Addressing the major inequalities that are being exacerbated both by the pandemic and the response to it, with the goal of rebuilding a better, more inclusive and healthier planet for everyone and the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Historically, global crises have given people the chance to re-evaluate their world, break from the past, and imagine a different future. Today this is more pertinent than ever as the existing and persisting inequalities across the planet that have been so painfully exposed during this crisis, are being exacerbated both by the pandemic and the response to it. With growing acknowledgment of severe structural issues which are commanding ever greater attention and the realisation that we cannot simply go back to ‘normal’, many are seeing this as a watershed moment in creating the necessary public support for and social and political will to implement deep-reaching socioeconomic and political reforms. It has become clear that this is not just a temporary inconvenience and as we move from emergency crisis management to recovery, the rebuilding of our society that is sick from itself, not just Covid-19 will require stronger safety nets, more robust governance and longer-term thinking and investment in order to ensure greater equity. Societal introspection and talking about unconscious biases, disparities across the board, particularly with regards to racial equality and opportunity, can be uncomfortable but it is necessary in order for growth and systems-level change to happen. Recent protests and the huge growth in support for social justice movements have shown the paradigm shift in the public consciousness. Significant changes are needed to address the inextricably linked structural inequities that the pandemic has exploited, painfully amplifying pre-existing hardship for so many people around the world and perpetuating economic insecurity, stress and mental illness, inadequate living conditions and cycles of poverty. We need to transform our ways of thinking around such gaping holes in the fabric of our societies as things like job security, safe and affordable housing are healthcare in themselves, and can be a powerful antidote.
The immense fear, anxiety and distressing uncertainty that people are feeling around the world today during the crisis has given us all just a taste of the status quo that the most vulnerable in society experience on a daily basis, struggling to get by and living in crisis mode 24/7 regardless of pandemics. These feelings are things that we never want to have to undergo again, but as we look to a future when the crisis subsides and we try to get our communities and countries back on their feet we should ensure that nobody ever has to experience such sentiments again. Now is the time to build back better in a way that provides permanent solutions for billions of people who have suffered this kind of disruption every day for many years, long before the pandemic appeared and dominated news cycles. We should use this opportunity to provide some redemption from the grief that so many have endured and help create a more inclusive and fairer world in which we all want to live.
What began as a health crisis has rapidly grown into a global financial crisis, whose duration, size and shape remains to be fully seen, and the decline in GDP and ensuing rise in unemployment and poverty levels will further compound the harm caused by the pandemic. As thousands of deaths become tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands and total case numbers exceed millions, it is sometimes easy to become desensitised and overlook the fact that behind each statistic lies a person’s life and the order of magnitude is far greater when considering the consequences of the secondary economic fallout which will devastatingly strike people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. Recent UN University research estimates that almost half a billion people or 8% of the world’s total population could be pushed into poverty. This would be the first time poverty increased globally in 30 years since 1990, with developing countries being hardest hit. Even in higher income countries, stimulus packages are unlikely to reach those most vulnerable and excluded from the mainstream economic system and the International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned that the livelihoods of at least 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, approximately half of the total global workforce, are at serious risk due to the decline in opportunities and the the ability to work in the same way they had done previously. There is huge uncertainty around the speed and depth of any recovery but we can be sure that without significant measures the scale of the suffering will be harrowing and could last for many years to come. Attempts to save money and cut corners with cosmetic adjustments rather than investment into addressing root causes has already been shown to be a false economy and there will be a far larger price to pay many times over if comprehensive action is not taken.
A New Social Contract
Without correct, urgent and dramatic action, the legacy of this crisis could be greater inequality, deeper divides and increased hardship. The challenge is far greater than developing treatments and cures for the virus itself and we need to find solutions that address the profound underlying chronic ills that have been plaguing societies around the world and whose symptoms have been exploited by the virus. We must no longer be blind to years of systematic dehumanisation and normalisation of inequalities that have been left untreated for too long. It may not be comfortable to discuss and reflect on but is important. Whilst it has taken the unprecedented scale and intimacy of this pandemic to finally bring the severity of the problems into sharp focus and teach us that the previous status quo leaves too behind and has not been working for everyone, we hope that it will act as a catalyst for positive change and lay the foundations for a new social contract.
