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COVID-19 conversations: How to tackle rising needs and stigma

Interview

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

Today we are joined by:

  • Erika Weigl-Kiss
    Social Professional Manager in a temporary shelter for families at the Budapest branch of the Hungarian Red Cross
  • Klara Debeljak
    Expert Associate in Poverty and Social Exclusion at the Ljubljana branch of the Slovenian 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?

Erika Weigl-Kiss (Hungarian Red Cross)

At the end of January, we heard news of a ‘flu-like disease’. On 11 March, the Hungarian government declared the state of emergency. We witnessed a rapid shift: public gatherings were prohibited, national ceremonies cancelled, and schools and kindergartens closed. Authorities' main goal was to reduce the risk of infection, stabilize the financial situation of families and preserve employment.

In the Hungarian Red Cross, the pandemic forced us to reduce many services that entail in-person delivery such as trainings, first aid courses and blood donations. Others were needed at a greater capacity, because more individuals required help. At the temporary shelter we run in Budapest, people were nervous and scared, with emotional ups and downs.

Klara Debeljak (Slovenian Red Cross)

Public life significantly changed in Slovenia, too, and we had to reorganise our activities factoring in the new safety measures and restrictions. We drove forward that process in collaboration with local authorities, collecting donations to offer food and hygiene packages, and with extra efforts to coordinate volunteers to ensure service provision, as well training the new ones.

The pandemic shed light on the importance of developing new forms of aid for vulnerable groups, with new emerging needs. Senior citizens and those with medical conditions were strongly advised to stay at home, for example, with social carers unable to visit them. To improve their access to our support, we established a call centre with trained volunteers available for daily conversations, to address requests for help, and to organise basic assistance.

In addition, we set up a new unit in a field hospital in Ljubljana, at the Edvard Peperko Barracks, to serve as an isolation centre for up to 140 patients. We also implemented workshops on prevention measures and awareness-raising, as well as on lowering the panic and stigma. Local teams adapted both the distribution of material and the implementation of first aid courses and events. First responders also performed other activities in response to the pandemic, including temperature scans at the borders and sensitisation via social media. Moreover, the Slovenian Red Cross joined forces with the Ministry of Health and the National Institute of Public Health to develop visual brochures for households.

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

Erika Weigl-Kiss (Hungarian Red Cross)

Hungary has not been dramatically affected by the pandemic, but many people have lost their jobs and start relying on the social welfare system. The Hungarian Red Cross has therefore focused enormous financial resources on the purchase and distribution of food packages for families and individuals in need. Housing problems have also increased due to COVID-19, with more people staying in the streets, which is another serious challenge.

To help the most affected and prepare for a renewed upsurge of cases, the Hungarian Red Cross has analysed lessons drawn from the new situation, what is essential to maintain in daily operations, and how to communicate and cooperate in an optimal way within an ever-changing environment. This pandemic represents a learning experience for us on adapting regular services and functions to put them to best use in dealing with such a major crisis.

Hungarian Red Cross staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly to help the most vulnerable amid the pandemic, including through the distribution of basic relief items. © Hungarian Red Cross

Klara Debeljak (Slovenian Red Cross)

Despite the latest governmental measures easing down COVID-19 restrictions, the pandemic has heightened poverty and social exclusion: material deprivation and unemployment have risen, and the situation of those with precarious jobs worsened. We are expecting the negative effects of these developments to be more and more visible with time.

The Slovenian Red Cross has worked intensely to expand its services by maximising available resources. It was nice to witness the rise of solidarity within society, with less shaming of people resorting to our help. However, the number of those in need is still growing. Likewise, stigma is on the rise. Overall, the COVID-19 emergency context has underlined the importance of reorganising our organisation, especially by scaling up capacity building for the youth and digitalisation.

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

Erika Weigl-Kiss (Hungarian Red Cross)

Restarting services on hold since the initial lockdown is essential, because many people need them. Another important consideration is to foster the solid collaboration between the Hungarian Red Cross and partner organisations during the COVID-19 emergency. These new alliances, combined with everything we have learned about how people think and act, is enabling us to better prepare our services for new waves of the pandemic and the subsequent confinements.

Klara Debeljak (Slovenian Red Cross)

The response to COVID-19 has been an opportunity to establish contact with additional groups of people, including elderly in isolation and girls and boys in home-schooling. Furthermore, we have launched new programs and activities that will be continued in the future: at the onset of the pandemic we created a volunteer initiative for school aid and psychosocial support for children and their families, and it turned out to be key to prevent the complete social exclusion of some minors.

In general, the most vulnerable groups of people have also been the most affected by the pandemic. Working on their empowerment helps to build more resilient communities, and we also seek to boost the value of solidarity to face upcoming challenges. For that purpose, we need to increase trainings, cooperate with different associations and strive for innovation.

             The Slovenian Red Cross has maximised its support to the most affected by COVID-19. © Slovenian Red Cross
  • More information about the work of the Hungarian Red Cross on this link
  • More information about the work of the Slovenian Red Cross on this link

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