Like post-war Britain, we need a new normal after Covid-19
As lockdown restrictions begin to be lifted, and we slowly aim to return to ‘normality’, questions are beginning to be asked about just what that normality should be. For never in recent history has a crisis so blatantly highlighted the inequalities in our society. And it’s not just those on the left that think so. Veteran right-wing journalist Max Hastings, recently wrote a piece in which he said the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a demand for ‘social, political and economic reform unprecedented in our memories’. Even the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently admitted that when this is over, it would be ‘reasonable’ for people to ‘demand improvements’ in the quality of social provision and healthcare.
The reality is that Covid-19 has turned capitalists into socialists overnight, whether they like it or not. We’ve kept hearing about governments making the choice between people and the economy. But people are the economy. Fundamentally, we need a change in priorities. The danger is that we return to a status quo from which another crisis will be born: this pandemic is not over yet, the threat of another one in future is real, and we need to have the social measures in place to enable us to deal with the fallout. Britain only has to compare itself statistically with other nations to realize that, along with the US, it has suffered particularly badly so far from this disease, and we have to ask why. An under-funded healthcare system, together with a 20% poverty rate surely plays a role.
In the midst of this ‘war’, with unemployment set to skyrocket, and families struggling to pay the rent and feed their children, Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda at the last election looks appealing. The renationalisation of key industries, a ‘living’ wage, a massive social housing programme, and immediate pay rise for public sector workers; somehow it doesn’t seem so ‘radical’ after all. The latest figures show that people living in poorer areas in Britain are twice as likely to succumb to coronavirus. What is the government doing about it? Not much. One of the Tory pledges in their 2019 election manifesto was to add five years on to life expectancy by 2035. But that’s a tall order and would mean a significant change in policies – not just in the short term for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – but in the long term. We may be the world’s fifth largest economy but Britain is currently ranked 29th in the global life expectancy index, behind a host of European countries.
The question is, what kind of post-Covid-19 future do we want? Already comparisons are being made with the aftermath of the Depression and the Second World War. After the Depression, President Roosevelt stated that ‘heedless self-interest is…bad economics’ and that ‘freedom from want’ must be a key factor in policy-making. As for the UK, war-time leader Winston Churchill’s Conservative party was rejected in the 1945 election in favour of Labour, whose manifesto brandished the slogan ‘The Labour party is a Socialist party and proud of it’. The policies on which the party won were radical: nationalisation of the Bank of England, the coal and energy industries, public transport, and iron and steel. During the war, inequality was laid bare much in the same way as it has been during this current pandemic, and we saw the 1942 Beveridge report published, which laid the foundation for the welfare state – the cornerstone of British society as we know it today.
‘Goodbye globalisation’ read the front cover of this week’s Economist. It argues that globalisation was already on the rocks after the 2008 financial crash and Trump’s war with China; Covid-19 has been the final nail in the coffin. It predicts that global trade faces a troubling time ahead as governments, forced to underwrite national firms, will continue to favour them moving forward. But this can only be welcomed. Firstly, global trade generally means rich countries exploiting cheap workers abroad. Aside from welfare, a return to ‘normality’ would be disastrous for the planet. Satellite images have shown the remarkable changes which have taken place in our atmosphere across the globe as lockdowns were imposed on an international scale. Carbon dioxide emissions are set to have fallen this year by 8%, but this would have to occur every year for a decade in order to limit global warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Obviously, repeated and prolonged lockdown is not a solution, but some serious attempt must be made to address climate change before it’s too late. The coronavirus pandemic illustrates just how mother nature can floor us before we know it. She can’t be underestimated. Indeed there has been something wonderful about the way nature has been able to reclaim its territory in this short time, with social media packed with viral videos of wild animals roaming the empty streets of our metropolises without a care in the world. It could be imagination, but somehow even the trees and bushes seem more green and luscious at this time.
So while governments take their first steps back towards ‘normality’, it’s vital that, as a race, we don’t. This is a pivotal moment in our history, when the world is on pause, that we can think about what kind of future we want for our grandchildren, instead of being completely at the mercy of business, blindly bashing on, maximizing profit at whatever the cost. As William Beveridge proclaimed back in 1942 “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.’
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.