Every day, we’re faced with torrents of news and research articles about the causes and consequences of Covid-19. The pandemic is revealing the weakest links and blind spots of health, social and economic systems within countries, and shining a spotlight on the differences between them. The news and analysis are touching upon diverse aspects, but in a nutshell, they talk about how systems are functioning/dysfunctioning, and how to re-produce them, or transform them, post-crisis. Regarding the latter question, there seem to be two broad camps: “Go back to normal with a quick fix” (normalization camp) and “We mustn’t go back to normal because normal was the problem” (transformation camp).
Those in the normalization camp focus on operational emergency measures to contain virus spread, quickly identify a vaccine, and find medicines to treat and cure the disease. This camp tends to highlight equality before the virus (as well as the law), and puts emphasis on individual responsibility to contain the spread of the virus, rather than government response or the health system as a solution.
For the devasting consequences of Covid-19, the transformation camp places the blame at the feet of the vile politicians, on the wrong policies and institutions. Right-wing populism or authoritarianism, nationalism, and public health systems strained by neoliberal cost-containment and austerity policies over the last three decades are held up as the culprits of the crisis.
The world post-Covid-19, be it a normalized or a transformed one, won’t be the same. The experience, not least for the half of the global population who is, at the time of writing, on coronavirus lockdown, will influence key aspects of our lives, such as participation, work, exercise, shopping, socialization, health services and provision of care. It will consequently change the ways political, social, economic, environmental and cultural systems are functioning. Whether it will transform them forever and for the better remains to be seen.
New openings for reintegrating “the economic” and “the social” post-Covid-19
Global crisis often unsettles basic ideas and assumptions about both meanings and drivers of development. And once we are past the current global crisis, there may well be new openings for activism, social pacts, public policy and debate on many critical issues associated with how to reintegrate “the economic” and “the social” through a democratic process. How and with what policy ideas and options can we move away from the ideologies, doctrines, policies and institutions that generate and reinforce inequality and vulnerability? What new directions in policy can we propose to help countries onto transformative pathways? What ideas and policy alternatives can mobilize social forces to form political coalitions supportive of progressive change? What insights can UNRISD contribute to transforming the systems that are vulnerable to pandemics into ones that are more resilient in times of crisis because they are more just, equitable and sustainable every day?
Post-Covid-19 policies and institutions to fight for
- Policy options responding to pandemics can be roughly divided into two groups: palliative interventions targeted at the most vulnerable; and bolder transformative policies with the potential to change socio-economic and political structures. While both are needed in the throes of crisis, the latter is a more ambitious approach speaking to the transformative vision of the SDGs.
- Policy learning needs to move beyond simplistic reviews of the “success” or “failure” of how different countries address problems stemming from the pandemic, and instead identify factors that foster conditions that make countries less vulnerable to epidemics: a wide range of forces—political, corporate and religious ones, as well as bureaucracies and public advocacy—influence the requirements for prevention, care and treatment, and transmission of the virus.
- Policy makers and practitioners need to understand the role of political gamesmanship in determining decision making and responses to an epidemic, and how an outbreak in turn may be politicized; these factors should be not obscured, as often happens, when analysis is done after the event.
- Policy and institutional reforms need to be undertaken in a broad range of policy areas beyond the health care sector, since health determinants are best addressed through a comprehensive development strategy and multisectoral policy engagement. In particular, in low-income countries, the health sector is unlikely to make significant strides toward a better system to address pandemics if it is isolated from a broader development strategy with complementary economic and social policies. A sustainable approach to improve health must, therefore, be embedded in a full commitment to the pursuit of comprehensive, universal or rights-based social policies backed up by fiscal and redistributive mechanisms.
- Targeted ad hoc health interventions in response to specific diseases are a necessary complement within systems that tend toward universalism, but targeted interventions on their own are insufficient, inefficient and unsustainable for dealing with complex health problems in the 21st century. Universalism in health care, that is access to quality, affordable, accessible health services, and protection from the economic and social consequences of illness, for all members of society, should be institutionalized in all countries.
- The hardest hit in turbulent times of global crisis are most likely to be the world’s two billion informal workers, about 60% of the total employed population, and their families. Policies and institutions should address not only practical interests but also strategic interests, such as decent jobs. Establishing an enabling environment for political empowerment and representation through the organization of informal workers’ unions or support to social and solidarity economy organizations and enterprises are longer term solutions to mitigating the impact of pandemics on informal workers.
- Policies to address climate change must be strengthened, since climate change may alter the distribution of diseases by creating conditions favourable to the transmission of bacteria and viruses.
- At the subnational level, the hardest-hit regions will see both economic decline and increasing inequality, with the fiscal capacity of local governments stretched. Policies that facilitate and strengthen partnerships between local administrations and civil society organizations can help recovery at the grassroot level.
- Rebuilding local economies will be a critical tasks post-Covid-19. Social and solidarity economy, deeply rooted in localized circuits of production, exchange and consumption, can play a significant role in rebuilding the capacity of local producers and communities to increase value-added and stimulate demand for locally produced goods and services.
- Social trust, in particular in villages and towns, is a key element fostering community cooperation responses. Social and solidarity economy organizations can facilitate cooperation among local actors by building people-centred mechanisms to mitigate the impacts of disasters, including pandemics. Even at the epicentre of the pandemic in northern Italy, social and solidarity economy organizations and enterprises have helped fill gaps in production, exchange and consumption created by the lockdown, arranging home deliveries of basic necessities produced locally to consumers confined in their homes.
Source: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Ilcheong Yi, 14 April 2020