A mass online survey across the continent has found Europeans reeling from the coronavirus crisis—and losing trust in their leaders’ ability to manage it.
The impact of Covid-19 continues to create chaos in people’s lives across Europe and the world. The economy is heading towards another major dip and a general insecurity pervades. The daunting challenges confronting health services and the anticipated long-term impacts of the crisis dominate the public sphere—and with good reason.
But how is the pandemic actually affecting us all? How are Europe’s citizens experiencing this crisis, beyond the drama of illness and death and the anxiety about the economy? Using a short online questionnaire, Eurofound has collected the experiences of more than 60,000 citizens across all European Union member states, weighting their replies to reflect the structure of the EU population.
The results show a Europe grappling to respond to the crisis, with many respondents reporting reduced wellbeing and optimism, growing insecurity and increasing financial difficulties, coupled with job loss and a dramatic decrease in working time. It’s a stark picture of stress and distress across the EU. But subtle transformations also emerge among the striking and shocking statistics.
The daily hike in unemployment is evident—and 6 per cent of our respondents have lost their jobs as a consequence of this crisis. But the survey highlights its much wider ramifications for the labour market: some 23 per cent report having lost contracts or jobs temporarily and 50 per cent say they are working reduced hours.
Telework has protected some from the worst possible eventualities and ICT-enabled working has allowed many to cope much better than they would have imagined. Of the respondents, 37 per cent report having started to telework as a response to this crisis, compared with around 17 per cent who did so at least occasionally before. This suggests a durable shift.
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But the toll this enforced homeworking can take should not be underestimated. Traditional shortcomings are becoming more evident, with work-life balance issues ratcheting upwards and one in five (22 per cent) who live with children under age 12 reporting difficulties in concentrating on their job, compared with just 5 per cent of households with no children and 7 per cent with children aged 12-17. The shift towards working from home is further eroding the ever-thinning boundary between work and home, exacerbating tensions around the ‘right to disconnect’.
Not all sectors or indeed occupations are suitable for this form of work. Nor are the situations of some individuals conducive—for whom such difficulties as housing quality, extra caring responsibilities or lack of a support network rule it out. Furthermore, not all workers, companies or regions can rely on the availability of appropriate equipment and infrastructure.
The pandemic has hit households’ financial security: 38 per cent of respondents report that their financial situation has deteriorated and over half (56 per cent) say their savings are not sufficient to cover their needs beyond three months. This is particularly severe for self-employed and unemployed workers, who report much higher arrears than average on mortgage payments, rent and utility bills.
The implications are intensely personal and immediate. Average life satisfaction has dropped to 6.3 points (on a scale of 1 to 10) from 7.0 in 2016, when it was measured by Eurofound’s European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS). Happiness has fallen from 7.4 to 6.4 points. Optimism is also declining, while mental wellbeing has taken a sharp shock and is alarmingly low in some countries, such as France and Italy.
As in previous crises, young people are more affected in some areas: 20 per cent report having lost their jobs as a consequence of the crisis, compared with 6 per cent of all respondents. One in five reports feeling lonely, compared with just one in 20 when youth were surveyed in 2016 by the EQLS. Their psychological health is suffering too: they score lower on mental wellbeing than other age groups, and more report feeling downhearted and depressed.
Governments and institutions have raced to adapt and to assist the economy and the most vulnerable in different ways. The EU has been at pains to try to arrive at a coherent, co-ordinated response and follow-up plan of action. But trust is at a premium.
Unsurprisingly, respondents report highest trust in those on the front line of the crisis, such as healthcare services and the police. In contrast, trust in national governments and the EU appears to have declined—to 4.8 and 4.6, respectively, on a 1-10 scale—following a boost to trust in the aftermath of the recovery from the economic crisis. Trust in the media is equally low.
These figures should be of particular concern to the EU. Lower trust in the union than in national governments is unusual and probably unjustified in many ways. Large-scale, unprecedented measures have been implemented; rapid and far-reaching decisions have been taken in a very short time. But still, it appears that the EU has been found wanting in some quarters, perhaps fuelled by the perceived lack of unity among member states, as well as the slow pace of decision-making by the European Council on a supranational problem which requires rapid, united action.
Wherever the responsibility truly lies for the fall-off in trust, the impact on the individual is stark, particularly in some member states. The situation in France, for example, is of serious concern: reduced trust is accompanied by particularly low levels of life satisfaction, happiness, mental wellbeing and optimism, while close to 60 per cent of French respondents report insufficient savings to manage without an income for three months. Italy, another founding member of the European Communities, is not much better. Especially alarming perhaps is the slump in trust among the traditionally strong supporters of the EU project, such as Spain, which now appears in the bottom ranks—registering the fourth lowest level of trust, just above France, Czechia and Greece.
These findings reflect the initial response of Europeans reeling from yet another economic and existential shock. But the results are a timely alarm-bell for all of us, as we try to manage the recovery of a shell-shocked economy and to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. It is imperative that policy-makers join forces: working together in the face of a supranational calamity such as this is the only solution.
Europeans are telling us they can accept nothing else.
Juan Menéndez-Valdés is the director of Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Prior to assuming the position in 2010, he was the head of employment, immigration, education and training policies at the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organisation (CEOE) and programme manager for guidance and training at the Spanish National Institute for Employment (INEM).