How are we even functioning?

We need to start now: the pandemic has driven numerous changes to economic activities and the way that societies function, bringing the role of the social economy to the fore. What should our response be? FRANS CAMILLERI WRITES.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about how we function as a society and what we should value as individuals. The crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of individuals, societies and economies, calling for a rethink of how economic and social activities are organised. 

While governments, policy-makers, medical and allied professional as well as the general public have rightly concentrated their efforts on “putting out the fire”, it is now the time to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on quality of life. As time has passed, it has become clear that much of what is most distressing about this crisis is not new at all.

The pandemic has strikingly brought to the fore issues that had been festering for decades. These include: the digital divide, health inequality, gender inequality, economic disadvantage, family well-being, impact on holistic well-being, economic development versus saving lives, consumption versus environmental protection, individual rights versus collective rights, international collaboration versus conflict, prevention of negative well-being, and promotion of positive well-being.

These issues can only be adequately addressed if governments and societies embrace the idea that leaving no one behind is not just a mantra but a necessity. This is why Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, believes that we need more government outlays on provision of public services.

It is now the time to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on quality of life.

I was struck by what Michelle Bachelet, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, had to say on this recently. Ms Bachelet argued that “to recover better, we need an economy that puts human beings and rights at the centre of economic policy ─ one that invests in health, social protection, and other human rights to curb inequalities and discrimination; embraces progressive taxation, labour rights, and decent work; and promotes meaningful public participation and civic spaces.”

Public investment in the care economy, education, and low-carbon infrastructure can form the backbone of stimulus that reduces inequality. Wage policy, collective bargaining, and labour market regulation can revive demand and income while putting an end to a business model that allows companies to take no responsibility for their workers.

For the pandemic has revealed the topsy-turvy nature of a global economy that undervalues its most essential workers while massively rewarding its financial elite. It has also shown how environmental misuse is implicated in life-style illness and the spread of pandemic disease. At the same time, the lockdown experience shed light on the benefits to health and well-being of adopting slower-paced and less acquisitive ways of living, and it allowed the feeling of citizenship and social solidarity to come into play.

The realities of the crisis have triggered reconsideration of several beliefs, with possible effects on long-term choices for the economy and society. These range from attitudes about efficiency versus resilience, the future of capitalism, densification of economic activity and living, industrial policy, our approach to problems that affect us all. They call for global and collective action by governments and institutions.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the developed world must now promote a green renaissance founded upon an alternative politics of prosperity. There is an opportunity here to advance beyond a way of living that is not just bad for the planet and ourselves, but also in many respects overly fixated on work and money-making at the expense of the enjoyment that comes with having more time, doing more things for oneself, traveling more slowly, and consuming less stuff.

In The Pandemic Is a Portal, Indian author Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

For example, the pandemic has highlighted the problem of digital divide or technological exclusion with its adversely effects on the academic well-being of students as well as family well-being. While some innovative initiatives have been carried out to reduce the digital divide under COVID-19 in some countries, such as donating used computers for low-income families and financial support for subscribing to more stable WIFI service, the problem of online learning and unfavourable learning environment are issues to be further resolved.

COVID-19 has impacted different people in different ways, often amplifying existing structural inequalities in income and poverty, socio-economic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities – with particular effects on children (including vulnerable children), families with children and young people.

Several dimensions of gender, race and ethnicity and social deprivation, as well as effects related to social development, relationships and mental health which are all variably affected and interlinked, have been both exposed and exacerbated. Addressing the underlying interconnected drivers of inequality is a key challenge ahead.

Then there are gender inequalities. It is essential to consider how to involve fathers more in family tasks, particularly care-giving tasks. This can only be done by changing the prevailing beliefs and culture about the role of fathers in the family. Essentially, we have to reflect on empowering women so that the family responsibilities will not fall solely on them, while developing appropriate services to support women.

Dealing with the long-term medical consequences of COVID will present a big challenge to health outcomes. These include chronic fatigue and syndromes such as acute respiratory distress, pain, neurocognitive disability, compromised sleep, autonomic dysfunction, and disabling myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). In addition, multiple studies have indicated the incidence of psychiatric symptoms, such as high levels of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Most companies and businesses ─ 60% according to a recent ECB survey ─ believe that the pandemic will have a positive long-term impact on productivity but a negative impact on employment. Conversely, 55% anticipated a negative long-term impact on employment, compared with around 10% who saw a positive effect. This would seem to reflect how businesses have learned to maintain production in spite of restrictions on labour inputs due to social distancing and the identification of related efficiency gains.

The pandemic has driven numerous changes to economic activities and the way that societies function, bringing the role of the social economy to the fore. Addressing these challenges requires policy-makers to rethink how to better protect citizens and deliver necessary services in a more efficient manner. They can do so by strengthening the social economy, not least by treating it as a trusted partner to ensure a better allocation of resources in the provision of some goods and services.

Malta’s post-COVID strategic goals

As I see it, some of the strategic goals that should drive Malta’s response include:

  • prioritising investment in the digital infrastructure as a critical public service to eliminate the digital divide and create a more equitable basis for education and employment;
  • improving the way knowledge, data and information are shared and communicated to enable all decision-makers to work from a shared understanding of the facts;
  • creating a more agile, responsive education and training system capable of meeting the needs of a new social and economic environment and acting as a catalyst to develop and enhance the labour force;
  • reimagining urban spaces to support sustainable and adaptable businesses, amenities and lifestyles;
  • strengthening and expanding a community-led social infrastructure that underpins the vital services and support structures needed to enhance resilience, particularly among the most deprived part of the population;
  • building governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to needs at a local level by engaging local councils;
  • empowering a range of actors, including business and civil society, to work together with a sense of social purpose to help drive a solid strategy for recovery across the economy and society.

A tall order indeed, but the time to start is now.

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