Not all in this together

Disease and death are often thought to be the great levellers, the shared suffering from which the rich cannot cosset themselves. But of course we know that this is not true of Covid-19. Actually, it isn’t really true of many diseases, which will always prey on the more vulnerable and those unable to afford good care. Nonetheless, it is clear that Covid-19 has a particular tendency to seek out those already facing disadvantage. Among the virus’s many nastinesses, it is both sexist and racist, and its impact seems to be felt disproportionately by the poor, not only because we underpay those we now recognise as essential workers. It is an unfair disease, exaggerating unlevel playing fields rather than acting as a leveller.

“The weak and the most marginalised are paying the highest price,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s former Prime Minister, at a recent Tortoise event in response a question from me on fairness.

Though we don’t understand why, Covid-19 is racist. It is now widely recognised that the virus has a greater impact on those from BAME backgrounds, to an extent which goes beyond their greater representation in front-line workforces and their higher presence in harder hit urban areas, and does not seem a purely economic effect. The sole way in which Covid-19 seems not to favour the already advantaged is in its sexism: men, being the weaker sex, seem to be much more prone to succumbing to the worst effects of the disease, and are disproportionately represented among the dead.

Additionally, the lockdown response in many countries provides further protections to the wealthy, while leaving the less well-off financially more exposed. Those expected to continue to attend their workplaces are predominantly blue collar workers, while better paid white collar staff are encouraged to work from home. This is true generally but also perniciously within individual workplaces [full disclosure: I write this comfortably at home, as I have been throughout]. Poorer children are more disadvantaged by lockdown learning, and those joining the workforce will also face greater challenges. The simple fact is that the wealthy are not risking exposure to the virus in the same way as the poor are, and most do not face any issues around the existence or adequacy of protective equipment. That divide applies also between nations, where emerging economies generally will have less protection than the wealthy, and sadly we will see how that plays out over the next few months (though there are positive signs from some).

So, although this Covid crisis is a national and international event to which all are exposed, we are not all in this together in the same way. Our experience is not the same: the virus is acting to re-emphasise pre-existing unfairnesses.

The implication of this tendency is that policy responses to drive the recovery need to lean very strongly against the unfairnesses that Covid-19 bolsters. If we aren’t all in this together, we can at least all be swept up by the opportunities created by rebuilding our economy once we’re through the current crisis. Still better if the recovery favours those hit hardest. Most expect Keynesian stimulus to follow the efforts by governments to limit the huge economic plunge caused by the virus; designing it right will make a significant difference to the shape of our exit from the crisis.

There are a number of measures of how this might best be done: 

  • any economic stimulus needs to be broadly spread so as to advantage disadvantaged areas
  • the stimulus needs to be quick acting, not a long-term promise that will take multiple years to be delivered
  • the stimulus should be designed so as to deliver not just economic stimulus but social stimulus, advancing the interests of those in greater need; the multiplier effects must be maximised
  • it also needs to build in environmental considerations so that it acts to mitigate the coming climate crisis

While I’m sure others will be able to develop other ideas (I myself have some), one possible programme that might deliver against these criteria could be the following:

Scheme: £100,000 pot for repairs, refurbishment and other essential works (including insulation and other green investment) at every school in the country, to be spent within 2 years. In the UK, there are some 25,000 primary and secondary schools, so that the overall cost of this would be a manageable £2.5 billion. It may be that the scale of the pot should be varied between primary and secondary schools (for example, a similar total spend would be reached with a £75,000 pot for each primary school, and £150,000 for each secondary and special school).

Speed: Unlike a single infrastructure spend with such a budget, because this proposal is in relatively small units dispersed around the country the money could be put to use more rapidly using smaller building operations, and would be more likely to have a positive economic impact felt nationally not just in a single region. That is of course in addition to assisting dramatically the quality of life for pupils and teachers, and relieving a burden on school budgets. If there is a rare case of a state school without any ability to use such a pot, the surplus could be passed to the neediest nearby school, as identified by the local authority. 

Multiplier effect: With all school budgets squeezed this would free budgets to be spent on current expenditure rather than capital costs. Many improvements are desperately needed, and many enhancements may reduce ongoing expenses as well (eg insulation reducing heating costs). There would be significant benefits if this enables better focus of future school spending on education itself.

Building in further multiplier impact 1: perhaps a requirement to bid for this work should be that any participating worker is training up an individual under the age of 25 to take up their trade. This would help address the gap in apprenticeships, especially for that age group (which is only likely to be exacerbated by the Covid crisis), reduce youth under-employment and rebuild the availability of scarce skills.

Building in further multiplier impact 2: perhaps any materials used for these works should be sourced within the UK, stimulating the economy more broadly.

This must be the measure of the steps taken to drag ourselves out of the Covid crisis: that they move us in the direction of fairness rather than exacerbating our current unfairnesses, which the virus is only adding to.

 

Resolution Foundation: Effects of Corona Virus on Workers

Institute for Fiscal Studies: Learning during Lockdown

Resolution Foundation: Class of 2020

The Investor Agenda: A Sustainable Recovery from the Covid-19 Pandemic

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