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Protect our way of life? But we could do so much better!

When will things return to normal?

As I write this, we are entering our third week of Covid-19 lockdown. The initial relief at being unchained from the relentless churn of school term routine, followed by the scramble to adjust to on-line lessons and meetings, has given way to boredom, frustration and increasingly elaborate baking projects. Where I live, unreliable broadband has mucked up our box set binge watching plans. On the other hand, we have re-discovered Bananagrams.

Against the background of the unspeakable suffering of families who have lost loved ones to this catastrophe, this is all trivial stuff. The weekend papers are reporting the deaths of nine healthcare professionals and five bus workers in the capital after testing positive to Covid-19. Each one of these deaths is of course a disaster, for their families, friends and colleagues, for the organisations they worked for, and for every one of us. And with no end to the crisis in sight, we need to brace ourselves for many more tragedies like this.

Although there has been some flouting of the rules, the community spirit is palpable and heart warming. A 4,000 bed hospital has been built in London in just over a week. Engineers are scrambling to find ways of increasing our stock of ventilators. Spirits manufacturers are churning out hand gel and giving it away for free. Volunteers and community groups have swung into gear to assist vulnerable people with shopping and to help alleviate loneliness. As well as donating goods and expertise, UK companies are working hard to identify vulnerable customers and find ways of serving them better. And, as supermarket delivery services groan under the strain, web-sites and apps are springing up to help connect people with local food suppliers.

In the past days there has been some fretting from some quarters that the restrictions on activities and movement could prove too much, and that we should take care to ensure that the fallout from the treatment is not worse than the illness itself. In the midst of the crisis, politicians and political commentators (from the macho hard right in particular) have been arguing that large numbers of Covid-19-related fatalities could be a price worth paying in order to protect our economy and way of life – an argument that President Trump himself has flirted with, on and off. It is heartening, therefore, that governments have largely – if belatedly in many cases – taken a different course, choosing to prioritise saving lives instead. This already reveals something of what “normality” is really based on – but our response to the pandemic tells us even more.

We see – immediately and graphically – how much we rely on a properly resourced National Health Service. Our lives literally depend upon it. More than that, we honour and respect the people who toil, day in day out, in our hospitals, care homes and doctors surgeries. We clap them out of our windows on Thursday evenings but, more than anything, we want to make sure they are safe at work, have somewhere decent to live, and are properly remunerated for their service.

We look around a bit more and realise that the way we have labelled and valued people is screwed up. Those whom we have treated as expendable have turned out not to be. As the incoming leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said in his acceptance speech

We can see so clearly now who the key workers really are. When we get through this it will be because of our NHS staff, our care workers, our ambulance drivers, our emergency services, our cleaners, our porters. It will be because of the hard work and bravery of every key worker as they took on this virus and kept our country going. For too long they've been taken for granted and poorly paid. They were last and now they should be first.”

There has been admiration for the private sector too. We have been impressed at the speed, agility, ingenuity and generosity with which businesses have responded to the crisis, but then we wonder why some of these innovations – and particularly those to aid the most vulnerable members of our communities – have not been introduced before. We are horrified by “profiteering” by companies, and bosses who fail to take steps to keep their own employees safe, and call for strong sanctions to bring them back into line.

While we continue to look to businesses to provide many of our daily needs – food, clothing, household utilities and access to banking services – the massive bailout package put together (and at speed) by HM Treasury reminds us that it is the State that is the ultimate protector of our way of life and the guardian of our rights.

Back on the domestic front, the sudden need to work from home is causing many of us to question the orthodoxies of office life. Have we placed too much importance on physically being in one place or other? Can we do more with on-line conferencing? Do we really need to travel around so much? For the time being though, the effort, imagination and agility needed to combine work responsibilities with home-educating children is enough to be getting on with. In addition to adding teaching professionals to our mental lists of heroic people we must value more in future, those of us who spend more time away from the family home than in it now see at first hand, and in extremely cramped and challenging circumstances, the unending slog that goes into keeping a family home on the right side of chaos (a burden that stubbornly still falls mainly on women).

With ridiculous supermarket queues to contend with, and with telephone help-lines at capacity and beyond, we are being forced to be patient. With basic items harder to come by, we reflect on the complex supply chains and logistics needed to get them into shops and delivery vans, and fret more than usual about waste. We are reminded that modern life is complex, and that some things can take time and effort to sort out. We are less inclined to rubbish the people who point out the difficulties. Instead, we put our trust in people with relevant expertise. And we are done with “having cake and eating it too”. Instead, we are grown up enough to understand and deal with difficult trade offs and choices.

