On March 13, Europe became the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. This statement was made by Director General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus. These days in many European countries we are witnessing the spread of a virus that is impacting our lives and public services.
We have become worried about personal space, self-preserved and anxious. Free movement within a borderless Europe already seems like a memory. Despite harsh criticism of Donald Trump’s travel ban by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, EU governments decided to impose their own travel restrictions. Slovakia, Malta, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland, and more recently Germany all announced border closures as part of their strategy to restrict the spread of coronavirus. The EU response has been characterised by a lack of solidarity among member states. Germany and France imposed limits on the export of protective medical equipment, while China has sent an expert team and medical supplies to Italy and Spain.
With shops and businesses at a standstill, only a few countries like Germany, Italy or Spain have so far promised measures, including moratoria on tax and mortgage payments. With public expenditure increasing, if banks do not receive payments or the government does not receive tax revenue this may lead to a liquidity crisis. In other countries, the government has closed businesses without announcing actions to support them, what may lead to harmful economic and social consequences. In addition, panic buying has swept grocery stores across Europe despite appeals for responsible shopping. This affects most the frail and older people who cannot get what they need.
There have been attempts to ensure the most vulnerable receive help at home. In England and Wales, teams of volunteers have been mobilised to collect and drop off groceries and essentials and offer emotional support over the phone to people in isolation, relieving some of the pressure on public services.
The social care sector is particularly vulnerable to this crisis, with many frail and older people dependent on care workers who could be forced to stay at home in large numbers. While national authorities claim to have contingency plans, there does not seem to be evidence of these plans including social care. The sector needs detailed advice about staff planning in the event of large population numbers becoming sick or self-isolating, specifically on how people would be cared for in their own homes.
“Home care services are key. If there are a lot of domiciliary care workers off ill, this will be a big problem. People who need that care will not be getting support, they won’t get fed, and they won’t get washed or toileted” has warned Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England.
Governments have emphasised the policy of ‘social distancing’, but one cannot always maintain distance between staff and people using care and social services. Furthermore, unlike the national health service, the social care sector is more fragmented, with a range of large and small local providers and a lack of national command and control mechanism.
In Spain, AESTE, the association of large dependency services providers, has warned of the risk of collapse and claimed the need of appropriate resources to care for the elderly in care homes, domiciliary care, and telecare. This warning came after the Spanish government declared the state of emergency in the whole country, which meant care providers are facing an extraordinary challenge together with the lack of care supplies.
"We request the Spanish government to provide means to regional governments so that they can distribute supplies to care homes and domiciliary care teams. If provision does not take place in the coming days, the social care system may collapse and the older people we are now caring for may need to be referred to the already overcrowded emergency services at hospitals” said Jesus Cubero, Secretary General of AESTE.
The role of social care and social services in this crisis is crucial to support older people in care homes and through domiciliary care teams in their own homes, which in turn will help to free up beds in hospitals. Regional and local authorities with responsibility in social care and social services have warned that they do not have sufficient resources. Hence, ensuring that governments provide professionals with the necessary supplies to perform their duties is key to ensure that the most vulnerable are cared for at home and health and social care services function in an integrated fashion.
Alfonso Lara Montero, Chief Executive Officer at European Social Network