Social services now have a unique opportunity to benefit from the resources deployed to offset the harmful effects of the pandemic. Still, they need to make sure they are relevant to the finance authorities who distribute these funds.
As we begin to observe that the worst part of the pandemic may have passed, it is time to think about how our societies should prepare to deal with future crises. One of them is already here. We must prepare to address the social impact of the pandemic and, at the same time, improve our capacity to respond to possible future crises. Faced with this scenario, this means building and transforming future public social services.
As we have become increasingly familiar with the health effects of the pandemic, no one questions that we should strengthen our health systems. However, we have been speaking much less about the social impact of this crisis, and when we do, we usually think of adverse effects on the economy or employment. Indeed, we are aware that the economic and employment impact of the pandemic has been significantly more negative in sectors characterised by lower wages, qualifications, and stability. This adverse effect on the labour market mainly affects workers who were already more vulnerable, like migrants or people with disabilities. The widespread use of furlough schemes and the implementation of minimum income schemes across our countries have been crucial to offset some of these developments, which otherwise would have led to a more significant increase in inequalities. Yet, they will not mitigate them entirely.
It would be a mistake to limit the social impacts of this crisis just to the labour market. Many people and families are not effectively integrated with our societies and suffer from isolation, loneliness, the technology gap, violence at home, mental illness, or disability. In addition to an increase in inequalities, the social consequences of Covid-19 have exacerbated an already pressing issue before the pandemic: the care crisis.
The care crisis refers to the cracks in the traditional model of care for broad sectors of the population, like older people, people with disabilities, or children. The continued off-loading of the cost of care onto the shoulders of underpaid and unpaid realms of society, combined with marketisation, has led to a debate on how to reframe the model of care within the broader social policy context. Current reflections on care homes should not focus on the staff ratio or their transformation into mini hospitals as the only option. This might lead to more institutionalisation and segregation of residents. Instead, the debate should look at ways to keep people in their own homes within their networks and communities and in coordinating health and social systems to guarantee people’s quality of life wherever they want to live
In this context, the Recovery Plan for Europe and national plans are intended to help repair the economic and social damage caused by the pandemic. Indeed, one of the most feared effects of the pandemic is that as economic differences increase between European countries, so do inequalities. The EU Recovery Fund has been designed to address this impact by promoting policy reforms in green and digital transformations, whether supporting renewables or improving digital literacy. In May last year, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, declared that “The budget of the European Union is the engine of the recovery plan for Europe”. A plan that states the need to undertake a double transition for the future of Europe: green and digital. However, the change will not be effective if it is not also social.
The far-reaching effects of this pandemic are clear and will require a deep recovery. Social services face several challenges, and one of them is how to make themselves relevant to the finance authorities who distribute the funds so that they can benefit from these financial opportunities to create the conditions to address inequalities and improve social cohesion. This means dealing with service silos, measuring outcomes, engaging citizens, and providing the evidence about what works, whether it be in child protection, mental health, or for people with Alzheimers.