By Cerys Falvey

The devastation caused by Covid-19 has been felt across communities and the care sector, but perhaps nowhere quite so deeply as in care homes for the elderly. Recent data collated in five different European countries suggests that the mortality rate of those infected in care homes is as high as 42-57%. The effects of underfunding and privatisation are being laid bare.

In Belgium, 90% of care homes have confirmed positive cases and 42% of Covid-related deaths in the country have been in care homes. In France, it’s 45%; 53% in Italy; 54% in Ireland and, in Spain, it’s 57%. These numbers are truly terrifying for anyone living in, or with loved ones living in care homes and brings social care back into the spotlight. 

In Britain, the Conservatives tried to cover this up and initially didn’t include deaths in care homes as part of their official data. Once they were forced to, it was revealed that Britain had the worst death toll in Europe, and the second highest in the world. Statistics from Northern Ireland show a 45% death rate of those infected in care homes, with 232 confirmed Covid-19 related deaths. Almost half of the Covid-linked deaths recorded by the statistics agency, NISRA, occurred in care homes.

One of the main factors threatening the lives of care home residents is the serious struggle on to access PPE and to keep staffing levels safe. The care sector was left with next to no advice or support and had to rely heavily on donations from others, including staff, to obtain enough face masks and PPE. Clearly, universal testing of all care home residents and workers should have been carried out on account of the high death rate amongst the elderly and vulnerable, which would have helped massively in being able to isolate cases and protect other residents and the staff caring for them. These deaths were avoidable and could have been prevented with adequate testing and PPE.

Another major issue threatening care homes’ ability to cope with the virus is the ten years of cuts to our social services. The Department of Health has pledged £6.5 million to assist the care sector, but according to one care worker speaking to the BBC, it is just a “drop in the ocean” in terms of what is actually necessary to secure the safe continuing of care in the community.

This pandemic has laid bare the crisis of capitalism and has raised many important questions, one of the most important being how we will organise social care once this pandemic is over. Firstly, all private care homes should be immediately brought into public ownership, with workers paid a living wage, all cuts reversed and extra funding provided to bring care homes back up to decent standards. We need mass testing for Covid-19, including all care home residents and staff. But we also need to build a society where the care sector is not an afterthought but an indicator of how successful our society is.