Written by Stefan Pfalzer
Beyond the calamitous effects of the coronavirus pandemic on those who contract its severest form of respiratory syndrome and die from pneumonia, this global crisis has enormous ripple effects on our societies: be they economic, societal, or political. As the coronavirus illuminates and exacerbates existing wrongs, this moment urges us to ask: Which policy measures are to be taken in the aftermath of this crisis? What could possibly remedy its disastrous consequences?
To address them, I suggest we take heart from the historical precedent of the Beveridge Report. In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, an inter-ministerial commission chaired by the economist William Beveridge drafted a report which highlighted five challenges on the United Kingdom’s path to post-war reconstruction. The five “giants” were want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness (1). To adapt these giants to the present, I propose adding xenophobia, surveillance, domestic violence & environmental degradation to the list. In the following paragraphs, I aim to discuss the policy changes that need to arise from this current crisis.
Want, Squalor, Ignorance, and Idleness: Protecting Livelihoods
First, poorer societal groups are more at risk of contracting the disease than wealthier groups. These lower-income demographics are more likely to have put themselves at risk by leaving their house and continuing to work because insufficient personal savings force them to do so. This scenario is especially true for new forms of work in the so-called gig economy, e.g. food and package deliverers or Uber drivers. People performing this kind of labour are treated by their employers as if they were independent contractors, which means they enjoy little to no social protection, i.e., no sick leave, no health insurance. Therefore, gig workers bear the entire risk for their service and often cannot afford to stay at home.
Secondly, the pre-existing conditions that make people especially vulnerable to Sars-CoV-2, e.g. cardiovascular and lung disease as well as diabetes, are more prevalent in lower-income groups (2). That is because physical health is highly dependent on nutrition, stress, and working conditions, which are all, in turn, a function of how much income you generate and how you earn it.
As the global economy will likely plunge into recession, large parts of today’s labour force will lose their jobs tomorrow. Moreover, the coronavirus will exacerbate existing inequalities, as scarce savings will be used to cover necessities, pay rent, or mortgages. Some governments and banks have resorted to cushion the effects of this sudden lack of income by introducing partial wage-compensation schemes, eviction suspensions, emergency credit lines, deferred tax payments or mortgage holidays. However, these measures may not go far enough to assure people’s livelihoods. Therefore, there is a case to be made for a basic income to be henceforth provided to members of society who are most in need of it. In light of an ever-growing income gap between the richest and poorest income brackets and with large-scale workforce automation still looming, it is worth considering whether a progressive basic income could reduce existing inequalities.
Moreover, while real wages have stagnated since the 2008 financial crisis (3), rising urban housing and rent prices make it increasingly difficult for lower-income groups to remain in city centres. Better regulation to prevent soaring rents and evictions could ensure that housing remains a public good rather than an investment asset.
Finally, many young people spend considerable fees to attend university, run into student debt, and therefore cannot set aside personal savings which — coupled with a volatile labour market — puts them at great risk. There is a case to be made for countries like the UK and the US to follow the examples of more prudent countries and eliminate all monetary boundaries to accessing university education.
Disease: Closing the Gaps in our Health Systems
In places where there is no universal health care coverage, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed critical gaps in the healthcare system. In these systems, there are many people who cannot and do not receive the medical help they require due to the lack of a health care plan. Elsewhere, years of austerity-induced cuts in staff and equipment have left health care sectors famished and underprepared. While a pandemic is undoubtedly no normal circumstance, the coincidence of peaking emergencies and inadequate systemic preparedness along with the need to quarantine healthcare personnel has led to the horrible accounts of distressed doctors and nurses left to choose which patients get treatment and which do not. A shortfall of essential medical equipment such as masks and respirators due to outsourced just-in-time production as well as lack of technical self-reliance or retention of such equipment by other countries highlights that countries ought to be able to produce these goods themselves in cases of emergency. Finally, governments need to institutionalise coordination structures in charge of pandemic contingency planning, both on a national and European level.
Xenophobia, Surveillance, Gender-based violence & Environmental Degradation: In Need of Vigorous Societal Action & Protection
Finally, we have seen leaders project racist tropes onto affected countries and conspiracy theories as to the origin of the virus propagated. We have seen the usage of biometrical data combined with large-scale surveillance to track cases of the infection. We have seen concerns that current self-isolation measures will increase the occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse. These consequences of the coronavirus call upon us to defend our own rights as citizens and of the most vulnerable members in society. They call for push-back against racism and intrusive surveillance-practices as well as call for the support of domestic violence and abuse victims.
Lastly, we have read that our environment has shown signs of recovery in regions under lockdown with severely reduced economic activity. Smog has given way to blue skies and CO2 emissions have dropped. However, we must not succumb to the wishful thought that this will have changed minds in the most environmentally depletive industries. As soon as we overcome this crisis, the exploitation and pollution will resume. Raising global temperatures may even make infectious diseases more likely in the future (4).
In light of this fact, the need for immediate climate action is even more urgent. Confronted with the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have adapted their behaviour to prevent further human suffering. Saving our planet from mass extinction and environmental degradation will need equally drastic behavioural changes.
There is an opportunity for societal reconstruction once this pandemic has been outlasted and a necessity to make drastic changes to overcome the immense challenges we face. Sailing between the clashing rocks of our times will take bold leaders, prudent policymakers, and our collective will to transform the existing order for the greater benefit of society.
Stefan Pfalzer serves as President of the European Student Think Tank 2019-2020. He is currently pursuing a Double Master’s Degree in International Security and Political Economy at Sciences Po Paris and London School of Economics.
- Abel-Smith, B. (1992): The Beveridge Report: Its Origin and Outcomes, International Social Security Review, Vol. 45, No. 1-2 (1992), p. 7.
- Fisher, M. & E. Bubola (2020): As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens its Spread, New York Times [online], available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/world/europe/coronavirus-inequality.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage.
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2018): Rising employment overshadowed by unprecedented wage stagnation. OECD [online], available at: http://www.oecd.org/newsroom/rising-employment-overshadowed-by-unprecedented-wage-stagnation.htm.
- WHO (2020): Climate Change and Human Health – Risks and Responses. Summary. [online], available at : https://www.who.int/globalchange/summary/en/index5.html.