The Post-COVID Recovery: Why are we no longer talking about Social Services?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Andrew Dickie is Senior Communications Officer at Eurodiaconia.

As much as I hate to contribute towards the abandonment issues of a kitchen utensil, there’s a pot in my cupboard covered in dents that I can no longer use. Why? Because, just like you, I spent countless nights at the beginning of the pandemic standing on the front steps of my apartment in Ixelles bashing a spatula against it whilst cheering in public support of our frontline health care and social service workers.

A lot has happened since those initial months and I don’t intend on spending any time recapping, as we’ve all lived through it. Yet, looking back on those first days and weeks – it’s a bitter-sweet memory.

On the one hand it acts as a sombre reminder that as many of us were safe and working from home, there were thousands upon thousands of health care and social service professionals working tirelessly around the clock, and much to the detriment of their own wellbeing, to keep us safe during one of the most challenging crises that many of us will experience in our lifetimes.

And on the other hand, it’s a wonderful reminder of the power of community spirit – where for just a moment every evening around 8 o’clock, we’d join our voices, pots and hands together to celebrate and champion those vital services and professionals who were keeping us safe.

It’s true to state that before the pandemic, many of us undervalued our social service providers and that they were underfunded and underrepresented in local, regional and national policies – despite 10% of the total EU workforce being employed in the social service sector.

But COVID-19 brought an opportunity to reverse this mentality as we were exposed to and relied upon the invaluable contributions of those on the frontline. Whether it was the health care professionals delivering lifesaving medical care to our friends and family or social service workers showing up for our elderly and vulnerable relatives when we were unable to or the staff delivering additional educational support during school closures – alongside working to relieve digital poverty – we are indebted to their support.

How then can it be, after 19-months of round-the-clock work, our health care and social service professionals and the services they provide still be understaffed, underrepresented and undervalued?

At Eurodiaconia, we were just one of the many social and health care service NGOs listening closely to the President of the European Commission’s State of the Union last month.

Over the past year and a half, we have watched our members go above and beyond to respond to the never-ending series of crises this pandemic has presented, and we have looked on in absolute awe at their innovation and determination to protect our most vulnerable communities – often with little access to government support and resources.

It has been these services that have prevented many people in vulnerable situations from falling further into extreme poverty. And it is these services that will continue long after this crisis – in supporting the elderly, assisting migrants in integrating into our societies, providing solutions and assistance to people experiencing homelessness and in providing food, accommodation and additional help to families unable to make ends meet.

Therefore, there was a lot hanging on Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union as it presented the perfect opportunity to showcase our newfound and collective respect of our social and health care sector and to layout in detail a roadmap to increase funding and to advance legislation which safeguards and protects these vital services.

Indeed, the Commission is taking steps in the right direction. For example, at Eurodiaconia we have been advocating for a Care Guarantee that assures quality, affordable and accessible care for when it is needed and we were encouraged by the Commission’s announcement of a new European Care Strategy which aims to support carers and those receiving care.

Additionally, we welcomed the reaffirmation of the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan and the Recovery and Resilience Facility as we truly believe that an ambitious and robust implementation of the principles of the Social Pillar will lead to a fairer social Europe for all.

However, there’s no denying that in order to ensure a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic for the most vulnerable in our society – these actions cannot and must not exist in isolation.

Addressing poverty and social exclusion in Europe, which starts with safeguarding and protecting our vital social and health care services, requires political and institutional commitments that are ambitious and consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals and integrated into all other policies.

The Commission’s flagship growth strategy, the European Green Deal, is another example. Indeed, the strategy is robust and aims to ensure a just transition based on improving the well-being and health of citizens and future generations across the EU.

Yet, the climate emergency is already disproportionately impacting people in the most vulnerable situations and the Commission’s strategy offers little to no assurance that those already experiencing poverty and social exclusion do not pay the price for the green transition.

At Eurodiaconia, we’ve been advocating for the Commission to ensure that Europe has a Green and Social Deal – where policies and strategies aimed at boosting our economy and creating a greener and more sustainable Europe are intertwined with protecting the most vulnerable communities and preventing them from being left behind.

Back in March 2020, we came to our doorsteps to champion our health care and social services because we all needed them. We recognised and celebrated their value because for many of us, it was the first time that we needed to rely on them.

As we move towards a post-COVID agenda, let’s not lose that momentum. If we want to create a fairer Europe that leaves no one behind, then that starts with making sure that our social and health care sectors and professionals are well-paid, valued, respected and recognised in local, regional and national legislation and strategies.

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