Not a Great Leveller & Double Tragedy
Whilst anyone can be at risk of being infected by the virus, including even world leaders and royal families, any equality ends there. We may all be in this together but sadly some are more in than others and it is important to understand that there are large groups of people and demographics who are more vulnerable, face more difficult socio-economic circumstances or deprivation and need greater support. The experience is not the same for everyone and we must recognise that the pandemic is not some great leveller but in fact it both worsens the effects of and feed on existing systemic inequalities, injustices and insecurities in society, hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest and disproportionately impacting, infecting and killing the poorest people and those from ethnic minorities. As the pandemic widens divisions and deepens inequality in society, this very inequality worsens its spread and deadliness, acting as a multiplier in a vicious self-reinforcing cycle. We all have to worry about whether our interactions or decisions can put the lives of others at risk, as well as about the lack of flexibility we might have and how much of our previous ways of life we will be able to continue. However, in addition to these shared worries, many of the most vulnerable people also have to be concerned about the most basic standards of life and being able to meet their everyday responsibilities as renters or mortgage holders, as employees or small business owners, as parents and carers. It is an uncomfortable truth that the hardest hit have been people of colour, women, immigrants, those without university education, daily wage workers and particularly people in the informal economy in developing nations. For billions of people globally, the pandemic is a double tragedy as the risk of hunger and not being able to earn a living, keep a roof over their heads or look after their loved ones are more immediate and greater threats than infection.
Bottom Heavy Impact on the Most Vulnerable
Not everyone has the luxury of a safe home to isolate in during lockdowns (particularly refugees, victims of domestic violence and those discriminated against for their beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.), let alone any kind of home at all. It is estimated by the UN that no less than 150 million people or around 2% of the total global population can be classified as homeless with a further 1.6 billion living in inadequate shelter, more than 20% of the world. Statistically, they experience higher incidences of influenza, TB, respiratory problems, and chronic illnesses. Such comorbidities means that they are more susceptible to Covid-19 and their living conditions make the concept of keeping a certain number of feet apart and social distancing or self-isolating almost impossible. Unemployment levels have risen rapidly across the world and are predicted to increase further but the majority of lost jobs tend to be the worst paying ones and were more likely to have been performed by young people, women, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. Many of those who have lost their jobs are not fortunate enough to have the skills or technology to work remotely or to retrain. Indeed, even if they had the means and desire to, many of their tasks cannot typically be done from home. A recent Oxford University study has found that in the US, for example, someone earning an annual salary of less than $20,000 is two times as likely to have lost their job as someone earning over $80,000. Those who are self-employed or on un-salaried, variable contracts are particularly vulnerable, as are people without paid sick leave beyond the statutory minimums (they are more likely to work in roles that involve close proximity to others and to go to work even if feeling unwell). Whilst some may enjoy the luxury of remote working and not be significantly impacted, upward mobility might be hindered for those who do not, such as young people or recent immigrants, who lack strong existing professional networks. They would struggle to develop them remotely and even if they do physically make it to the workplace, they may miss out on training opportunities or mentorship/guidance from more senior and experienced staff. The statistics showed that young generations were already at a significant disadvantage economically compared to older ones prior to the pandemic, and if left unchecked this crisis will continue to increase inequalities between rich and poor, young and old, men and women, those on secure contracts and those on insecure ones. There is a major risk of permanently scarring the longterm employment progression prospects of younger generations and the most economically disadvantaged. In our increasingly globalised and interconnected world, there is significant economic and social interdependence between the most affluent and the least in our societies and the damage caused to the most vulnerable will ultimately impact the livelihoods and wellbeing of everyone in the system.
The pandemic has also exposed the extent of the digital divide as those without access to information online and digital tools such as contact tracing apps to protect themselves and others are disadvantaged. It has become clear that internet access today should be considered a basic right rather than a luxury and efforts to combat the virus need to include getting as many people as possible quickly connected to the internet, particularly in developing countries. There has even been growing support for the internet to be recognised as (and even regulated as) a public utility similar to water, electricity and gas. The pressures from this crisis on individuals, organisations, companies and countries have accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution and in addition to ensuring fair access to transformational technologies, it is important to help ensure that these innovations positively serve humanity as a whole as well as our surroundings.
