“You could see what was coming… and it was like your worst nightmare. Because you felt like, oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Eileen Chubb, who runs the charity, Compassion in Care, describing her horror last March as Europe’s care homes were ravaged by COVID. News bulletins reported residents abandoned to fend for themselves and workers forced to continue their jobs without proper protection. And all the while, the death rate among residents climbed higher and higher.
Chubb says the situation that unfurled when COVID reached the UK was “horrendous” but, for her, sadly not surprising. For years, she has campaigned on the behalf of elderly people, who she says are “treated as separate citizens in this country, but [with] less rights”.
The picture across Europe was not a pretty one. It is no coincidence that in February, the International Long-Term Care Policy Network estimated that 41% of COVID deaths in Europe were care home residents. “It went through care homes like a fire,” says Chubb, recalling receiving calls from terrified staff in care homes in Spain and Italy.
Both Spain and Italy, along with Belgium and the UK, have since been accused in reports by Amnesty International of being in violation of human rights and residents’ right to health, as well as abandoning old people to die, citing structural problems, underfunding and under-staffing as reasons.
In 2020, an OECD study raised concerns about structural problems in elderly care and concluded that there was “insufficient staffing, poor job quality and insufficient skills, all of which have a toll on quality of care and safety.” When COVID came, says Chubb, “we saw it in motion”.
Against the backdrop of an ageing population and increasing life expectancy, governments across Europe are struggling to find ways to care for people in their final years. Peter Folkman, British venture capitalist and Honorary Professor at Manchester Business School, explains that elderly care “is expensive, and [governments] don’t want to do it; they do it, but there’s not enough money”.
This has been the case for decades. Referred to in the UK’s Griffiths report back in the 1980s as “a poor relation; everybody’s distant relative but nobody’s baby”, how to fund social care is a question that governments Europe-wide are reluctant to confront.