New societies Post Covid-19 ?

Mt Eden Rd, Three Kings, Auckland

This was the day people had been waiting for, the day that might end the boredom, anxieties, the frustrations and loneliness of life lived under lockdown. When Monday finally dawned, a mild sunlight filtered through the trees in a leafy suburb devoid of cars, but full of birdsong. It really seemed as if something new lay ahead…

But no, not in print anyway. That morning the Bulletin ran a story with the headline: ‘Contest of ideas over Covid-19 future’ saying:… ‘we’re seeing increasingly  strident calls for how the economic future should be built. We need clear and deliverable visions of what comes next, or the recovery will stall’.

When did we first hear that woeful chant for health of the economy? With Rogernomics and the ‘trickle-down effect’? During Ruthanasia when the poor were punished by the National Government’s benefit cuts while the rich were exalted; when our country’s institutions and our very sovereignty was pawned off to big business and foreign investors?

And now, after over 30 years of this ideology, the same tired solutions are being revived. Yes, we are looking for new and big ideas, as managerialspeak would have it – but not just for the economy because that represents only a slice of this argument.

The global pandemic is promising to turn the world’s societies upside down and yet our business leaders are once more pushing for the old status quo – and a soulless economic experiment. If our business leaders really want new ideas, then perhaps they should stop fossicking around on barren ground.

Covid-19 has laid bare the inequalities of what used to be an egalitarian society so here are some fresh ideas in waiting (not new) – but needing repetition so they can contend equally on that fictional ‘level playing field’.

So, here’s some heresy:

  • Widespread action on climate change should be the first priority. Think about the range of issues that confront our very survival;
  • Reclaiming our Sovereignty wherever we can;
  • Rejuvenating our heavily polluted rivers and despoiled countryside;
  • Making structural changes so that more Government equals better Government;
  • Re-asserting the Public Service so it means just that;
  • Ensuring that local institutions are accountable to citizens not consumers;
  • Redistributing income. And yes, higher taxes on the rich.

There’s no vaccination yet for COVID-19, but all these suggestions might prevent us from the predations of the New (and now ancient) Right. The pandemic could result in more equitable societies as the ideas below indicate:

From BBC Futures:   ‘…the most radical (and effective) responses that we are seeing to the Covid-19 outbreak challenge the dominance of markets and exchange value. Around the world governments are taking actions that three months ago looked impossible. In Spain, private hospitals have been nationalised. In the UK, the prospect of nationalising various modes of transport has become very real. And France has stated its readiness to nationalise large businesses.  Likewise, we are seeing the breakdown of labour markets. Countries like Denmark and the UK are providing people with an income in order to stop them from going to work. This is an essential part of a successful lockdown. These measures are far from perfect. Nonetheless, it is a shift from the principle that people have to work in order to earn their income, and a move towards the idea that people deserve to be able to live even if they cannot work.This reverses the dominant trends of the last 40 years….’

‘Covid-19 appears to be reversing this trend, taking healthcare and labour goods out of the market and putting it into the hands of the state. States produce for many reasons. Some good and some bad. But unlike markets, they do not have to produce for exchange value alone.’

From Politico: ‘Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse. But given our current levels of tension, this scenario suggests that now is the time to begin to promote more constructive patterns in our cultural and political discourse. The time for change is clearly ripening.’

From: The Economist: ‘In recent years, the market economy has become the market society.

The virus could reverse that trend.’

From Foreign Policy: ‘ It is to the power of government that societies—even libertarians—have turned. Government’s relative success in overcoming the pandemic and its economic effects will exacerbate or diminish security issues and the recent polarization within societies. Either way, government is back. ‘ 

From Al Jazeera: ‘The new coronavirus pandemic is upending life as we know it.’

From the United Nations: ‘Greenhouse gas emissions are down and air quality has gone up, as governments react to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, has cautioned against viewing this as a boon for the environment. The better we manage nature, the better we manage human health. This is why the post-2020 biodiversity framework that countries around the world are expected to agree on this year matters greatly. An important pillar in our post-COVID recovery plan must be to arrive at an ambitious, measurable and inclusive framework, because keeping nature rich, diverse and flourishing is part and parcel of our life’s support system. the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same, and both can thrive in equal measure.’

So, if all this is the case, shouldn’t our business leaders begin to adapt bold new ideas for the post-COVID future and forget an ideology which enriched the rich at the expense of the poor?

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.