Our Planet & Environment
This crisis should also change the way we think about the planet and environment and lead to greater appreciation that we need to both care for nature and let nature care for us, in order to protect us from a rebound from this virus and to prevent future pandemics. Our unsustainable encroachment into nature has put our planet in a precarious position and to quote Dame Jane Goodall, “hopefully more and more people will understand that this pandemic is a result of our destruction of the natural world. Putting animals into close contact with people, the eating of animals in markets and the battery farms of domestic animals: all of these things are putting us at great risk.” Covid-19, which has been determined by the WHO to be a zoonotic disease (one that jumps from animals to humans), has clearly shown us just how closely our fate is intertwined with the health of our environment and currently that relationship is broken. Our destruction of natural habitats, degradation of huge areas of land and ocean around the world, and the way we trade wildlife including endangered species as well as our disruptions to ecosystems and weather patterns, all brings us into more frequent and ever closer contact with zoonotic diseases. Recent history has shown just how prevalent they have become, from HIV to H1N1 to Ebola and Covid-19 is another part of this worrying trajectory that needs correcting. In the past it took years for plagues to traverse continents but in today’s globalised world transmission can occur rapidly within days. Therefore, action is needed to ensure a more integrated approach to human, animal and environmental health which would result in a more secure and prosperous future both for people and our planet, and also protect the rights of future generations. Research has shown that climate action and nature focussed plans around ecosystem conservation, land and ocean restoration and protection, and restrictions on the way in which wildlife is traded, can help limit the spread of disease and prevent future crises. It should be abundantly clear that the best antiviral is a healthy environment and we must protect biodiversity and safeguard more of our planet for the benefit of human health, our economies and nature today and in the future.
Role of Governments & Combatting Inertia
Many have called for policy makers to rethink the role of governments with a view to improving crisis preparedness and becoming more proactive and less reactive. Many governments tend to intervene to fix problems and market failures after they have arisen, with insufficient preparations prior to major shocks occurring. They panic and react but do not prepare longterm. With the looming threat of potentially greater crises in the future, particularly around climate change which could be even more painful, policymakers should move towards a more active attitude where they help shape economic systems around a stakeholder approach that better takes into account the common good and drives more sustainable and inclusive growth. The crisis has also eroded some of the stigma associated with accepting top down help from governments and there is increasing support for a greater role for government and stronger societal safety nets. We face huge challenges beyond this pandemic that will require greater unity and collaboration between nations. If this crisis helps us realise the importance of solidarity and the risks of division, it will help us against other major dangers that threaten us all. Times of crisis are also times of transformation, and one of the biggest dangers we face is inertia during our recovery attempts. Wholehearted reforms that address the root causes of issues in our societies are necessary rather than attempts to cosmetically patch over problems with a touch of interventionism through some additional spending on welfare systems and protectionist measures. Minor adjustments by policymakers won’t do and calls for greater social justice when it comes to distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in societies are becoming ever louder day by day. The crisis has shown how reliant we are on low paid workers who care for us, feed us and deliver for us, from looking after sick and vulnerable people in hospitals and care homes to working on farms and in supermarkets to delivering items. We cannot function without them and if humans are to survive as a species, we must close the inequality gaps and have more balance with regards to the welfare of the majority versus the interests of those most privileged. When people feel as if they have nothing to lose, unrest spills into protests, into violence and into possible revolutions. Whilst it is great to see growing awareness and understanding of structural issues and greater support for far reaching reforms, transformation will not happen on its own. History has shown us that merely discussing ideas and gains in their popularity will not necessarily lead to a change in policies – there needs to be sustained pressure to turn thought into action and create political will. There is a risk of collective amnesia and the Financial Crisis of 2008 provides a cautionary tale. In these times of simultaneous hope and despair, the enthusiasm for reform must be maintained long after the worst days of the crisis have passed.
