May 7, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in innumerable ways. We won’t be able to appreciate its full impact for a number of years yet. Aside from the immediate impacts of the virus on people’s health, the measures bought in to combat its spread have come with their own price. The global economy has shuddered to a halt and output has dropped, with far-reaching consequences for people’s emotional and financial health.
And yet, even in the face of the most significant global crisis since the Second World War, there are still some glimmers of hope. The nature of an infectious virus like COVID-19, a disease that doesn’t discriminate in who it infects (although certain groups seem to have higher rates of infection), means that we are truly all in this together. Crises like these will bring out the worst in some people, but they also bring out the best in others, and, so far, from what I see online and my lived experience in my own neighbourhood of West London, community cohesion seems to be at an all-time high.
No sane person would ever wish a crisis of this magnitude upon the world and, irrespective of any potential upsides, the death of hundreds of thousands of people is clearly a tragedy. However, now that the crisis is here, there’s no way of ‘containing’ it. But on both an individual and a societal level, there is still some cause for optimism. Over the last century, the great crises that we have faced - namely the two world wars - were followed by a period of optimism and progress.
The First World War was followed by the Roaring Twenties, a period of economic prosperity, social progress, and cultural and artistic dynamism. The Second World War resulted in the foundations of the modern international community, an end to colonialism, and an unprecedented leap forward in the fields of technology and science. Even the Great Depression, which was a contributing factor in the rise of fascism in Europe and the outbreak of WWII, helped to expand the role of women in western economies, a role that would be further expanded by the war.
It seems unthinkable that humanity will emerge from this pandemic unchanged. The crisis has highlighted the fragility of the global economic system and laid bare the deep inequalities of society. It has also proven that remote working is feasible for large sections of the population and could bring about a paradigm shift with regards to our work-life balance.
Numerous people have offered their services as volunteers to deliver food, medicines, and other essentials to the vulnerable and elderly. With community and local pharmacies across the country finding themselves stretched far beyond their usual workload, this extra support is essential.
There are also a number of other community-driven initiatives popping up across the nation. Supermarkets have been struggling to balance the need to serve their communities while complying with the various stipulations now in place regarding social distancing. They have also been striving to ensure that NHS workers and the elderly are able to access the supplies that they need. Introducing specific hours for these people has had some success but it is virtually impossible for supermarkets to police themselves.
In addition to the specific hours that are set aside for them, there are also a growing number of volunteers who are prepared to collect shopping on behalf of those who need it. Elderly people who don’t have access to online shopping and aren’t able to go down to the shops for themselves are finding this support a valuable, and literal, lifeline.
The COVID-19 lockdowns that are now in place across the globe have caused most countries to rethink their approach to work. Canada and New Zealand both stand out for their generous income support schemes; the UK has its own range of support mechanisms in place. As time goes on, it is becoming clearer that there are groups and communities which fall through these safety nets.
Official advice has been to direct anyone not covered by the current compensation scheme to apply for universal credit. Nearly 2.4m people have applied for universal credit, that's equivalent to the entire population of Birmingham (!). The widespread impact of COVID-19 is causing a large number of people who would otherwise have never interacted with the UK’s welfare system to confront the myriad challenges in its design. Problems with social security in the UK have been well known to anyone who has worked in the sector, as well as those who have had to rely on it to any degree. Historically the challenge has always been that those who rely on this system have often been underrepresented politically in the UK - the impoverished, the disabled, single parents, people with learning difficulties.
But COVID-19 has brought whole swathes of society into direct contact with a system that many of them had barely thought about before and exposed the fact it is unfit for purpose. A more rigorous and generous safety net would not only better serve the country in times of crisis, but it would also ensure that the groups mentioned above are in a better position to weather unexpected economic shocks.
The NHS is, quite rightly, a point of pride for the UK. Free healthcare without the added burdens of an insurance system is something that I’ve taken for granted but remains a rarity on the global stage. However, since its inception towards the end of the Second World War, successive governments have neglected the NHS, slashed its funding, and left it in a precarious state.
Obviously, our health service is even more important than normal in these uncertain times. While it has been heartening to see the appreciation for our NHS workers, we have a serious crisis on our hands, namely that the frontline healthcare staff who are quite literally risking their lives to help other people still don’t have access to the personal protective equipment that they need.
The NHS has largely been taken for granted by much of the UK in recent years. But, as long as we as a society who are proudly clapping, drawing rainbows and showing other signs of appreciation also keep the NHS in our minds and advocate for more funding, reform and support, we could finally be seeing the societal shift in attitudes we need to bring about enough political pressure for a fit for purpose NHS. In an ideal world, the NHS would have enough funding to not only cater to the population’s healthcare needs but also to conduct the kind of cutting-edge medical R&D that will enable the organisation to perform more cost-effectively in the future.
All across the world, we’re hearing stories of how our environmental landscape is changing for the better. Providing a ‘keyhole’ view of what advocates for a decarbonised and sustainable future have been talking about and promoting for decades. From animals enjoying the freedoms of a quieter world to significant reductions in air pollution of our major cities - our surroundings are ‘healing’. One that hit home for me (quite literally) was the fact that the Himalayas could be seen from the first time in regions of Punjab, my ancestral home. My grandmother would often recite stories of her childhood and describe in detail the picturesque mountain ranges from the family farm. I never quite believed her as I had never seen it myself, but lo and behold, days after India was in lockdown social media inundated with photos of the beautiful mountain range.
Make no mistake, this is a short term and temporary effect of lockdown across the globe, if we truly want to commit to a green and sustainable future we must fundamentally shift our global economic system and decision making to factor in social and natural capital. As an example, Amsterdam launched its ambitious Circular 2020-2025 strategy which is underpinned by the world-first application of the ‘doughnut’ economic model whereby our ‘ecological ceiling’ is taken into account during decision making. Time will tell if this framework is a success, but it's definitely a step in the right direction...
Image courtesy of Kate Raworh (2017) Creative Commons license
No one enjoys being in lockdown and having their freedoms restricted, but many people are managing to make the best of a bad situation. Lots of people aren’t just surviving the lockdown but are taking advantage of the time and space that it provides to improve themselves in various ways. For some people, lockdown is finally providing them with the space they need to express themselves creatively - something that is difficult when you have to balance it with the pressures of work. Others are using the time to learn new skills and rekindle their love for long-forgotten hobbies (I’ve personally managed to cultivate a healthy vegetable bed).
Some people were initially worried that lockdown would lead to widespread cabin fever. However, it seems as if the opposite is generally true and that the British public has adapted admirably to the challenges of lockdown.
A recent study from YouGov showed that just 9% of the British public want a return to ‘normal’ once the crisis is over. What’s more, just over half of the respondents indicated that they themselves would be making changes in their own lives, not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the country as a whole.
No one knows how this crisis will ultimately resolve itself or when. While the curves might be flattening, a return to the pre-pandemic world seems all but impossible now. Not only is it impossible in practical terms, but I get the feeling there is little appetite for us to go back to the way things were before. We have an opportunity to shape a new, sustainable and better world. Let’s just hope we don’t squander it….