One year after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 global pandemic, Europe is still grappling with lockdowns, restrictions and the resulting socioeconomic fallout.
When lockdown measures were first introduced a year ago, millions of Europeans joined together to clap for workers on the frontline of the pandemic – nurses, carers, doctors, firefighters – who kept our societies functioning. Today the situation is fundamentally different.
In many ways, the world is now much better equipped to fight the pandemic. Large scale testing facilities and prevention measures have been introduced across Europe, and medical professionals have developed better treatment methods. Scientists have a greater understanding of the transmission, immunology, and variations of the virus, and have even managed to develop an effective vaccine in record time.
Achievements have been made at a political level too. The EU managed to agree on a far-reaching recovery package and establish a new fiscal capacity. Intervention from the European Central Bank enabled the EU to circumvent another sovereign debt crisis, and furlough and short time working models have limited the impact on the European labour market.
Yet the sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ which helped people through the first wave is dwindling as cases remain high and new variants of the virus emerge. Despite all the progress, the toll of the virus on lives, well-being and society is devastating.
As the pandemic goes on, social and health inequalities are exacerbated. The virus disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Quarantine measures are harder felt by people living in smaller spaces, and far lower-income workers have lost their jobs or had their working time reduced. It is perhaps not surprising then that people have lost the sense of unity – we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
Unprecedented but not unforeseen
When the pandemic was first announced, national leaders were quick to blame their actions, or inaction, on the unprecedented nature of the crisis. Of course, neither politicians nor anyone else has ever had to deal with a situation like this before. But that does not mean the pandemic was unforeseen, nor is it an excuse for the total lack of preparedness.
The long-standing shortage of health workers made it particularly hard for public health systems to absorb the shock of the pandemic. In the UK for example, the government spent around £220m on building new Nightingale hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients, but months later, the majority remain empty as there are simply not enough staff to run them.
The European Commission’s 2020 annual report on skill shortages and surpluses found that 22 of the 27 EU member states have a shortage of health care professionals including doctors, nurses, and health care assistants. Staff shortages meant that there was already a high level of burnout before outbreak of the pandemic, when health workers suddenly found themselves on the frontline of what many described as being like a warzone.
The care sector was especially hard hit in the first wave. The World Health Organisation indicated that half of the deaths related to COVID-19 in Europe in the first wave occurred in residential care and support services, but this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), the most representative trade union federation in the care sector in Europe, has demanded an investigation by the European Parliament into the failures in managing the crisis in the sector in order to understand how so many preventable deaths occurred and prevent this tragedy from repeating itself.
State of play one year on
The most significant breakthrough in the last year has been the development of various vaccines, which politicians are hailing as beginning of the end. However, experts are cautious to limit expectations. Even without the vaccine supply issues which have arisen in the EU, the need for testing facilities and possible restrictions will last well beyond 2022.
The impact of the vaccine in the fight against the pandemic has so far been minimal. Lockdown measures are still necessary and there is a risk that new more transmissible variants will cause yet another spike in Europe. Health systems remain under acute pressure, increasing the strain on staff, and decreasing the capacity for patient care. This is hardest felt by those working in Intensive Care Units, who must make impossible decisions about which patients have the best chance of survival. Some health workers already being treated for post-traumatic stress, and this will only increase as time goes on. The impact of burnout and trauma among workers in health and care may last decades.
Whilst some health and care workers may have appreciated the regular applause from the public at the beginning of the first wave, the fact that they are still understaffed and woefully underpaid a year later is simply unacceptable. Healthcare workers are not heroes who volunteered for the frontline of an enduring battle. They are mostly low-paid and under-valued workers who have been abandoned time and time again by governments who applaud them one day and then refuse to give them a pay raise the next.
The vast majority of frontline workers are women. In the health and social work sector in Europe for example, 80% are female. But the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women is not limited to the fact that more are risking their lives and well-being to fight the virus. Women are also more vulnerable to the negative socioeconomic impacts. In the EU, 30% of women work part-time, as opposed to only 8% of men. In response to the pandemic therefore they are more likely to have taken on informal care roles such as home schooling and care for elderly relatives. This is likely to continue even as things open again. In previous crises, women’s employment has recovered much more slowly than men’s when economies pick up.
Evidence suggests that young people are also suffering more from the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. Youth generally work more in the sectors which have been hardest hit, including hospitality, retail and tourism. They are also more likely to have been on temporary or zero-hour contracts before the pandemic, and therefore the first to have lost their jobs. If the 2008 crisis is an indicator of what is to come, young people, especially those just out of education, will struggle the most in terms of employment in the coming years.
Applying the lessons from the last year
The pandemic has caused enormous challenges for everyone, but it has also created a moment to stop and reflect upon the significant weaknesses of a system that priotitises profit over people, and an opportunity to build back better. If one thing can be learned from the last year, it is that we cannot go back to the pre-pandemic world.
Many aspects of the European recovery package seem to acknowledge the errors of the last decade. Although the €750 billion agreed upon for the recovery fund is not enough, it is considerably better than the EU’s austerity-driven response to the 2008 financial crisis. To build back better, the funds need to be allocated so as to shape a new, fairer, greener and more social economy. The funds should therefore be attached to conditionalities on democracy, workers’ rights, and the environment.
Investment into public services can no longer be portrayed as an expense to society. To recover from the long term socio-economic effects of the crisis, significant funding is needed for social protection systems, municipalities and other public services, and for the workers they depend on. This is especially important to limit the impact on youth and women, who have been disproportionately affected.
To build back better, it is necessary to ensure that the funds are not only invested in creating jobs, but in creating quality jobs. Recovery plans must be developed with the full involvement of trade unions, so workers’ interests are protected. Europe’s public service trade unions will continue fighting for labour market equality, better working conditions, more public investment and tax justice, to ensure a more sustainable and just future. It is crucial that in the recovery from what is set to be the worst ever economic crisis, workers, communities and our planet are prioritised over the profits of the few.
Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary of EPSU