Protecting Human Rights
At the same time, it is important to ensure that this crisis is not taken advantage of and used as a pretext for more authoritarian governance. The potential for abuse of power and overreach is high and some governments could try to permanently normalise measures that were only justified during times of emergency, long after the crisis is over. Some of the technologies that have been adopted could also be exploited for more nefarious purposes beyond responding to the pandemic and this could result in more intrusions on privacy and greater discrimination against particular parts of society. We have already seen cases where the extent of the crisis has been covered up, checks and balances have been weakened, human rights have been violated, state surveillance has been massively expanded and the free flow of information has been replaced with censorship. Such illiberal, heavy-handed measures are synonymous with autocracies and are taking place at a time when there is less potential for pushback. The United Nations have issued warnings about this risk and the need for adequate safeguards and proportionate response to immediate threats in these precarious times without infringing on human, economic and social rights and freedoms. With this in mind, it is important to call on all governments to behave in a transparent manner with their virus suppression efforts and allow scrutiny from opposition parties, free media, and civil society groups. In addition, in many countries, we have seen a disproportionate level of risk to particular groups including people of colour, victims of domestic violence, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Hate speech and racist attacks have risen and certain people have been scapegoated and targeted unfairly, including by some in governments. Such reprehensible behavior undermines us all and during a time when where we have seen some of the best of humanity and community-driven altruism (which even extends to just complying with recommendations to stay home so health systems are not overloaded), we must not let the conduct of bad actors detract from efforts to overcome the pandemic. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, ‘by respecting human rights in this time of crisis, we will build more effective and inclusive solutions for the emergency of today and the recovery for tomorrow.’
Greater International Collaboration & The SDGs
With its disregard for international borders, the pandemic has highlighted both the reality and fragility of our interconnected lives and infrastructure, our codependency on each other and on our planet’s nature and wildlife, and shown that we will either rise or fall together. This extends to governments across the world as well as we have already seen the international competition over procuring supplies of PPE, tests, medicines, etc. as well as growing xenophobia and economic nationalism, aided by protectionism. Facing an invisible enemy, we have even seen the deplorable scapegoating of and abuse against certain visible demographics. We have seen that even the most powerful nations are far away from strategic self-sufficiency and now is the time for East and West and North and South to set aside differences to work together more rather than stoking geopolitical tensions. Rather than build new walls and search for external scapegoats, we need more international coordination around efforts to combat pandemics, as well as for our collective recovery with more collaboration around future preparedness and also the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs provide a framework for a better, more sustainable, and peaceful future for all that calls for greater inclusivity, protecting the planet and the eradication of poverty. Taken together, the 17 goals map out some of the greatest existential threats that humanity faces and which have killed hundreds of millions and led to various major crises. Sadly with 2030 fast approaching, any important progress around the goals thus far has been further impacted by the pandemic. These times of global crisis call for global solidarity and a new approach that involves systems transformation rather than incremental change and old-world thinking, to tackle both existing systemic issues and the challenges that lie ahead. There is a growing recognition that the SDGs, Paris agreement, and other targets require a multi-stakeholder approach that is not just top-down at a government level but also involves the private sector and other civic actors to drive systems change. We would seek to help build a youth-led movement committed to the advocacy and realisation of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The crisis provides a unique but narrow window of opportunity for us all to reflect on, think critically about and reimagine the state of our world and the socioeconomic and political structures that shape our lives, even when it is uncomfortable. There is growing support for widespread long term reforms, as people recognise the need for and become more receptive to system level improvements in order to support the most vulnerable and create a more equitable future. With major disparities across the board being unmasked, in areas such as employment, healthcare, education, housing, food security and environmental conditions to name a few, our eyes have been opened to all the inequities we knew existed but could not previously see or understand as clearly until now. As we look to the future and the kind of world the pandemic could leave behind, we stand at a juncture. We can either long to get back to ‘normal’ preserving the dying remnants of an outdated zero-sum worldview, or we can try to build back better, embracing the idea that what is ‘normal’ for so many people should not be, and that we can and must be better, in order to develop a ‘new normal’ where societies are no longer infected by such horrific systemic injustices. Collectively we must get to the root of the pains that people have endured for too long and seize this opportunity to regenerate communities that have been left behind, putting sustainability and issues of social justice at the centre of everything to build resilience and future-proof countries across the world. We are determined to help work towards building a more inclusive, peaceful and fairer world in which we all want to live, that leaves nobody behind and has greater equity of opportunity regardless of birth lottery privileges. We invite all who share these goals to join us and become supporters here: Become a Supporter