We are in the midst of a social emergency which finds the European Union both silent and inactive.
Every day, thousands of crucial care and support services are closing, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in Europe – those most vulnerable – without the care and support they require to have their basic needs met (support for cleaning, eating, dressing, taking medicine, a home) and to remain physically and mentally active (rehabilitation, counselling, therapy, etc). This is not a small minority but millions of persons with disabilities, older persons, homeless persons and others being left without the professional support they need. Huge pressure is placed on their caregivers (often families, generally women) -when available- who are already struggling to meet their own well-being needs, including (mental) health, existing family responsibilities, work and financial obligations.
As the recent deaths in care homes in Spain show, real lives are at stake and not due to the direct consequences of the coronavirus but because of a failure of policy-makers to sufficiently support care providers and workers across the continent. Whilst the health, economic and jobs-related aspects of the crisis are being tackled head-on, the social care sector is being left behind; with dire consequences on those who benefit from such services.
So, why is this happening?
The primary issue for the closure of the services is no or less funding, where the care services are no longer fulfilling to the letter the activities included in their contracts with public authorities. This is also the case in the use of the European Social Fund (ESF), which represents the lifeline of the sector in many areas of Europe.
There is a very good reason for this: social services are having to rapidly adapt their services to the current situation: re-focusing the organisations to deal with the essential needs of their beneficiaries with more significant support needs. They have quickly adapted their work processes (telecare, online therapy, delivery of food & medicine, prioritising face-to-face support where needed most, etc) and bought new products (personal protective equipment, technology, etc) to fit their urgent needs.
Pre-existing funding opportunities, including ESF, have also been delayed, resulting in cuts to the budgets of social services. Another issue is the failure of many public authorities to include the not-for-profit social service providers in the economic measures they are providing to other businesses; an issue appearing to be particularly problematic in central and eastern Europe.
Around 80% of the expenditure of most social service providers is spent on their workforce; in other words, on the 11 million care professionals in Europe. Cutting off funding to social services is cutting off the wages to front-line care workers; it is hindering the purchasing of key protective equipment; it is blocking care and support to those who need it most.
Ursula von der Leyen recently said “I want to pay tribute to the women and men leading that fight. I think of the nurses, doctors and care workers in Italy, Spain and across Europe who ran towards the fire without any second thought. The heroes who are putting everything on the line, every hour of the day, to save our parents, to save our grandparents, friends and colleagues, neighbours and strangers. Europe owes you all a debt of gratitude.”
No one can disagree, yet these are words easily said. It is now time to show it, with practical actions.
The EU has taken important steps, for businesses, jobs and on health, yet it has gone missing on the social emergency and the needs of millions of people who require care and the professionals who support them. The Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative will nearly entirely go to healthcare and businesses. The other economic measures also provide little reassurance for assistance to social care provision.
We need a strong, coordinated and detailed European response to the social impact of the coronavirus, clearly asking for immediate and additional measures to ensure the continuity of social care and support services in Europe, with guaranteed financial support and the sufficient provision of protective equipment for care workers.
EU funds must be freed up to target the current and urgent needs of social service providers, not the outdated realities of six months ago. Targeted guidance to public authorities, including on the effective use of ESF in this context and the exchange of promising practices is also crucial to effectively deal with this emergency.
For the sake of solidarity, as well as its image, the European Union cannot ignore this social crisis any longer.
We don’t owe care workers a debt, we owe them urgent support.