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Citizens & Experts Talk Future of Europe: How has Social Equality been Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic?

To mark Europe Day – otherwise known as Schuman Day – the European Future Forum (EFF) joined up with Citizens Takeover Europe for a panel discussion as a part of the #EuropeFutureFringe initiative. This Q&A session enabled both experts and citizens to discuss the future of Europe in light of the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic…

Four members of the EFF team, including myself, covered their respective areas of expertise – mine of which was human rights and equality.

The thing is, Europe’s issues related to human rights and equality only seem to have become more apparent as a result of the crisis. Granted, right now our top priority is life and death – and not so-called micro-aggressions – but equality is a life and death issue.

Equality means equal access to vital services – from healthcare to a basic income to the education and opportunities to improve yourself and reach your potential. And our need for these things doesn’t stop during a crisis. Rather, they actually become even more crucial.

Healthcare Inequalities

To start with the most visible issue of healthcare, we can see even between European countries profound inequalities. In my native UK, a country with a shaky recent history in terms of healthcare funding – with it being infamously used as an argument in favour of Brexit by the same conservative government inflicting budget cuts on it for the past decade —the public-funded healthcare system is now really struggling to meet the increasing demands of ventilators and ICU beds. And globally, as we see healthcare services strained like never before — both in terms of limited facilities and the workforce itself losing lives due to the horrors of the disease — we are forced to stare in the face the devastating reality of public funding cuts.

This, of course, only adds to the existing mix of issues — from regional inequalities of service quality, to national inequalities due to the fact that some countries in Europe— such as Belgium and Germany — have an insurance-based health system that may allow the vulnerable seep through the cracks.

Ethnicity Inequalities

There are also ethnicity inequalities lingering in Europe which have curiously come to a head during these times. Sinisterly reflected in death tolls, in many countries, it has become apparent that even though every group is getting the virus, it’s the ethnic minority groups that have the most deaths.

It was somewhat an elephant in the room for the first few weeks of the crisis in the UK – a country whose ethnic minority population is relatively high (and who also has a high proportion of first, second, and third-generation non-European immigrants in the workforce in the public sector) when so many of the faces and names presented on the daily remembrance services, or plastered across the latest feature on COVID-19 casualties, were from the country’s African, Carribbean, and South Asian communities.

So what is going on here?

Of course, the virus attacks the body with no regard for one’s ethnic origins. So this phenomenon is most likely linked to one of the other (just as concerning) topics I will delve into later— namely the social class inequalities that still have worrying and glaring parallels to ethnic background.

Gender Inequalities

As I have discussed previously at length, contrary to what many believe, gender inequalities are still rampant in Europe. And indeed, gender-based issues are also worsened due to the lockdown. For instance, Increased domestic violence where mainly women and children are at increased risk due to the face that they can’t- or at least can’t as often- leave the confines of their home. Since the health and social care services are overwhelmed, they also may struggle to get the support they need.

There is also the issue of gender-based reproductive health care – from accessing necessary contraceptives to pregnancy-related care – these issues simply don’t vanish, no matter what other health-related stories may be making the big splash. There are horror stories from women across Europe – from giving birth in high-risk environments surrounded by masks, to unwanted pregnancies or reproductive health complications going unaddressed due to either a fear of going to a clinic under the current environment, to simply not being able to get access to the already-overwhelmed services.

On the topic, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states:

The COVID-19 pandemic is straining public health systems, triggering unprecedented measures by governments around the world. This crisis could exact a massive toll on women and girls. Women are disproportionally represented in the health and social services sectors, increasing their risk of exposure to the disease. Stress, limited mobility and livelihood disruptions also increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation. And if health systems redirect resources away from sexual and reproductive health services, women’s access to family planning, antenatal care and other critical services could suffer.

Social and Financial Inequalities

As already touched upon, social class issues are also further threatened by the pandemic — and on various fronts. For instance, those who have the means to “stock up” on food supplies — in other words, those who have the money to buy 2–3 weeks’ worth of supplies in one fell swoop — are only clearing the shelves for those who only have the means to buy the supplies needed for a week.

On top of that, lower-paid key workers such as cleaners, maintenance workers, supermarket cashiers, and care workers — unable to work from home due to the nature of their craft — are left with little choice to protect themselves. It’s easy for those working office jobs to preach the self-congratulating benefits of working from home — our complaints limited to bad video-call connections or less-than-ideal working spaces. But until the government forbids those working in your particular field from going to work and reimburses them financially, not everyone can simply #StayAtHome…

Of course, in an ideal world, they would likely prefer to. But if you have a boss instructing you to either come in or lose your job, a small business or contracting service to run that won’t be protected, or play an essential — albeit high-risk — role in the functioning of society such as healthcare of food distribution, then you must either expose yourself to the virus or face the financial repercussions.

Inequality of Opportunities

Similarly, there’s all this talk of distance-learning and homeschooling — as schools, colleges, and universities have closed their doors for the foreseeable… But let’s not forget that some parents or guardians simply don’t have the ability to assist their child’s learning —either because they are working the jobs mentioned previously, or maybe are limited by language barriers or health conditions.

The fact is, some guardians — whether blamelessly or not — simply are not there to support their kids’ learning. As a result, many children and young people are at risk of forgoing education for the time being, and we may see a severe long-term impact of this.

As also touched on in EFF president, Dominik Kirchdorfer‘s coverage of Europe’s ongoing “digital revolution,” and the need to ‘bring education to the 21st century,’ as well as tackle the ‘raging inequalities’ in terms of digitalisation, it’s simply undeniable that technology has become a huge and integral part of our lives. From how we communicate, to how we study and work. It is also becoming increasingly a way to have our voice heard, or connect to services such as local authorities or – especially important right now – educational resources. In the cases where it’s not sown to the parents to step into their child’s teacher’s shoes, the classroom has been taken online. But in homes with no access to the internet or a suitable computer, how is the child supposed to keep up with their peers?

The Bottom Line

Overall, all pre-existing human rights and equality issues are becoming even more apparent due to the pandemic, and we must step up our fight — yes, even (and especially) amidst all the other chaos. The key is the equality of opportunities – from healthcare to education – and an unblinkered awareness of ongoing struggles.

Since we have made real progress in terms of human rights in Europe, As such, we run the risk of thinking that we already have equality. That there are no longer gender, racial or social inequalities. But we must acknowledge, despite the progress, that these problems do still exist — even in your supposedly tolerant or forward-thinking country. And even if you don’t personally feel their pinch…

In fact, in recent years, social liberties have been suffering a strong backlash across Europe, and emerging intolerant ideologies are threatening to turn back the clock. And so, we simply must speak up about ongoing inequalities of all kinds, letting go of the fear of looking “ungrateful”, or like a “snowflake” for apparently not acknowledging what we do have to be thankful for. There is still much room for improvement, as the COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted.

Roxanna Azimy
Roxanna is a British and Iranian advocacy writer specialised in human rights, health, and welfare. With a languages degree from King's College London, a Masters in European Studies from LSE, and an EU communications background, she strives to increase the visibility of ethical and sociocultural issues in Europe and beyond. Twitter: @RoxannaYasmin Medium: @RoxannaAzimy

One Reply to “Citizens & Experts Talk Future of Europe: How has Social Equality been Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic?

  1. Such an important article. Seriously, thank you for your hard work when it comes to bringing attention to inequality and working to change it.

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