July-August 2020

The ‘other’ vulnerable group during the COVID-19 outbreak

People considered to be in a situation of vulnerability have been harshly affected by the coronavirus crisis in terms of higher vulnerability and the number of people now considered to be in this group. The support of Social entities has been crucial in terms of material needs. For example, Banco de Alimentos (Food Bank) requests increased 31% from the 14th March (when the state of alarm was announced) to the 21st April in the Madrid Autonomous Community, Spain. However, the main support of social entities has been emotional, which has been the biggest handicap when facing individual and family difficulties.

As regards jobs and economy, as mentioned by the document Estudio sobre confinamiento y salud en población infantil: ¿tiene la desigualdad social impacto en las condiciones en las que la población infantil está confinada y en su salud?, families with low income usually have jobs with less flexible shifts. This has resulted in two scenarios. On the one hand, unemployment, and its consequent family income decrease or total disappearance. The number of families in the latter situation have increased 136% according to El primer impacto en las familias acompañadas por Cáritas. On the other hand, the need to commute to the workplace, usually, by public transport. This is a risk in itself in terms of coronavirus infection and spread. As this research also mention, living conditions have played an important role during the state of alarm. Low income families usually live in cramped and low-quality houses without open spaces and placed in high population density areas. Therefore, security social distancing has been difficult to accomplish, plus the difficulties of this situation have affected household members in terms of family balancing, relationships, and emotions. What is more, regarding income, 1 out of 4 families have been forced to abandon their houses because of inability to pay as mentioned in the Caritas report. In addition, the difficulties that arose from the COVID-19 health crisis have evidenced the existing digital divide among families. Firstly, application of subsidies and job finding via online has supposed an obstacle for people without computing skills and resources. Secondly, the effect of the digital divide on education. According to the National Statistics Institute, 9.2% of low-income families do not have internet access. In contrast, only 0.4% of middle-higher income families do not have this access. Moreover, the lack of a computer is 20 times higher in the former case. Mobile and TV access have been the principal means to accomplish school tasks, although computers or tablets would have been more adequate. Because of this, lots of families have not been able to overcome these obstacles and had to face the online school methods much less equipped, which will definitely affect the academic level of children.

Finally, regarding psychological and emotional health, worry, anxiety, fear or uncertainty are some of the emotions that all of us have been facing during quarantine, and they will probably affect us differently in terms of intensity and duration as stated by the indicated document on confinement and children’s health. However, it is important to consider that the population at risk of social exclusion started this situation with more shortcomings and fewer privileges. So, facing emotions and difficulties has been an especially tough challenge for them. A challenge that in general is faced alone, without a supportive network of people to trust. All the factors explained above have caused a lot of stress and anxiety to both individuals and family units that will affect them not only socially but also health-wise.

Today, the diseases and personal profiles considered as risk factors for COVID-19 are widely known. However, the fact is that poverty should also be considered as a risk factor. Not only because of all the reasons explained above, but also because all those illnesses have a higher incidence on low-income families. Wellbeing (physical, psychological, and social) hinges 80% on lifestyles —as Julio Villalobos, a researcher at Universidad Abierta de Cataluña— stated. Likewise, lifestyles hinge on socio-economic factors according to several studies such as the document Propuestas al Programa Nacional de Reformas 2020-2021 elaborated by EAPN-ES (European Anti Poverty Network, Spain). This is just another example of how socio-economic situation can affect the biology and health of individuals and families, as professor Barry Bogin presented in his post of May.

Nevertheless, people under these circumstances do not appear suddenly. This group has always existed. It has not been a consequence of the state of alarm. It is a structural problem in the current social system. A snail biting its own tail. All these circumstances mentioned infringe several rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments should be responsible for ensuring these rights and welfare state to every citizen. To do so, there are already several improvement proposals towards social and sustainable development such as the ones mentioned in the EAPN-ES report indicated above These kind of measures are needed not only now during the state of alarm (as included in the Spanish government documents), but always.


Lidia Millán Fernández, graduated in Biology from the Madrid Autonomous University (Madrid, Spain) with experience in the field of Physical Anthropology and Human Ecology, at present she is doing the Master on Biodiveristy, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health, Edinburgh University, and works in the Asociación Valdeperales (Madrid, Spain) coordinating the  CaixaProInfancia programme in one of the institution’s centres where support is offered to families at risk of social exclusion.