“You share your time – an extremely valuable asset,” declared Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel during the citizens' dialogue on volunteer work

Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to find out how the pandemic has changed everyday volunteer work.

Photo: Bundesregierung/Denzel

The pandemic has brought with it particular challenges for voluntary work. In many places, organisations have had to close temporarily or have not been able to offer their usual full range of services. Right at the start of the online dialogue, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed just how difficult things are at the moment for volunteer work.

Although the advantages offered by digitalisation are great, “genuine personal contact is important where emotions play a large part,” like in this work, said the Chancellor. That, she said, is why she would like to start by saying “Thank you! You are here as representatives for the millions of people that thankfully dedicate their time and effort to helping others,” said Angela Merkel to the ten volunteers who took part in the video discussion.

Wide spectrum of engagement

They reflected the extremely wide spectrum of voluntary work in Germany. The volunteers reported on their work with the elderly, families and children, with people with disabilities, refugees, homeless people, in disaster risk management and in the medical sector. Yet, no matter how divergent their individual experience was, all the volunteers spoke of the extremely difficult conditions during the pandemic.    

The Chancellor was continuing the series of online dialogues The Chancellor in Discussion in order to keep in touch with as many citizens as possible, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disadvantaged groups were left to fend for themselves at times

Wolfgang Blaseck from the “Tafel” food bank reported that his organisation, which supplies food to disadvantaged people had to close down for seven weeks last year. “Overnight, all of our customers suddenly had to fend for themselves.” Even when they were able to open again they faced the problem that many volunteers belonged to high-risk groups and no longer dared to come to the food bank. The Chancellor picked up on this point immediately, and said that we can be a little more optimistic as gradually more and more people can be offered a vaccination.

Focus on children and families

One focus of the online dialogue was the situation of children and their families. Sebastian Kreuß is engaged in voluntary work for the organisation “Die Arche“ and looks after children in a Düsseldorf hotspot. Many of the children have suffered during the pandemic, and are sad and lonely, he reported. The clear structures these children need were no longer there, and the pandemic measures were a cause of further concern and uncertainty to them, said Sebastian Kreuß with conviction. This was compounded, in the case of schoolchildren, by problems in keeping up with school work.

Two billion euros for COVID-19 catch-up programme

In response the Chancellor pointed to the COVID-19 catch-up programme for children and young people, and their families, that was launched at the start of May. It provides for measures to make up for lost learning as well as for “summer camps”. But it also includes many social and long-term assistance measures. All in all the German Federal Government intends to invest two billion euros. Angela Merkel also underlined the fact that the programme will strengthen social work for young people, so that work on the ground can proceed with more speed. The restrictions caused by the pandemic have been very serious for children, she stressed.   

Fewer contacts during lockdown

The example of Ingrid Stevens from the “Sozialdienst katholischer Frauen” demonstrated how volunteer work with families has changed as a result of the pandemic. She mentors the seven children of a Syrian family, with a special focus on helping them develop language skills and supervising their homework. The parents are illiterate and cannot help their children with these things, she explained.

Before COVID, she was able to spend time with the children at their home. Often, they all ate together sitting on the floor, she explained. During the long weeks of lockdown, she couldn’t go beyond the garden fence, while the children stood a safe distance behind it – the close contact that is so important was simply impossible. But at least she was able to see the children during the pandemic, said the volunteer.

Creative start-ups during the pandemic

Some volunteering initiatives have only been started up over the last few months. One example is the platform “Quarantäneheld*innen”. The idea is that people who are quarantining and need help can find volunteers to support them online. Milena Gaede reported that over 39,000 people have already volunteered to help. What is far more difficult is reaching the people actually in quarantine, especially if they are older.  

Edith Kruse, a 78-year-old who works as a volunteer offering dancing classes for senior citizens, was particularly active during the discussion. Under normal circumstances she teaches about 100 people, some even with walkers. Dancing offers older people in particular an excellent opportunity to keep up their social contacts. They have missed this opportunity all the more during lockdown, she reported.

Strengthening intergenerational solidarity

One thing that Edith Kruse said was particularly important: Most elderly people have faced the ongoing difficult situation with composure and solidarity towards young people. The 78-year-old pointed out that the young and old generations must come together more. The Chancellor also sees this as a “very, very important task. Many elderly people have unfortunately died during this time and others have suffered terribly. And now we must bring the generations together again.”

The Chancellor stressed that although current conditions in Germany are not ideal, they are certainly better than in other parts of the world. Particularly since it is foreseeable that everyone here will be offered a vaccine.

Irrespective of this, said the Chancellor, the dialogue has demonstrated the huge importance of voluntary work. Volunteers are there for other people and “share their time, which is an extremely valuable asset”, said Chancellor Angela Merkel.  

The dialogue is part of the series The Chancellor in Discussion. In the seven online citizens’ dialogues so far, Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken with representatives of the art and culture sector, families with children, the staff of helplines, trainees and trainers, police officer and students. There has also been an online discussion of the situation in nursing.