Covid-19 hit societies in Europe already rendered frail by austerity. Investment in public services and their workers is essential if they are to recover and thrive.
It has been a year since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. As Europe and the rest of the world still battle against the coronavirus, this has changed almost every aspect of daily lives. Terms such as ‘social distancing’, which seemed novel in March 2020, are now familiar. Twelve months on from the first lockdowns, the International Labour Organization estimates that 93 per cent of the world’s workers are living in countries with some form of workplace closure measures.
As in any crisis, the pandemic has magnified the strengths and weaknesses of our societies. In Europe, it has exposed the fragility of public-health systems and their lack of capacity to respond to such a shock. This should not come as a surprise.
Public services in Europe have been severely weakened by a decade of austerity and budget cuts. Staff shortages, underfunding and inadequate resources meant that, long before the outbreak, public health and long-term care were stretched thin. When the first wave hit, health systems and care homes were inevitably overwhelmed and many preventable deaths occurred.
That it should take such a global watershed to make the case for well-funded public services is a sad reflection on our neoliberal era. But the last year has done exactly that: this critical moment in history has made our total reliance on public services, and the workers who deliver them, an undeniable fact. The drawbacks of privatisation and cuts have been revealed and the need to revalue the public sector broadly recognised. If one thing is clear, it is that we cannot go back to the pre-pandemic world: we must build back better.
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Over the last year, substantial—in some cases unprecedented—initiatives have been taken to tackle the economic and social side-effects of the crisis. The fact that such policies have been adopted and implemented, at short notice, shows what is possible if governments are willing to take radical action. To build back better, these short-term initiatives must however be converted into long-term policy changes, which transform the funding and provision of public services, end inequality and exploitation, and ensure a just transition to tackle climate change.
The priority should of course be to strengthen public-health systems and care facilities. Despite the development of vaccines and widespread social restrictions, Europe’s health systems remain under acute pressure, due to the relentless pressure of cases and the emergence of new variants. This is hardest felt by those working in intensive care units, who in many cases have had to make unenviable decisions about which patients have the best chance of survival.
Most health and care workers had not imagined signing up for this and the impact on their own mental as well as physical health has been severe. Across Europe, several thousand have died from the virus, with many more infected. On top, some are already being treated for post-traumatic stress and this will only become more prevalent. Many have warned of a secondary ‘epidemic’ of trauma among health and care workers, which could last for decades.
Stronger public-health systems are needed to cope not only with the continuing high incidence of Covid-19 cases and burnout amongst staff but also the huge backlog of other patients not treated over the last year. Pay rises, better working conditions, increased staffing and enhanced support for health and care workers will all be needed, including to catch up with postponed treatments.
Collective bargaining and full involvement of public-service trade unions will be key to improving conditions in health and social care. In the short term this may involve special bonuses for long hours in high-risk environments. But in a longer-term perspective a fundamental revaluation of jobs is needed across the sectors, especially for the mostly female and often precarious workers in care.
The pandemic has made clear the dangers of commodifying health and care. A recent report from the Corporate Europe Observatory shows how outsourcing and private provision of healthcare significantly degraded EU member states’ capacity to deal effectively with Covid-19. A cross-country analysis by the United Nations Development Programme on the effect of healthcare privatisation on Covid-19 also found that a ‘10% increase in private health expenditure relates to a 4.3% increase in Covid-19 cases and a 4.9% increase in Covid-19 related mortality’. Strengthening public-health systems thus also means putting a stop to privatisation in health and social care.
Others on the frontline
Let us not however forget that other public services have also been on the frontline. Energy workers have kept hospitals and other important infrastructure operating, despite the limited capacity and lack of co-ordination of energy systems caused by their marketisation. In many countries, childcare workers have continued to look after the children of hospital workers, so that they can save lives. From waste and water to social security and employment, public-service workers have been crucial in the continued functioning of our societies and in dealing with the socio-economic fallout from lockdown measures.
Their roles will only become more important as we recover from the economic crisis. More investment is essential to guarantee the availability of services—access to welfare, housing, water, energy and education—as well as their quality and to shore up the finances of the cities and other municipalities which often supply them. It will also be needed to satisfy the unique role the public sector has to play in rebuilding more resilient societies, from the circular economy to green transport systems to clean public infrastructure.
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In many countries, these services and the workers who provide them were significantly affected by the austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis, and their contribution to society has been undervalued for many years. These mistakes cannot be repeated.
Europe’s public-service unions will continue to oppose such frugality, which undermines the realisation of human rights. As with health and social care, the priority should be proper public funding for quality services and quality jobs, rather than budget squeezes, privatisation or reliance on public-private partnerships—which, as a growing body of research shows, do not deliver better services.
This unprecedented health crisis shows that the European Union must consider (re)acquiring control over certain sectors which guarantee European citizens’ security, such as pharmaceuticals or the production of personal protective equipment. It should also reconsider establishing European competences in health, beyond those of member states, to respond to pandemics in the EU and in third countries. The shortcomings revealed during the crisis underline that a large part of the EU recovery fund must be allocated to investment in public services, which represent the universal values underpinning the union.
As European public-service union leaders, we shall be fighting with many others for labour-market equality, better working conditions and more public investment. Along with a growing movement, we stand for tax justice, to ensure corporations pay their fair share and to reverse growing inequality. It is crucial that in the recovery from what is set to be the worst ever global economic shock, workers, communities and our planet come first—not the profits of the few.
Mette Nord is president of the Norwegian trade union Fagforbundet and president of the European Federation of Public Service Unions. Jan Willem Goudriaan has been general secretary of the EPSU since 2014.