The failure of the Welfare State?

Dr. Javier Belda Iniesta, Professor of History of Law and Canonical Sources at the Catholic University of Murcia, Vice Dean for International and Legal Affairs of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II, Executive Director of the Family International Monitor

The health crisis we are experiencing has proved, among many other things, the weakness of human beings. For the first time in years, we are painfully aware of the vicissitudes of the fragile human condition. Such fact has been ignored by the West, which has spent most a great amount of time admiring itself. We have experienced Mass death only in the news, as a reality that belonged, for example, to those who fled their countries to find a better future, under the yoke of the merchants of human beings. If these new pilgrims do not end up buried in a tomb of salt and foam under the sea that separates our alleged Paradise from their own countries, they turn out living in overcrowded camps, dreaming of leaping over walls built (or designed) to separate the happy Eden where Diké resides from those where a Callicles of a thousand names still enjoys the vitae necisque potestas.

Indeed, the West benefited from the doctrines developed over the last two centuries and going beyond the Liberal State. It understood that the rights, until then perceived as subjective (therefore individual and unilateral), should also consider the social strength of human beings and be enlightened by the principle of solidarity. That made it reasonable to ask the State to guarantee specific welfare rights, trying to protect each member of our society. Flattered by ourselves, we have regarded other cultures and historical periods with contempt. We have boasted our Welfare State, born initially to protect the individual and to provide certain services, with particular attention to vulnerable or discriminated groups: women, migrants, minors, the elderly, and the disabled. Thus, all Western institutions, some more than others, have endeavored to safeguard the equality of all human beings in an endless number of declarations, rules, and treaties, whatever their sex, race, age, orientation, creed, or thought. They have also recognized that, in times of vulnerability, social obligations require decisive actions by the State, together with the implementation of equality. However, the first time that the system has been affected by something the human activity is not responsible for, unfortunately, these beautiful and universal principles (guaranteed, of course, only to those who we were born in this part of Eden) appear to be no more than mere fictions, with occasional undeniable successes, but still far from being a reality. When globalization has not only brought us haircuts, dances, and exotic food, and has made threats from other times travel at the same speed, our perfect system is suffering. Governments, international institutions, and political structures, once accustomed to overblown speeches and unverifiable rhetoric beyond the ballot box, had to protect society, especially the weakest. Among all the victims of this terrible pandemic (we only know the condition of those who have been tested), the most vulnerable group, the elderly, should already be enjoying special protection. Such people, with their effort and sacrifices, gave us prosperity… the same prosperity they can’t experience and appreciate right now. Either because of life expectancy, or of previous pathologies, or they resided in places where we had to leave (or sometimes discard) our elderly because current life conditions hinder their care, they are paying with their lives for the lack of resources. Our systems promised a social protection so that this crisis would not affect only the weakest; for now, we only see human shields made up of the members of our families who, with their pensions, have fed their families during the crises, and have taken care of children because their parents could not be there because of their work schedule. They have built, at last, the life we enjoy today. Nevertheless, those who have always been there, and who always picked up the phone (even though we had not visit them for ages), unfortunately, will no longer be able to comfort us because they are no longer there. The generation of sacrifice has not died sacrificing itself, but it has died being sacrificed. Moreover, it is not a matter of medical criteria for intensive treatments in hospitals. Health professionals have done quite enough by facing a situation like this with the weapons they had. Resources are indeed limited, which should make us reflect on what and how we use them. Criteria such as cost-benefit, cost-effectiveness or cost-utility have weakened our system to the extent that it has turned against its very raison d’être: to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable, the sick and the elderly. Neither is this related to public or private health care. It would be despicable to make people believe that private hospitals are not fighting, like the public structures, with everything they have, and even what they do not have, against the pandemic. It refers to what the State was born for and why we are so proud to call it welfare. And it was supposed to protect the weak. Only yesterday, people were asking for a decent pension for our elderly. Furthermore, today we tend to forget (while only blaming the administration in charge) that thousands of older people entitled to pensions are dying without any assistance. Their only hope is that those who are in charge of retirement homes, and some fortune can defeat the COVID. Many caregivers have locked themselves in to save them, but this is not a triumph of the system: unhappy the land that is in need of heroes, for then the institutions have failed. We cannot just say that this is an emergency or a crisis. It is entirely foreseeable that during such a situation, those who suffer the most are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. That is why they had a right to an adequate response, an inherent aspect of the so-called Welfare State. Because, as my grandfather used to say, it is in times of trouble that we ask for help. The guarantee that the state should offer has been provided, since the beginning of humanity, by anonymous citizens, and we should underline the positive aspects of this. However, to realize this, no aid was needed. This Pandemic has brought out many good things of men: it has made visible services that were ignored until now (carriers, food, security forces, and the like), and it has united the people against a common enemy. Nevertheless, it is not acceptable to compare it with the times of war, because this is not a war. In an armed conflict, there is a part of the state prepared to deal with it, and there are men and women who give their lives defending those who cannot defend themselves. The police cannot go to war and continue to guarantee the respect of law in the streets at the same time. Moreover, that is what we have done, for example, with health workers. These workers are at exceptional risk, and with no proper resources, they must continue to provide care and assistance, thus making severe ethical decisions in very tough situations. Let us consider those who are dying just because they were born before, they were already sick or did not possess their own houses, sometimes sold to pay for the high prices of their children's house. The worst thing is that nothing has broken their silence, not even a Requiescat in pace. Anonymous coffins without the right to a goodbye. Only the cold embrace of Death awaited them, the same Death we want to turn into a right for ourselves. Unfortunately, it seems that, although the city of Schuman and Fontaine was built so that no crisis could wipe it out, the first time that the disease has come to destroy it, what has not been devastated by COVID, has been devastated by the system.