Has the global pandemic made our societies more inclusive?

The global pandemic brought the world economy to its knees and there is no question that its impact will be felt for many years to come. But are societies more socially inclusive because of their experience with COVID-19?

To find out, the European Training Foundation (ETF) and Eurofound harnessed the power of social media to survey people in the EU’s 27 member states and 10 EU neighbouring countries, namely: Albania, Georgia, Jordan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Moldova, Morocco, North Macedonia, Palestine and Tunisia. The survey was carried out in April 2022. In December 2022, the results were published in a report entitled Living, working and COVID-19 in the European Union and 10 EU neighbouring countries.

The methodology and findings of this report took centre stage during a Learning Connects livestream called Inclusive societies: Are we a step closer? and held on Tuesday, 17 January 2023 at 3pm (CET). The host, Maria Lvova Zolotarevskaya, a Communication Officer at the ETF, facilitated an open and informative discussion with ETF experts, Cristina Mereuta, Iwona Ganko and Doriana Monteleone. Viewers tuned in from Albania, England, Egypt, Georgia, France, Palestine, Serbia, Spain, Yemen and the United States.

The study’s conclusions confirmed the multi-faceted nature of the pandemic’s impact on overall well-being in the population sampled. For example, in EU neighbouring countries, 75% of 18-44-year-olds run the risk of developing depression. These results are cause for concern because they negatively affect the young and the active population who are the backbone of our economies.

The survey also revealed that 81% of EU neighbourhing countries experienced financial difficulties during the pandemic compared to 48% in EU countries.

Housing insecurity for people with families also increased. In EU neighbouring countries, three out of ten respondents with children reported housing insecurity. This vulnerability will leave future generations at a disadvantage as they go through the educational system and enter the labour force.

According to Mereuta, the results demonstrate that the pandemic has 'tested an individual’s capacity for resilience'. The two-year-long event was a 'moment of reckoning in terms of social inclusion because we realised we needed each other'. To understand the medium-term and immediate effects of the health crisis, most countries and most international and European organisations have had to change how they collect data. The survey is a good example of how to pivot to more innovative methods in data gathering to better shape policy measures that take into account lessons learned from the global pandemic

While lockdown accelerated the digital transition allowing large swathes of the labour force to switch to remote working and students to remote learning, it also highlighted the fact that access to digital tools is not ubiquitous. Moreover, for many, working from home was not a possibility.

The survey underscores this inequality with 70% of respondents in EU neighbouring countries reporting a lack of sufficient access to education and training programmes; in the EU, the number is 36%.

Indeed, lack of access to digital tools increases the digital divide. Monteleone pointed out that for marginalised groups, it was not feasible from a technical standpoint to participate in remote working or learning. Furthermore, online learning works best for people who are already motivated and have good habits. Finally, some of the greatest losses in education took place in vocational education and training, and work-based learning since these contexts require a hands-on approach, which was obviously not possible during lockdown.

With these conclusions, how can we say that the global pandemic has made our societies more inclusive? Monteleone, Mereuta and Ganko all agree that the pandemic did not lead to more social inclusion, but it brought the issue to policymakers’ attention. The pandemic demonstrated that a lack of social inclusion and cohesion weakens the economy and there is data to back up this assertion.

'Now we know that we need to develop systems and tools to improve inclusiveness levels,' says Monteleone.

With data collection methods and tools like such as this survey, policy makers will have the right information, from the right sources to make the right decisions.

In this first edition of the survey, the ETF-Eurofound team brought together 18,000 responses from all over the EU and the EU neighbouring countries. Despite the large sample size, they noted built-in biases in the sample surveyed due to the absence of 65+ and low to middle-educated respondents.

They were able to correct for this lack of representation by weighting the relevant data. Using social media to conduct the survey made it possible to obtain a large sample size very quickly and produce the report in less than a year, cutting the time it would usually take in half.

Carrying out this exercise regularly will make it possible for trends to be identified and comparisons to be made. To this end, a second survey is in the pipeline. The regions covered will include Ukraine, the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership, North Africa and the Middle East. Providing policymakers with a snapshot of the situation will allow them to be agile in their response to fallout from the health crisis that has weakened human capital globally. The ETF’s role in this endeavour is to help rebuild the skills and knowledge that have been lost in the EU neighbouring countries and beyond. This survey is a step in the right direction. 

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