Covid-19: ‘we won’t get back to normal because normal was the problem’

Volunteers during the Covid-19 pandemic in Barcelona.

Discussions about the world that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic have already started apace. Many commentators are wondering whether the crisis offers the opportunity to set the world on a more sustainable and equal path.

The Covid-19 recovery offers an opportunity to create a different type of ‘normal’ – one that can help restore trust in the state and reaffirm crucial economic and social rights.

The crisis is set to generate a loss of at least 1.5% or $1 trillion worldwide, which would technically mean a global recession with all major regions affected and a devastating impact on the poorest countries.

Plans for recovery are already being discussed, with a focus on the financial stimulus needed to help economies recover. But what is needed is a systemic change that goes far beyond financial instruments to recalibrate societal values and provide a more sustainable underpinning for the future.

Crises are often a moment of change: my experience from humanitarian contexts is that they should never be seen as a temporary breakdown, but rather as processes of change, creating new frameworks of social representation and regulation.

Demands for a new order were already emerging before the pandemic struck, with people taking to the streets to protest against austerity and growing inequality and the lack of government action on climate change. The socio-economic devastation Covid-19 is wreaking across the world must be seen in the wider context of the enduring effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

Last week on the Twittersphere an image started circulating showing a message on an apartment block in the Chilean capital Santiago, reading ‘No volveremos a la normalidad, porque’ la normalidad era el problema’ (‘we won’t get back to normal because normal was the problem’). Twitteratis assumed that the message was in response to the pandemic, when it was actually put up during the anti-government protests that ravaged Chile last year.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera had used the word ‘normality’ when announcing his decision to lift the state of emergency. But Chileans angry and frustrated with the increasing cost of living, low wages, poor public health and education system and deepening inequality were not prepared to accept a return to the status quo ante. It was this same popular anger that toppled the Bashir regime and brought about historic change in Sudan last year.

A return to a new normality

A return to normality post-crisis does not mean a mere restoration of the previous situation, but should lead to the establishment of a new order that, in the words of Mark Fisher (PDF), allows ‘what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable’.

Recent decades have seen a progressive erosion of hard-won economic and social rights, deepening social inequalities, the expansion of precarious work and the regression of the welfare state in a growing number of countries.

This has been accompanied by a backlash against human rights, particularly women’s rights, and the shrinking of democratic space, leading in some cases to the criminalisation of social movements and rising populism, nationalism and xenophobia.  

Three critical areas where there is no option but change

This systemic change needs to address three crucial challenges: climate change, rampant inequality and the erosion of human rights. There is no option but change, given the state of the planet and the deep societal fractures that threaten the stability of the social contract between citizens and states.

Climate emergency

The growing urgency of the climate emergency has engaged many concerned citizens and created mass social movements demanding change. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that more sustainable ways of living are possible.

Governments and businesses will be pushed to find ways to enable people to permanently shift their behaviour with regard to work and travel, and consider the benefits of remote working and virtual meetings. More critically, any financial recovery will need to be predicated on urgent action to reduce emissions in rich economies, and ensure a just transition in lower-income countries.

Inequality

The recovery will also need to tackle the deep inequality plaguing so many societies. The aftermath of the Second World War saw sharply reduced income and wealth inequality and extensive government intervention in post-war recovery.

Something similar will be needed now to curtail corporate and investment profits and protect workers and consumers, including through social welfare reforms and progressive taxation. Governments are already playing a much stronger role in helping their citizens and economies weather this crisis, such as with the UK ‘wartime’ financial rescue package to ‘support jobs, incomes and businesses’, and this will need to be sustained. New ideas such as universal basic income should be tested.

Human rights

The challenge with more robust state involvement will be to avoid enduring limitations to individual freedoms. Many fear that the extraordinary measures and emergency legislation governments have introduced to shut borders, enforce quarantine and track infected people may be the prelude to more autocratic and illiberal regimes.

Human rights advocates have questioned the speed with which emergency bills were waved through without parliamentary scrutiny, and fear that some of these measures will become normalised over time. Some fear that dictatorships are already emerging, such as in Hungary.

Even before these draconian measures were introduced, fundamental human rights were already reported to be under strain in almost two-thirds of the 113 countries surveyed for the 2018 Rule of Law Index, with concerns over a universal surge in authoritarian nationalism and a retreat from international legal obligations.

The backlash against women’s rights is particularly concerning, from rising femicide and politically motivated gender-based violence to the erosion of sexual and reproductive rights. These protections can only be advanced within the context of a new international system that replaces the current multilateral system in crisis.

The quest for a new social model

Multilateral innovation has invariably emerged from systemic crises. The First World War led to the creation of the League of Nations, and the Second to the establishment of the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which paved the way for the creation of the EU. The 1973 oil shock ushered in the G7. More recently, the G20 was established after the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s too early to say what form this innovation should take, but it should reflect the different nature of the Covid-19 crisis compared to the world wars or global financial crises. Ideally, in a networked world and following a crisis characterised by increased community connection and solidarity, new forms of cooperation will be needed that harness the energy and spirit of non-state actors.

In many ways, global civil society may already be showing us what a different social model might look like as individuals and communities come together to help the most vulnerable in society.

Concerned citizens will need to unite into social movements that will generate the push for change, as trade unions, the civil rights movement and the suffragettes did in the past. And it will be incumbent on actors such as think tanks and NGOs who see themselves as agents of change to attune themselves to emerging dynamics and work with governments and businesses to help shape a more sustainable and equal ‘normal’ for all.

Authors

Chief Executive
Sara Pantuliano is the Chief Executive at ODI. She was previously Managing Director, Director of [...]