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COVID-19 conversations: Digital or face-to-face help?

Interview

In this new series of articles, we interview representatives of different National Red Cross Societies, one pair at a time, to learn more about the impact of COVID-19, and ways forward.

Today we are joined by:

  • Marie-Louise Gotholdt
    Head of National Department, Danish Red Cross
  • Maria Viljanen
    Head of the Welfare and Health Promotion Unit, Finnish Red Cross


In retrospect, how did you experience the beginning of the pandemic? How did the work of your department change in response to it?

Marie-Louise Gotholdt (Danish Red Cross) 

Denmark went into lockdown on 12 March, which put most of our physical activities on hold. The next day, we launched two national response operations: one was upon request by the national authorities to run part of their ‘corona hotline’ for health and psychosocial support 24/7; the other one consisted of a digital network connecting people in need of practical help with people offering assistance. Within two weeks, 17,000 people signed up for this initiative.

We also distributed Easter packages to women at crisis centres and to prison inmates where social activities and visits were cancelled, as that enhanced their feelings of loneliness. We opened soup kitchens for homeless people, which we carefully adapted to the new social distancing rules. Moreover, we launched a platform called ‘SnakSammen’ (‘Talk Together’), which enables digital visits to people struggling with isolation. It has proven to be very meaningful, and we are now expanding our activities with online language training to refugees and ‘secure chats’ for women experiencing violence.

            Thousands of Danish Red Cross volunteers support the most vulnerable in their communities © Danish Red Cross

Maria Viljanen (Finnish Red Cross)

In Finland, most infections occurred around the capital, Helsinki. Other areas remained almost untouched by the virus. Lockdown started on 16 March, and we completed adapting our activities two days later. An estimated 20 to 25% of the Finnish population is over 65 years old, which is also reflected in the volunteering community. The older volunteers had to stay at home, they couldn’t therefore physically help the people in need; many were frustrated.

The Finnish Red Cross had to move many activities online and make use of webinars, social media, and telephone-based services. A helpline was set up to provide psychosocial support and distribute information about COVID-19. But we continued helping people face-to-face, for example delivering groceries or medicine, and distributing food aid to families in need.

What are the most pressing issues now? How is your National Society approaching them?

Maria Viljanen (Finnish Red Cross)

The COVID-19 situation has eased across the country, and our preparedness for a new wave is solid. However, the economic consequences are acute. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are scared of the future, as budget cuts and increased needs for social services and health care are likely. For the Finnish Red Cross, the main challenge is to identify people in need of help. We provide food aid, psychosocial support and help with applying for social welfare, among other services, and hope our volunteers will be able to continue making this support available for the people with pressing needs. Many new volunteers have joined us over the past months, and we count on our local teams to meaningfully engage them.   

Marie-Louise Gotholdt (Danish Red Cross)

In Denmark, the crisis has had severe consequences for groups which are already vulnerable: those exposed to violence, struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, elderly and lonely people, and socially disadvantaged families. The most pressing need now is to relieve feelings of isolation and mental distress. The number of people struggling with loneliness has more than doubled during the pandemic. To address this, we hosted a series of public discussions across the country, and produced recommendations that we presented to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

We aim to strengthen and formalise the position of the Danish Red Cross as an integral part of national response, including core services that we can supply in a crisis situation. Another priority is to restart all our physical activities. Volunteers maintained contact with most of the participants during lockdown, either by telephone or digitally, and we will continue to reach out to people who are still in self-isolation. Moreover, we will engage the 17,000 newly recruited volunteers on ad hoc basis.

What will the ‘new normal’ look like for your activities? How will you ensure care for those most affected by the crisis in long-term?

Maria Viljanen (Finnish Red Cross)

Many of our operations, including services for people in need, are going to be online. That does not mean that in-person activities are not needed anymore, though! Digital endeavours will never be able to fully replace physical contact. Moreover, we have to work on our preparedness plans – with a focus on vulnerable populations, long-lasting social and psychosocial support, and strengthening the resilience of our communities. Poverty is a key factor when it comes to health equity, so we need to fight against poverty more intensely. If schools close again, many low-income families will need our help, as some depend on the free lunches that are served at school. Last, but not least, we must continue to tackle loneliness, which is exacerbated by the social distancing measures.

Ritva Piironen has been volunteering with the Finnish Red Cross for almost 70 years. It all started when she tool a first aid course in the 1950s. “My heart got caught in the volunteering activities, and it hasn't let go,” she says. © Anna Tenho

Marie-Louise Gotholdt (Danish Red Cross)

The pandemic highlighted the importance of human relations, and of being together, so our traditional face-to-face interactions will definitely continue. We also experienced the value of a daily telephone call, and saw opportunities in digital activities. We will therefore continue to provide this kind of services, and expand them further. In addition, we will reinforce our identity as a national response entity, strengthen our psychosocial support capacity and train volunteers to reach out proactively to their local communities. We also seek to cooperate more closely with other organisations, authorities and politicians. We will not give up on those we were not able to help so far, and have the ambition to enhance our presence in socially and economically deprived areas.

  • For more information about the work of the Finnish Red Cross follow this link
  • For more information about the work of the Danish Red Cross follow this link

For media inquiries, please contact Ainhoa Larrea on: ainhoa.larrea@redcross.eu or +32 2 235 09 22