human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

At Caritas Germany, COVID-19 is taking its toll…

but also allowing for a great show of pragmatism

The COVID-19 outbreak means that nothing is the same for Caritas in Germany these days. It puts the entire organisation under an enormous strain. At the same time, it allows for an impressive show of inventiveness and flexibility, as thousands of employees and volunteers come up with new, sometimes unconventional ways of helping others.

Like other Caritas organisations all over the world, we are struggling to keep offering the necessary help to people in need. Being a major actor in the German healthcare and elderly care system, we are also at the forefront of the fight against the virus itself. Employees at Caritas hospitals and at our 3,000 elderly people’s homes are working under extremely difficult conditions to contain the spread of the disease. Like others in Europe, the facilities are in dire need of more protection gear and masks. This is currently our number-one concern. Most especially, elderly people’s homes, facilities for people with handicaps, and services offering at-home care for the elderly are not being allotted enough equipment by the German regional states (which are in charge of the distribution). This means that both patients and staff are at tremendous risk of catching the disease. And in fact, even though Germany as a country is, as of today (7 April), still less affected than Italy, Spain or France, there have been cases in several Caritas facilities, with both patients and employees affected. There have been casualties, too, and we expect the number to rise in the weeks to come.

In the facilities themselves, the pressure on staff is huge. But all the people I have talked to report a strong solidarity within teams, a sense of being in this together, and a determination to continue caring for people as best as can be.

This dedication is a common theme to all Caritas services right now. Apart from hospitals and care homes, most other Caritas facilities and services have had to close down to comply with social distancing rules, be it childcare facilities, counselling services for families, for people with addiction or migrants, homeless shelters, and so on. At the same time, their help is needed more than ever as the pandemic and its consequences hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

As soon as the lockdown measures were announced, Caritas associations all over the country started setting up alternatives, devising innovative ways of getting the help out there. Regular soup kitchens can’t open up for business? Caritas in Munich has rented out food trucks and is handing out meals, in Saerbeck near Muenster volunteers are delivering food packages to people’s homes (for those who have one). Counselling appointments can’t take place? Counsellors make themselves available on the phone or, as has happened in some places, in the open – weather permitting and provided the two parties are no closer than 1.5 meters from each other. In and around Fulda, in central Germany, Caritas employees with office jobs are giving a hand providing virtual homework assistance to pupils being home-schooled. Over the past few weeks our online counselling services, which have been around for a while, have trained hundreds of new counsellors on short notice. The list could go on and on. It displays the pragmatism, inventiveness and commitment of management, staff and volunteers. Several hundred thousand volunteers help out at Caritas and they, too, have had to reinvent the way they interact with people in need. Mentors for refugees have switched to messaging and talking on the phone, even sending letters with the mail, instead of meeting with their mentees, for instance. Many volunteers at Caritas are elderly and therefore at risk of catching the disease – in many places they are now the ones getting support from younger people, sometimes even from the people they usually help, in a show of ‘reverse solidarity’.

An important aspect of our work at the national federation is political work to ensure that our facilities and services survive the crisis and stand ready to assist people when life gets back to ‘normal’. We expect that the needs for assistance will be huge: family conflict will be exacerbated by the lockdown, the unavoidable recession will take its toll on households with low income, and isolation will leave its mark too. We need to make sure that our services are still around to cater for these needs, even though most of them are unable to generate any revenue at the moment. Thankfully, the German government has acted swiftly and pledged financial support for most social services. That way, we will be able to ‘see a need and act on it’ after the crisis – true to our motto.