When this is over, the world must change
It is the task of civil society to ensure that this new post-pandemic world is a better, kinder one than the one that came to an abrupt end when our social and economic life went into lockdown.
There are many lessons that we must learn, and some of the changes that must be made are inevitable.
First we must ensure that our health and social care system is not just properly resourced to deal with business as usual but also has the resilience to deal with the unexpected. Clinical staff should never again be put in the position of having to decide who shall live and who shall die because of a lack of equipment and intensive care provision. This is not negotiable and the sums being thrown around to protect the economy is proof that when there’s a real will the money will be found.
Second we need a health service. The “health market” does not work. Big Pharma and the medical industry in general is driven by profit, not patients’ needs. Creeping privatisation must end. A market is not thinking ahead in terms of future potential emergencies. Government needs to take much more hands-on approach to both the development and manufacture of medicines in the interests of citizens.
More generally, the spontaneous generosity being displayed in so many communities, from small shops distributing food to the needy, to neighbours getting together to look after each other is in stark contrast to the self-serving behaviour of some big businesses. Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, Travel Lodge, unscrupulous landlords and avaricious entrepreneurs both near and far.
We should start to make the connections. Why would you want to drink in a pub or stay in a hotel or buy goods from a store whose owners have gone missing in action when we need to pull together? The market in general is on notice and people do not forget. The fact that Britain has effectively re-nationalised all the railways is further evidence that the traditional capitalist market does not have answers to everything and some of its exponents have questions to answer.
We need to address inequality. The virus hits the vulnerable hardest. When all this is over and we wake to another world we will find that the people who suffered the most were the least off and those most in need of support. In contrast the super-rich have fled to their bunkers, their islands or their country boltholes. This piece from Vanity Fair explains why some of the wealthiest people have little to worry about in the weeks ahead. Poverty and disadvantage kills. We need to start thinking more about investing in public services rather than lining the pockets of the super rich.
It may be a long time before we shake off our new habits around being close to other people and we’ll start asking more often whether meetings really need to take place. This will not be all bad. It may mean much more working from home, more telemedicine, it may even lead to voting in elections on-line and hosting more committee meetings via video link at Stormont and Westminster. Less travel is less pollution and less wasted time.
It will change our perspective on what’s important in life. Until now our society has been driven by consumerism and the need to get on. Today we can’t even get our hair cut. And overnight many of our goals seem irrelevant and trivial. It’s a time to reflect on what really matters. Death seems closer to all of us now, and in these moments we can think a little more clearly about what it means to be alive and how we’d really rather spend our time.
This seems to have fed into political discourse in Northern Ireland. As the crisis has deepened so too has our divided society appeared to come together in the face of a common, unseen enemy. This might be naïve but we can at least hope that we’ll remember that when this is all over – and that relations between our politicians will have strengthened to a point where they can show more common purpose all of the time.
Whether this comes to pass or not, the crisis has heralded a re-birth of that most precious and immeasurable gift: kindness. It’s been everywhere – the neighbours getting together to help vulnerable people, the shops starting up delivery services, the response to calls for people to volunteer to help the health service, the offers of accommodation to those chucked out be unscrupulous landlords. For every Tim Martin and Mike Ashley there are thousands of people doing what they can to help others get by.
This in turn is strengthening neighbourhoods and if we emerge from this with more resilient, caring and resourceful communities that in itself will be an important step to creating a more localised, self-reliant world.
This is important for another reason too. Globalisation may be good in some respects but the fragility of its international supply chains has been laid bare. We need to be able to source more of what we eat and use closer to home.
We also need to change the Welfare System, permanently. Over the next weeks and months many more people will come to understand not just how inadequate it is but how precarious even the steadiest jobs can become. We’ll learn more about the vulnerability of those on zero hour contracts and freelancers in every field.
The system we now have, is a system which was designed to punish “idlers” and force them into work. It is cruel and unjustifiable and it needs to be replaced. This debate will be reignited.
For decades free marketeers have been telling us that we need less government not more and that the answer to everything lies in the market. This argument has been demolished by an organism too small to see. It’s only through unprecedented state intervention that we’ll pull through. This should mark the end of the era of greed is good.
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