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Learn lessons of Covid crisis in Europe, say Christian charities

12 June 2020

‘We must emerge stronger from this time of sickness’

PA

Worshippers gather for morning mass at the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg, Brussels, on Monday

Worshippers gather for morning mass at the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg, Brussels, on Monday

AS PLACES of worship reopen on the Continent (News, 22 May), Christian groups are urging governments to learn lessons from the Covid-19 crisis by introducing reforms to help the poorest and most vulnerable.

“Though we all assumed it would be business as usual once this pandemic was over, it seems real initiatives are now being considered,” the policy and advocacy officer for Caritas-Europa, Peter Verhaeghe, explained. The organisation has member charities in 46 countries.

“It’s affected a very large group of people, both workers and self-employed, who thought they’d never need help but now find themselves counting on wider society. I think this is changing attitudes.”

Mr Verhaeghe spoke after joining others in backing the introduction of a universal basic wage, or income, one of several ideas for a post-coronavirus Europe which is now gaining support from church leaders. He said that in-work poverty had already risen sharply, spurring demands for regulated wages, sick pay, and pensions rights, and was certain to intensify in the wake of the pandemic.

Another Christian aid worker said that her organisation was also demanding change in recognition of “inequalities and fragilities” highlighted by Covid-19.

“Momentum is building for deeper reflection,” said Josianne Gauthier, the secretary-general of Catholic International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity (CIDSE), the umbrella organisation for 17 Roman Catholic development agencies. “There’s wide agreement across religious and political divisions that we must emerge stronger from this time of sickness.

“It’s the lower paid, those once invisible beneath the system, who’ve kept everything going during this crisis. Giving them the same rights as everyone else is a question of justice, but also of economic logic.”

Support for measures to ensure acceptable living standards has been growing in Europe, where poverty-proof income schemes were advocated in the Council of Europe’s 1961 European Social Charter, and the European Union’s 2017 Pillar of Social Rights, but have never been universally implemented.

Among fresh appeals at the beginning of this month, the European Christian Environmental Network said that the pandemic had highlighted the need for “just and sustainable systems”, and urged all denominations to pray and act for an “integral relationship between the earth and ecological, economic, social, and political ways of living”.

Eurodiaconia, a network of 52 mainly Protestant Churches and organisations in 32 countries, warned of “severe economic and social consequences” unless gaps in post-pandemic planning were not “quickly addressed” by EU member states.

The network’s report said that social services were already under pressure, and that huge numbers were facing unemployment, poverty, and exclusion, and called for an EU task force to ensure immediate investment in education, training, social protection, and healthcare.

The Roman Catholic peace movement Pax Christi International said that the coronavirus had exposed “intrinsically interconnected expressions of systemic violence, including economic injustice, ecological destruction, militarism, and racism”. A “deep global transformation” would be needed after the pandemic.

Several Christian groups have joined a new EU Alliance for Investing in Children, which last week quoted EU Commission forecasts of a deep economic recession, and called for “ambitious measures” to help the 110 million people, a quarter of them children, already facing poverty before the crisis.

Calls for wider systemic change have also come from member-denominations of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, including the Evangelical Church in Germany, whose president, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, has called for a “fresh start” in Church and society.

In April, a Conference of European Churches working group similarly urged its members to work for “a humane, socially conscious Europe”. Roman Catholic organisations have also spoken out.

After the many Covid-19 deaths in care homes, the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community warned against a “selective health system” that prioritised the young and fit, in an appeal launched at the end of April. Its signatories include the US economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs and the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas.

Twenty Jesuit provinces in Europe have similarly demanded “radical change”, including the reassignment of military budgets to health, social care, and support for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Presenting the EU’s recovery plan on 27 May, under which €750 billion is to be raised from capital markets for needy member-states, the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, predicted that the project would “kick-start European recovery” by “harnessing the full potential of the EU budget”. Some countries, however, including the Netherlands and Sweden, have insisted that the funds should be disbursed as loans only — an option that, specialists say, will necessitate drastic new austerity measures in the poorest countries.

This has prompted fresh warnings from COMECE, the Brussels-based commission representing the EU’s Roman Catholic bishops, which urged EU leaders last week to “return to the track of solidarity” after the “total breakdown” in co-operation during the coronavirus crisis.

If the pandemic had highlighted humanity’s dependence on a “heavily fragile eco-system”, it had also revealed the importance of “sound public infrastructures and services”, including measures to curb corruption, ensure fairer taxation, and uphold “ecological, social and contributive justice”, said the group, which is headed by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Archbishop of Luxembourg.

“The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences have hit the EU unexpectedly and brutally — exposing our vulnerability to public-health crises, as well as the EU’s weaknesses in times of crisis.

“We cannot just rebuild our old models and re-establish our embedded habits, but should seize this moment as an opportunity to work for radical change and reinforce our efforts towards integral development and innovative thinking.”

In a Pentecost letter to priests, Pope Francis described Covid-19 as an “invisible, silent, expansive, and viral presence” that had overturned priorities and “seemingly irremovable global agendas”. He urged Christians everywhere to “start building new communities” with a “realistic and creative imagination”.

Mr Verhaeghe believes that the new emphasis on “active work for the common good”, in which resources are provided to give everyone access to basic rights and necessities for a “dignified life”, could begin to yield results.

Ms Gauthie agrees. Although governments and institutions would be fearful of radical undertakings, she said, what mattered now was to “scale up the conversation”, introducing values, ideals, and objectives that had been played down in previous discussions.

“Of course, some proposals may never gain universal acceptance — but, if we start reshaping the narrative, a lot of Christians will offer support.

“Every time figures like the Pope have talked about an economy which serves people, rather than vice versa, it’s caused division. But we won’t come up with alternative models unless we first talk about them.”

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