COVID-19 - the next steps? Socio-economic consequences and lessons for the future

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KU Leuven presents 7 reports that scrutinise various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic

What are the socio-economic and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to control it? What lessons can we draw from this crisis, especially with regard to policy, governance, the organisation of health care and inclusion? To answer these questions, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. Researchers from different fields at KU Leuven formed a Metaforum working group to study and evaluate different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study resulted in seven reports which will be presented to the public on 9 November 2021.

Solidarity in times of pandemic

Two of the seven reports cover solidarity in our society during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a specific focus on vulnerable groups. "A rise in solidarity was visible during the first wave of corona crisis, but we wondered to what extent this solidarity reached everyone," explains Professor Erik Schokkaert. "Moreover, the question remains whether anything has actually changed in the solidarity systems and whether help can be provided more rapidly and in a targeted manner in the future, to those who need it."

The first part of the study shows that socially vulnerable groups were affected to a greater extent by the COVID-19 pandemic, both socio-economically and psychologically. The study surveyed their experience of solidarity. "The results show that socially vulnerable people received less help than before the corona crisis, both from their close environment and from persons or initiatives outside their own network. As a result, they were also less able to offer support to those close to them. Access to government services was also often limited," reveals Professor Karen Phalet. "We can conclude from this that socially vulnerable groups are harder hit and have a smaller safety net in times of crisis. Consequently, there is a need for a targeted strategy that empowers individuals by strengthening solidarity networks so that they are more resilient, even in difficult times."

A second report highlights the importance of social workers. They are, as it were, the voice of groups that all too often go unheard. "Various emergency measures offered solutions for ’the majority’, but overlooked the fact that not everyone has the same resources," explains Professor Karel Arnaut. Examples include seasonal workers or student workers who suddenly lost their jobs but could not fall back on temporary unemployment benefits. But also the large-scale switch to digital consultations with service providers where it is too often assumed that everyone has the same digital proficiency and access. "Our study report has brought to light the fact that COVID-19 is not an acute crisis, but for many is part of a chronic story."

Hospital access for elderly COVID-19 patients

There has been much debate regarding the transfer, or not, of sick residents of residential care centres to hospitals. These people may have been refused entry or were unable to receive appropriate care due to an overcrowded COVID ward or intensive care. Nevertheless, in the context of this short-term project, it could not be demonstrated that COVID patients were denied access to hospitals. The perception that there was a system of triage is due to suggestive reporting and insufficient consultation between policy makers and residential care facilities. "In particular, negative words and imagery, and the use of incendiary language, made the situation worse than it actually was," concludes Professor Anja Declercq. "Rarely was the full picture presented or positive aspects highlighted."

Of course, the media cannot take all the blame in this regard. Confusion and unclear arrangements often result in things not being communicated accurately to the general public. That is why it is important to ensure effective communication, so that everyone knows what the expectations are and how to fulfil them. "We can draw three important conclusions from our study. First, the importance of effective training to prepare caregivers for unexpected situations. Secondly, when a crisis occurs, the need for round-the-table discussions with all parties involved. And finally, framing can be remedied by giving the parties involved - in this case residents of residential care centres - the opportunity to have their say. They can talk about how they have experienced the situation, and this will often be more positive than expected when management, experts or politicians take the floor", Declercq concludes.

The seven short term research projects

  • Coronalert: Lessons Learned from Digital Proximity Tracing: a study of the effectiveness of the contact tracing app Coronalert - Professor Bart Preneel
  • Precarity and Solidarity in Times of Pandemic: Surveying Invisible Groups & Engaging Unheard Voices: A double study of the impact of the pandemic on groups that remain invisible in traditional surveys and on mutual solidarity, with empirical research on a number of vulnerable groups on the one hand and interviews with social workers who share their experiences from practice on the other - Professor Karen Phalet & Professor Karel Arnaut
  • COVID-19 and Mental Health: Clinical and Public Health Reflections: an empirical analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the incidence of mental disorders - professor Ronny Bruffaerts
  • COVID-19 in Residential Care Homes: Have Residents Been Denied Access to Hospital?: a study of the flow of residents from residential care centres with COVID-19 to hospitals during the pandemic, and of the role of the media in public perception of this - professor Anja Declercq
  • The Role of the World Health Organization in the COVID-19 Pandemic: a critical reflection on the way the World Health Organisation functioned during the pandemic, with 24 recommendations for improvement - professor Jan Wouters
  • A Dashboard for the Evaluation of COVID-19 Policies: a way to assess COVID-19 policies according to multiple dimensions, for a broad assessment of their impact on different groups - professor Siegfried Dewitte

Read the summaries of the different research projects

Nena Testelmans, Translated by N.N.

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