Confined to base, we turn our attention back to our local communities, even in their present stripped back state. Perhaps now the absence of people and bustle helps us to see more clearly what is there – and not there. Why is the nearest grocery shop so far away? And why is locally produced food so difficult to get hold of? What happened to our library? Why are there no sports facilities here? Where do our young people normally go? What do elderly people do all day? What is missing? What could be done better?

On our short forays out to stock up on provisions, or to get some much needed exercise, we stop to talk to people we have not seen for a while, or have never spoken to before (though always at a distance of 2m). Without the constant hum of traffic, we are more aware of birdsong and the presence of other living creatures. The air is cleaner, with 40% drops in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide reported in some places.

I am not so naïve as to think that there is necessarily a social and environmental nirvana on the other side of this. For many people – families who have lost loved ones and who have had to face the nightmare of planning funerals with Covid-19 restrictions in place, elderly people having to manage without the comfort of visits from friends and families, sufferers of domestic violence trapped at home with their abusers, people forced by circumstance or the nature of their work to continue to put themselves and family members in harm's way, and those who have lost their jobs are now relying on food banks – this is a time of enormous stress and hardship. The appetite to “learn lessons” from all this might be small. We might count our blessings just to have survived. And there are those who will say that temporarily crashing the economy in a time of emergency to save millions of human lives is one thing – permanently impoverishing ourselves in order to save birds, butterflies and polar bears is quite another.

But even if we don't remember well, or don't want to remember (which would be entirely understandable) some of the changes we have made will surely stick. In some cases – adjustments to help elderly and vulnerable customers for example – this will be simply because these are good ideas. The new technologies and innovations that have come about as a result of this crisis – from medical and diagnostic equipment to on-line conferencing tools – are now here and are real, as is widespread public awareness of what they can do.

The perception shifts that have been brought about by this crisis may be more ephemeral – or long lasting. We just don't know at the moment. But small insights – such as might come from contemplating an empty supermarket aisle for the first time, or on learning more about the lives of people we would normally take for granted – could lead to big changes if we could only start to join the dots. For instance, is there anything in common between the profiteering of some businesses over the crisis (which we clearly abhor) and the cruel exploitation of people that is so endemic within global supply chains? Could we bring ourselves to care as much for the women in other countries who make our clothes as we do for the people who clean our hospitals and keep us safe? How did we allow the gig economy to develop without a decent welfare safety net? Is our immigration system driven by ideology or actual need? Can we make it as fair, kind and professional as the people we are seeking to attract? Is it sensible to be funnelling so much of our local produce towards large retailers? Are there links between corporate power and rural and regional decline? If so, what changes are needed to business models in order to reverse this and to help us lead happier, healthier and more sustainable lives?

What comes next is too big a question for this little blog. In the fullness of time, many business managers will no doubt want to take stock of their experiences and the challenges they have faced, to make sure that lessons are learned, and that the gains – whether they relate to efficiency, sustainability or employee welfare and well-being – are baked in. Hopefully, there will also be formal reviews by the UK government, of its own handling of the crisis, certainly (something about which many people already have misgivings) but also as to how we might improve our resilience in future. In amongst this, it would be good if there could be scope for reflection about the role of the State in encouraging the type of business conduct that we want to see, especially against the background of the gargantuan and unprecedented financial support package that has been put together by HM Treasury. For instance, having signalled that it will be prioritising self-employed people who pay their taxes, will the UK government be seeking commitments from corporate recipients of financial support about their own future behaviour?

After this, we will certainly want to see much greater investment in the NHS and social care, and more support for those very special people (disproportionately women) who take on caring responsibilities for others. The benefits system clearly needs fixing to cope with what is ahead. So far, so obvious.

The crisis has also shone a light on the under-valued work of local community organisers and organisations, particularly those carrying out front-line relief and advisory work, connecting people to essential services. These need more recognition and support. In order to get businesses pulling in the right direction, we may look again at proposals for worker representatives on Boards, and perhaps new (or strengthened) regulatory requirements as regards human rights due diligence and social and environmental reporting.

These are all worth discussing, though they have struggled to gain traction in the past, even when times were comparatively good. There is a real risk that the coming global recession – potentially the worst and deepest in living memory – will derail these ambitions completely. With the economy cratered and millions jobless, public resources will be stretched to their absolute limit, and then some. The priority may not be responsible business but any business. Populist and authoritarian regimes (and those with populist and authoritarian tendencies) may use the crisis and its fallout to double down further.

But these are not reasons to give up on the fight for decent work and a fairer, more equal society – rather to fight harder. In giving up “normal” life for a time, we may have discovered the foundations for something better. There is a chance to build on this. Let's take it.

© Jennifer Zerk




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written by Jennifer Zerk


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