Most of us have experienced nothing like this before. It is strange, forbidding and dislocating to a degree probably only experienced by those alive in the early 1940s. Events will get worse and hopefully then better, but nothing will go back to how things were – nor should they.
The first priority of the crisis is of course public safety, especially the groups most at risk from catching the virus. But there are public policy issues, there are the different futures that might arise as the crisis unfolds. Covid-19 doesn’t exist in a political vacuum.
The big narrative around the crisis can go one of two ways. It can become a story of personal, social and national isolation, of stockpiling and looking after number one, spiraling into something more sinister, with retribution against where the virus originated or spread furthest. Blame and the politics of ethno-nationalism and authoritarian populism could be boosted.
Or, a new and more hopeful common sense can start to dominate, one which identifies public health as a collective endeavour from which no one can buy their personal safety. As such the crisis, one of our own making, reveals a fundamental truth, that in essence we’re interconnected social beings, reliant at the end of the day not on ourselves, but each other.
The virus and the demands it puts on the state and each of us, are testing the limits of a society and an economy already stretched far beyond their ability to cope. The NHS has been on the verge of collapse for years. Covid-19 will push it over the edge. People will almost certainly die because of a lack of resources. The social care system, dependent on low-paid workers, and starved of resources for decades will likewise be stretched beyond its breaking point. Already desperate local councils simply have no slack to make up for the sudden and additional pressures being put on them.
Skating on thin ice
The reality that everything is stretched to breaking point, with no reserves, obviously applies equally to the economy. And as ever, it’s people in poverty who pay most. Workers on zero-hours contracts and the gig economy are more likely to be laid off, but are also more likely to carry on working even if they are ill. They have no choice because they are given no choice. As sectors and companies fail, the state will almost certainly have to bail some of them out and then begin to direct big pharma. But this can only happen if there is then a public stake where public investment, always now skewed towards environmental sustainability, is made.
The case for livable statutory sick pay is now obvious. Temporary support for mortgage, rent payments and utility bills should be put in place. But it’s a moment to go much further and examine how a basic income could now underpin not just the economy but the fabric of society. Because, to be clear, such pandemics are likely to recur. And as everyone feels increased insecurity and the added pressure of care for kids at home and vulnerable relatives, an ethic of care, compassion and time has never been more apparent.
But it’s not just us and the economy that needs public investment, but trusted news reporting like the BBC, the police and the armed forces, as well as experts, scientists and public health specialists and the data and resources they need. And as Gordon Brown has suggested international institutions like the WHO will need strengthening too.
This has been a long time coming
This has all been a long time coming. In the 1958 film A Night to Remember about the sinking of the Titanic, the narrative arc was essentially a question of public health. Jump forward to the 1997 Leo and Kate Titanic and the story is driven by sentimentality and individualism. By then, the private had trumped the public. In the space of just two decades, the postwar public realm had given way to the big bang of competitive individualism.
The crash of 2008 was the first big warning sign of our incapacity to cope with shocks, rather than for markets to simply exploit them. Climate driven floods were the second. Now it’s Covid-19. Everything is stripped to the bone, just in time and just managing. So we can’t absorb the shocks. The individual in such circumstances becomes pretty meaningless. What matters is all of us being in it together.
From now on, we must take it for granted that the state and society must have the resources, capacity and resilience to be shock absorbent.
But the return of the state must take a 21st-century form. As our analysis in 45° Change demonstrates, in a world of digital networks and growing muscular citizen-led autonomy, our collective ability to think, act and hold to account will not stop growing. The big state matters, but so do emerging civil society organisations, as the Compass Participatory Techniques Group show here. We need both top-down state emergency action and bottom-up capacity and resilience building. This could mean people really taking back control over their lives and the planet. Lives in which where and how we travel and consume will never return to ‘normal’. Indeed, what we do and learn now will prepare us to deal with the climate emergency.
This is a pivotal moment. The time for a reset. Usually it’s wars that flip systems from private back to public. The Boer War and the poor health and education of the soldiers sparked the birth of the modern welfare state. The Second World War led to the postwar settlement. But this isn’t a war between people but one that unites all of us across the whole globe in our shared humanity. This, the war against Covid-19, must be the pivotal moment, when the primacy of the public is re-asserted.
To be clear, this is not simply a battle of left versus right, but public versus private. In 1944 it was a Tory, Quintin Hogg, who first coined the term ‘social security’, today it is Angela Merkel who summed up the moment as a “test of our solidarity, our common sense and our love for each other”. Competition, cost-cutting and short-termism got us into this mess. Only cooperation, investment and long-termism will get us out.
Compass will help fly the flag for the public, for a new state, and a new democratic and political settlement for a good society that feels daily more essential. From the gloom, from the panic and uncertainty we will find hope – but only together.