Coronavirus: Vulnerable groups at risk of shouldering burden of crisis, warns EU civil society network

Published on The Parliament Magazine, 28 April 2020

The world is currently held under the dark cloud cast by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of the rising death toll and lockdowns – both social and economic – there is one clear beacon of light in the darkness: extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness carried out by individuals, communities and frontline workers.

Whether this is in the form of a shop worker helping an older person with their groceries, or the outpouring of gratitude for our health services, these demonstrations of solidarity will be as well remembered as the losses.

But what must also be remembered is that people in vulnerable situations will need the support of society and government not just now, but also in the long-term.

This is why it is vital that the actions taken by EU and national leaders are inclusive. The policies put in place to fight the after effects of this crisis must guarantee that no one is left behind.

This would include groups at heightened risk of poverty, social exclusion and discrimination such as children, youths, older people, women, people with disabilities, the LGBTIQ community, homeless people, migrants and refugees, and ethnic and religious minorities.

These people in vulnerable situations were hardest hit by the raft of austerity measures introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, with the number of people at risk of experiencing poverty and social exclusion peaking at 24.8 per cent of the population in 2012.

Latest figures show that this had declined to 21.7 per cent by 2018 – still some 109.2 million people.

Unless stark lessons are learnt from the past, these groups will once again shoulder the burden of EU and national economic and social policies that put profit-making before the rights, wellbeing and dignity of people.

Socially inclusive and sustainable policies to fight the current worsening crisis must be the basis for long-term changes which build more resilient societies that can better face crises in the future.

Many Social Platform members are already doing their part to ensure that solidarity and justice are upheld during this crisis – particularly for the most vulnerable in society.

For example, within the network Volonteurope, of which I am Secretary-General, we have numerous member organisations, whose volunteers are working hard to reduce social isolation and loneliness of the most hard-hit, vulnerable community members, while keeping safe.

Social Platform’s membership has a comprehensive understanding of social realities on the ground, most of whom have direct experience of building inclusive societies in practice and can demonstrate what is possible.

This is why it is so important that civil society organisations are meaningfully involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of measures to tackle this crisis.

Social Platform has already released a statement that will form the basis of our work on the crisis going forward, identifying certain areas where it is already clear that improvements to existing policies and practices can, and should, be taken.

For example, services require greater long-term investment to ensure they are available, affordable, accessible and of quality for all who need them, for as long as they are required.

The European Commission should accelerate its work on adequate minimum income in order to improve the level of benefits available, including through a framework directive on minimum income to lift people out of poverty and prevent new groups affected by this crisis from falling into poverty.

In terms of economic governance, the relaxed restrictive measures of the Stability and Growth Pact should remain permanently to allow Member States to put in place effective social protection systems; a strong foundation upon which we build inclusive, sustainable and more resilient societies.

And in the field of funding, the EU should ensure that its new Corona Response Investment Initiative supports the continuity of social service provision across the EU– including that conducted by some 100,000 not-for-profit organisations.

These are just a handful of the steps required if the EU is to have any chance of recovering from this previously unfathomable crisis.

Whatever leaders decide, they must ensure that human rights are upheld in all Member States: access to health care, social care and social protection must not be compromised by discrimination on any grounds.

Never has the EU relied so heavily on its founding principle of solidarity. Only a community response with a clear focus on protecting people in vulnerable situations and shifting towards socio-economic justice will secure the EU’s collective recovery.