This article is the first in a series of three that looks at the embodiment of socio-economic and mental poverty in seven European countries following a study tour of the Solidarity Movement to Europe.
What a privilege to see Europe! Together with other leaders of the Solidarity Movement, I was recently on a European study tour. We look at our European roots, federalism and alternative forms of decentralized government, current global and European political trends, and the media landscape in Europe.
I am here as a representative of Solidarity Helping Hand and therefore look with an eye that is extra finely attuned to poverty. And I realize: Everyone’s poverty looks different.
The reasons for poverty in each country we visit are diverse. Poverty is a challenging problem that does not have just one face. Certain groups are indeed more susceptible to its impact than others.
The people here who are most affected by this sad reality are foreigners who have come to seek their salvation in a new country, single-parent households where one parent is solely responsible for their children, people without the opportunity for further studies after compulsory schooling, and people who are out of work.
At Solidarity Helping Hand we know we cannot focus on all of the above; our vocation is to specifically look after children, the elderly and persons with disabilities in our Afrikaner cultural community.
Our tour starts with a flight from Johannesburg via Dubai to Zurich. This is great! We walk around the airport in Dubai and everywhere I see glass containers into which people put money. I wonder to myself how it actually works. There are people everywhere, but no one breaks a glass container or takes money from it. Everyone just gives… On top of each container is written: “Help Needy Children”, and euro by euro it is filled. I wonder if something like this might work at OR Tambo as well? Will people give, or will they take for themselves?
This is only my observation during the short time we wander through the airport while waiting for our next flight.
Soon we are on our way to Zurich.
Our first point of visit in Switzerland is a rural village where we stay in an authentic small hotel. The silence upon our arrival late at night is impressive. The only sound is the church bell that reminds you that it’s bedtime, because the sun is still shining and you can’t stop looking around. Well, I know everywhere I go, the shadow of poverty hides – even if I can’t immediately see it in the silence around me.
Maybe you find it less in Pretoria, but everywhere I see people who are poor in terms of mental well-being. An aunt, young in years, old in days, as aunt Lourika would say, walks past me and shouts to herself. She seems to be on drugs; she looks upset and talks to an imaginary person sitting next to her. By her hands and hair I can see that she is not one of the people in Zurich whose evenings scream for silence, but who scream for survival.
Mental poverty is increasing around the world, and especially in Europe. Anyone can suffer from a mental illness, and it can have just as wide a range of effects on an individual’s life as physical health problems. The most commonly diagnosed mental health issues are depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
The symptoms of psychiatric problems vary from person to person, but they usually include feelings of sadness and/or depression, withdrawal from social life, anger, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts. In many European countries, about a quarter of the population reported suffering from at least one mental illness.
The prevalence of anxiety disorder across Europe is slightly higher than that of depression. The Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world in early 2020 has caused and exacerbated mental health issues, as almost every part of daily life has been affected by it.
According to The Borgen Project, Switzerland is one of the world’s richest countries. However, data shows that 1 in 13 residents of Switzerland still live in poverty. This may come as a surprise to many, as Switzerland is often associated with economic stability. The average resident of Zurich earns 21 times more per hour than the average resident of Kiev in Ukraine.
Switzerland’s poverty rate is significantly lower than that of nearby European nations, but 6.6% of Swiss people still live in poverty. Likewise, an estimated one in five Britons live in poverty as a result of the high cost of living in these countries.
Certain groups in the Swiss population that are particularly vulnerable to poverty are single-parent families, the elderly, the unemployed, unskilled laborers and people living alone. The poverty rate among these population groups is significantly higher than the average. For example, the poverty rate among those over 60 is almost three times higher than the average.
According to the Sustainable Governance Indicators, poverty is increasing in Switzerland despite effective policies regarding social assistance. Gender inequality remains an important issue. The quality of healthcare and inclusiveness is excellent, but the system is very expensive. The pandemic has exposed a shortage of staff in the system.
Policies that help women reconcile their work and caring for their family are weak compared to those in other countries. Very little is spent on goods beneficial to the family, and childcare facilities are very limited while pension levels are generally high.
We also met an expert on the Swiss government model – a former Swiss member of parliament, news magazine editor and co-author of the current Swiss constitution. He took us into the streets and showed us how the model state works.
I look everywhere but see no children around me; the streets here are not filled with children’s laughter. I do find a water fountain at every turn; there are 1,200 beautiful water fountains in Zurich and they are lovely! I fill up my water bottle and move on to the next church. Inside I find a prayer room. In South Africa I have a task and a solution. For the aunt, young in years, old in days, I can only pray.
Our next destination is the Netherlands, but the trains have challenges and we have to spend the night in Düsseldorf, Germany. About this experience we can only laugh, because otherwise we cry!
While we stand in line at the hotel door for two hours waiting for service, I have enough time to look around. At this train station there is clearly enormous spiritual poverty. Right in front of the hotel a man is lying on a step; we stand next to him and discuss our accommodation while he has to sleep on the tiles for how many nights. My heart is heavy. There are an awful lot of people running around and everyone is asking for money in their own language.
Everyone looks different from what I think they should look like, and every now and then someone jumps around who is clearly on drugs. One of my colleagues says the people suffer from a soul disease. How painful it must be when your soul is so sick.
Deutsche Welle (DW) is Germany’s international broadcasting service. DW’s Sabine Kinkartz writes that although Germany is one of the richest countries in the world, signs of increasing poverty are becoming more and more visible across the country. Homeless people sleep on the streets, mothers do not have meals to eat and therefore cannot feed their children, and pensioners look for discarded bottles to exchange for money.
Poverty is on the rise among the elderly. Even after decades of work, a monthly pension is often not enough to cover all expenses. Women in particular feel the strain, because many worked part-time and were therefore paid less. According to a recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, poverty is the fate of 20% of elderly Germans by 2036.
The European Commission also refers to a shortage of skilled workers and the high financial burden that those who need care place on the state. I can’t help but think of Solidarity Helping Hand’s Training Institute and the home carers we train there.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 says: “And may He, the God of peace, make you completely holy, and may your spirit and soul and body be completely preserved blameless at the return of our Lord Jesus Christ!”. Amen.
With a long journey still ahead, I go to sleep with a heart that aches for Düsseldorf station. Once again I say thank you for my healthy soul and body while I wonder what the Netherlands and Hungary’s poverty looks like.