Dear chairs and members of the Special Committee on COVID-19,
We are an alliance formed of the representative organisations of older persons, persons with disabilities and workers in the health and social services sector. We highly welcome the establishment of the Special Committee, as it responds to our joint call for EU-level investigative action on the management of COVID-19 in the long-term care sector, a call echoed by 88 MEPs. We wish you the best of success in fulfilling the committee’s mandate and the follow up, calling for a real change in the way the care sector is working and relating to the persons relying on it to maintain their independence, autonomy and health.
In our joint call, we alerted Members of the European Parliament to the impact of the pandemic on persons in need of care and support, including older persons and persons with disabilities, as well as workers in the sector, as they were facing very high rates of infection and fatalities. This resulted from a lack of protective equipment and protocols, the high number of people living in congregated settings, depriotisation of the sector in terms of testing and access to treatment, as well as staff shortages, a lack of sick pay, and overuse of temporary contracts for care staff.
We emphasise that this shows that deaths in the care sector are considered by many as ‘normal’ or ‘unavoidable’. We are extremely concerned that this is linked to persistent prejudices and long- standing, contextual failures, including neglect of the care sector in political and social consideration, under valorisation of care professions, and widespread discriminatory practices towards people in need of care and support. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, such failures led to tens of thousands of preventable deaths.
The lack of disaggregated data on the rate of infections and fatalities in the care sector further demonstrates the extent to which the sector is deprioritised, to which the population at risk are often not taken into account, and the lack of recognition given to the essential role of care workers on the frontline of the pandemic.
The EU and all its Member States are committed to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes a commitment to a transition from institutionalised to community-based support and independent living. EU funding regulations prohibit the EU from funding institutionalisation of persons with disabilities. Unions have been highlighting for a long time the major challenges and breaches of human rights in the sector, linked to continued segregation of persons with care and support needs in institutional care settings, understaffing and poor working conditions, and lack of safety protocols.
The EU has taken unprecedented action since the outbreak of the pandemic, notably in the establishment of the REACT-EU and Recovery and Resilience Facility. Both contain the purpose of strengthening the resilience of the health systems, to which the long-term care sector and support for persons with disabilities should count. The Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030, as well, highlights the access to health necessities and steps to be taken. Much attention has been paid to overcoming the direct effects of the pandemic by strengthening the availability of testing and treatment, as well as the historically rapid development and deployment of vaccines. Now, attention must now shift to integrating health and social care, rebuilding the sector in the longer-term based on respect for the human rights of persons in need of care and support, transitioning from institutional to community based care, and improving the working conditions and recognition of care professionals. We expect the future European Care Strategy to apply new frameworks for this transformation and to ensure collective agreements in the care sector with decent pay and conditions for workers. Well trained and fairly renumerated carers deliver quality care. There cannot be a return to the abnormal and untenable situation of before the pandemic.
European citizens expect of the European Parliament, their only direct representative at EU level, to show concern for what happens to them and the workers who care for them. They expect the Committee to address this blatant, pan-European infringement of their rights, including the rights to life, dignity, independent living, non-discrimination and health enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The mandate of the Special Committee is to assess the ‘health impact of the pandemic, including on the continuity of healthcare and prevention’, the ‘impact on healthcare provision of staff shortages and the availability of medicines and … devices’, on ‘mental health’, ‘on care services, care-home residents, workers, informal carers and their dependants’, ‘the impact on the individual and fundamental rights of vulnerable groups’. While neither home and community- based care and support, nor persons with disabilities or older persons are explicitly mentioned in the mandate, it is evident that they need to be considered as well as care workers.
We therefore call on the Special Committee and all of its members to comprehensively analyse the shortcomings in the care continuum that pre-existed and persist in the care sector. The Committee should develop recommendations to ensure that the rights of persons in need of care and support – including older persons and persons with disabilities – as well as the workers providing care and support, are respected and strengthened.