The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the most vulnerable
Contribution from Stefan Kitzmann, Policy Officer, Eurodiaconia
The Corona crisis continues to have a devastating affect on all of us and presents us with major challenges. Whilst much action has already been taken to strengthen health care provision and to protect the economy, there remain significant gaps in the actions taken by the European Union and Member States. If these gaps are not addressed quickly and in a comprehensive way, we will face severe economic and social consequences that might have a greater negative impact than those following the financial crisis in 2008. We must avoid the mistakes made in the past and this time ensure social investment and the protection of the most vulnerable in our societies is guaranteed. Of course it is important to focus on the elderly in the current situation and awareness has been raised for that, however, it is also essential to stress the effects of COVID-19 on different vulnerable groups at risk such as homeless, people living with debt, children, (undocumented) migrants/refugees/asylum seekers, Roma, people with disabilities or people experiencing mental health issues and others – they must not be forgotten. Those who find themselves on the margins on our society are disproportionately at risk.
Thus, how does the recent COVID-19 outbreak affect the most vulnerable, including precarious workers? This particular question and possible answers will continue to drive us at Eurodiaconia and our membership for a very long time and this contribution can only be starting point for further discussions.
Founded in the Christian faith and working in the tradition of diaconal service, Eurodiaconia is a dynamic federation of 51 organisations in 32 European countries providing social and health services. With over 30,000 service centres, approximately 800,000 staff and over a million volunteers around Europe, our members are at the forefront in confronting the impact of COVID-19.
Societal inequalities become cruelly transparent
The crisis reveals once again how income inequality can become a matter of life and death. People in part-time employment (often women), the self-employed, workers in the informal economy and in precarious jobs in general, e.g. migrant workers or platform workers – to name but a few – are particularly affected by the economic and health consequences of Covid-19. In theory, catching the virus means going on sick leave and having access to health services. For the most vulnerable, however, who often have no or only limited access to health insurance, the pandemic can lead to extreme poverty and a higher risk of mortality. The income poor must be classified as a highly vulnerable group in the crisis. As outlined by the ILO, people in precarious work are often ineligible to unemployment benefits or income support and many of them face the same “work or lose your income” dilemma as informal economy workers. Such precarity will not only affect the worker but also any family dependents, including children, therefore opening the gates to a greater social crisis.
The current economic response from the European Commission recognises that high unemployment will be a result of the current crisis. However, the economic response cannot limit itself to protecting SMEs alone. It must look at how social protection systems can be enhanced with increases in not only the coverage of such systems but also the level of benefits provided. It is therefore essential that, alongside the proposals on an Unemployment Reinsurance Scheme Mechanism, work is accelerated on adequate minimum income and that Member States are given guidance on the level of social benefits that will ensure people are able to retain a dignified life.
Eurodiaconia welcomes the recent proposal by the European Commission on the new instrument for Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency called “SURE”. Proposing to set up a €100 billion solidarity instrument to help workers keep their incomes and help businesses stay afloat is a concrete step towards tackling the catastrophic effects of the corona pandemic on the labour market in a spirit of European solidarity. Important is the now outstanding commitment of the Member States to participate, also in the form of guarantees and to guarantee that the money will reach the most vulnerable first.
Policy recommendations to address the social and economic impact of COVID-19
Every day Eurodiaconia and its members see the social, economic, health, emotional and spiritual needs faced by people. Our members have unique view of the challenges on the ground and the emerging needs and trends, and we, therefore, wish to propose the following recommendations to address the current policy gaps.
- The European Commission must provide guidance to Member States on adequacy of income and ensure that social protection schemes are accessible and delivered with the minimum of delay. Work on developing the Adequate Minimum Income Scheme and Unemployment Reinsurance Scheme must be accelerated.
- No Member State should cancel or delay existing social integration programmes as a result of the pandemic and they must ensure that such programmes can restart once isolation measures are no longer necessary.
- The European Union must ensure the sustainability of EU-funded programmes such as work integration services and social inclusion actions beyond the current period as they will need to respond and assist people in a changing economic environment.
- Resources should be provided to Member States to expand the current social and health care workforce through additional permanent and temporary staff to alleviate the physical and mental stress experienced by employees and volunteers and to ensure that social and health care services remain sustainable despite potential staff absence.
- The social impact of this pandemic will require ambitious, sustained and co-ordinated action at European level. We therefore call on the European Commission to establish a task force or similar to analyse the social impact and propose responsive actions using all the legislative, policy and financial tools at the European Union’s disposal. Such a task force should include not-for-profit service providers and other social actors as well as policy makers.
For further information and more policy recommendations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can find Eurodiaconia’s latest publication “Protecting the vulnerable – supporting our people” here.
Eurodiaconia and its members are ready to work with the European Commission and others to ensure that we mitigate as much as possible the social and economic implications of the COVID 19 pandemic. By working together, showing solidarity and responding to the realities on the ground we can make a difference.
We are thankful to CESI and the #noprecariouswork project for reaching out to us and we are looking forward to continuing this partnership – to ensure that people living and working at the margins of society are not left behind in these unusually challenging times.