As I write this, I’m sitting in a sunny garden filled with flowers and birds, in a country that provides health insurance for everyone (well, almost – but I’ll get to that) and so many spare hospital beds that patients from neighboring countries are brought in so they can have a ventilator. In short: I’ve lucked out. The unemployment rate has unfortunately skyrocketed, but this government can afford measures to protect jobs and small businesses, at least for now. What these measures are, who is included and who is excluded is a matter for another time, but the point is that in comparison to other places in the world, Austria is doing relatively well.
And yet, the situation has revealed some ugly truths about many European countries, this one included. Where I live, refugees and other undocumented immigrants do not benefit from the public health care system, or they do so only very little. Some NGOs and individuals have started initiatives to get Corona patiens all the care they need, no matter their insurance or residency status (one of them can be signed here). But no official relief or inclusive guideline for hospitals has come of it yet.
At the same time, the refugee camps on the Greek islands have been almost completely cut off from the rest of Europe and right-wing extremists are showing so much violence that many humanitarian workers (among them Médecins Sans Frontières) have decided to leave. Asylum processes have been put on hold in many countries, the inmates (I believe it’s fair to use this term) in Greece aren’t allowed to leave the camps and humanitarian aid has a lot more difficulty reaching them.
Sure, some countries have helped a little. Germany, for example, has taken in 47 minors and wants to take 350 more if other EU countries are willing to do the same (a minuscule fraction of what would be necessary). But do you really need to be a child in order to have a life worth saving and to be able to receive fundamental human rights?
The EU has given its answer. If you don’t have the right papers or nationality (and some might say even ethnicity or religion), you do not get treated with basic dignity or respect. It is in times of crisis that priorities become apparent more clearly than ever before. It now seems hypocritical to portray one’s country as standing in opposition to Trump’s America with its catastrophic treatment of immigrants at the US-Mexican border (interestingly, the appalling treatment of minors plays a big role in this context, as well).
Right now, governments and transnational political institutions show what they’re made of. And yes, being able to provide the safety and relative wealth that I and other Austrians enjoy here is no small feat and it deserves recognition. But human rights mean that everything possible should be done so that anyone, regardless of identity or background, can have a similar situation and status. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be acknowledged by all UN members (and it’s a requirement to sign the EU Charta of Fundamental Rights to join the EU). Times like these ask whether the signed promises are kept. And the answer for the EU is most unpleasant.