Genuine recovery from the pandemic requires tackling the deep structural crises it has highighted.
The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over but a feeling of normality has settled and a return to prior times—if ‘seasonally adjusted’—seems to inch closer. This is however time to step back and reflect on some of the lessons learnt and plan for a better future.
It is now clear that the pandemic has itself become ‘symptomatic’ of underlying, structural crises: inequality rising steadily between the few beneficiaries of rentier capitalism and workers (as well as among workers), eroding societal and institutional resilience; a looming climate catastrophe requiring radical steps to mitigate and reverse deep-seated dependence on fossil fuels, carbon emissions and unsustainable consumption; and growing social polarisation and political fragmentation, epitomised by the long, exhausting debates on vaccine mandates, recently replaced by equally disheartening discussions of war, conflict and nuclear escalation.
It is also clear that, to the extent that it is possible to claim success in dealing with the effects of the pandemic, these successes have stemmed from important changes. These have ranged over labour markets (the emergence of a ‘remote workforce’ with all that that entails, including for work-life balance), public services (overstretched and underfunded), concepts of the state and its interventions and even shopping patterns. The pandemic has highlighted several dependencies—on unsustainably overstretched supply chains through to unpaid care performed by women—which can no longer be taken for granted.
Macroeconomic models, fiscal and labour-protection systems and society itself will need to respond to these changes. Welfare systems will be expected to come up with innovative solutions, capable of addressing the redistributive conundrums posed by these challenges.
The last two and a half years have served as a lens, magnifying structural issues already plaguing societies—yet also proving that change on a massive scale is possible. This should not be squandered: we can and should do better.
Over recent decades, inequalities in wealth and income have risen. The decline in the labour share—the failure of productivity growth to pass through to wages—has put the disparities between capital and labour in sharp focus. In the world of work, there has been a long-term push towards fragmentation, which has made life more precarious for many: those in more ‘flexible’ and temporary positions, those working fewer hours than they would like and those working ‘gigs’ as technologically enabled modern-day labourers, rather than on proper contracts.
The pandemic deepened this divide, as it became visible that some workers were well-protected, in stable jobs and working from home, while others were on the frontline and faced high health risks with few rewards. These inequalities have pervasive effects on society as a whole, undermining its cohesion.
The disproportionate effects of the pandemic on women, on people with disabilities, on those with a migrant or ethnic-minority background, those on lower incomes and other vulnerable individuals and communities—particularly those subject to multiple drivers of inequality—have exacerbated systemic injustices. These unequal impacts, compounded by unequal access to life-saving vaccines across different global regions, underscore that those most exposed to the adverse effects of social, economic and environmental crises are often the least well equipped to deal with them. Colonial legacies and other historical and geographical contingencies continue to create disparities in power and quality of life which fuel social conflict.
Essential to survival
Many of these points are extremely relevant to a second looming systemic crisis, namely climate change. This crisis—increasingly worsened by the delays in acting—will again have highly unequal impacts, with the biggest costs borne by those least responsible for emissions and environmental harm, globally and within countries.
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It is now widely recognised, in Europe and beyond, that a transition to a zero-carbon economy and efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change are essential to the survival of humanity. Nevertheless, climate action is lagging behind what is necessary to avoid dangerous levels of global heating and policy platforms which promise to ensure that this transition will be ‘just’ often lack a concrete and comprehensive set of measures. Government plans fall short, by far, of the ambitious reimagining of social and economic models necessary for a sustainable future and the wellbeing of people and planet.
The main lessons we can draw from the pandemic here are that, if there is sufficient urgency and political will, what were once firm limits no longer seem quite so rigid, and there is scope for great intervention and systemic overhaul. It is tragic that this should require a crisis. Unfortunately, the terrible Russian invasion of Ukraine renewed the urgency of the green transition in light of Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas: whereas the prospect of global disaster seemed too distant, geopolitical weakness was immediate.
The policy responses to the Covid-19 crisis should thus no longer be seen as temporary and contingent but reinterpreted as structural solutions to longstanding deficiencies of the neoliberal model of economic and financial governance. Structural problems require nothing less.
The pandemic has demonstrated it is not futile to rethink how we organise the human condition on planet Earth. It can become an inflection point for harnessing progressive thinking and reimagining an alternative society, thriving on sustainability, equality and democratic participation.
Rather than revert to the pre-pandemic situation, with widening gaps between those that have and those that have not, with growth in some parts of the world outstripping natural resources at the exclusion of others and with widening rifts along political lines, it is time to look for new and comprehensive solutions. A new social-ecological contract is required for the future—one that respects planetary boundaries and focuses on wellbeing rather than economic growth.
The solutions have to be comprehensive and ambitious. As the great reformist William Beveridge put it in his landmark 1942 report, ‘A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.’ They will have to encompass a more sustainable economic model, providing an equitable share of the fruits of progress to everyone, and new and stronger democratic institutions allowing the genuine participation of citizens and workers.
These solutions may not be immediately ready to be implemented, but it is precisely now that we must consider new and radical ways to improve society and tackle the challenges facing us. Old recipes may no longer suffice.
This is not a time for slogans. But it is a time to build for change.
This piece is linked to a wider project elaborated by the European Trade Union Institute, on reconstruction beyond the pandemic, which will culminate in an edited volume in early 2023