In a matter of days, millions of Europeans’ lives have been turned upside down in an inconceivable way, as the World Health Organisation declared Europe the new epicentre of a global COVID-19 pandemic.
Anything resembling ‘normal’ day-to-day life has been put on hold. Entire countries are on lockdown. Economic shocks will be likely felt for years.
But for many, economic disaster has already struck, as the poorest and most vulnerable find themselves on the frontlines of this crisis.
For Europeans living pay-cheque to pay-cheque, for those living with the constant threat of disconnection or eviction, and for homeless people, being safe at home is not an option. Women are especially impacted, as they represent the majority of single-parent homes, and low-paid workers.
Rapid action to protect the energy poor
Calls to self-isolate have immediate negative impacts on the 50-100 million EU citizens estimated to live in energy poverty, as spending more time than usual at home drives up their energy consumption and energy costs.
Precarious situations require immediate support. Around Europe, governments are rolling out emergency measures, many including flexibility on payment of energy bills and temporary moratoriums on disconnections.
- The UK has temporarily banned disconnections for people using credit meters, and promised energy companies would provide solutions for “any energy customer in financial distress — includ[ing] debt repayments and bill payments being reassessed, reduced or paused where necessary”;
- Spain announced a ban on disconnections for vulnerable consumers who benefit from regulated prices and possible delayed payments for utility bills;
- In Belgium, Wallonia prohibited disconnections for all, and proposed special protection for households with prepaid meters to avoid self disconnections;
- Italy has announced a three-month delay to pay electricity bills;
- France prolonged the winter ban on disconnections;
- In Poland, utilities are being encouraged to declare a moratorium on energy bill payments.
The Right to Energy coalition calls for a permanent ban on disconnections to ensure no one is cut-off and ensure basic needs are met.
It must also be underlined that although it can represent an immediate solution, solely deferring payments often leads to an accumulation of debt for vulnerable families — it cannot be a long-term solution.
Housing: an absolute emergency
The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), member of the Right to Energy coalition, has also outlined how staying home is not an option for homeless people. In some cases, homeless people are even punished twice – with reported cases of homeless people being fined for not respecting the terms of the lockdown. In this situation of emergency, FEANTSA calls for targeted outreach and testing, ensuring access to hygiene and food, and safe housing solutions to be provided for the homeless.
Scotland has taken steps in this direction, announcing a £50m Wellbeing Fund specifically for those worst affected by the crisis, including homeless people and those experiencing fuel poverty.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of member states such as Denmark are announcing plans to complement impacted workers incomes, and across Europe, calls for basic income payments are gaining cross-partisan support.
The Right to Energy coalition calls for the right to housing to be enforced, all over Europe. This crisis is hitting people’s ability to pay rent. Now more than ever, amidst a global pandemic, evicting vulnerable people is inhumane and dangerous.
Experience to date shows that containing COVID-19 requires solidarity across diverse sectors of society. To secure the health and safety of all, governments need to take quick, bold action to protect the most vulnerable without delay.
- Read Alianza contra la pobreza energética’s reaction to Spanish measures.
- Coronavirus calls for care, solidarity and action (Friends of the Earth Europe)
- FEANTSA’s statement COVID-19: “Staying Home” Not an Option for People Experiencing Homelessness