On the day Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, US$7 trillion were wiped off the global equity markets. It is becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 will radically reshape our daily lives. But will the coronavirus become one of the paradigm-shattering events that change the way we think about how society should be organised?
In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein showed how neoliberal elites have exploited disasters to impose free market profiteering across the world. While elites will jump on the crisis to create new opportunities for themselves, the rest of us see the need to re-assess the value of social work as well as universal basic income and services.
The pandemic is showing us how a co-operative system can meet basic human needs, protect people from unnecessary suffering, acknowledge the absurdity of borders and promote human flourishing above profits. This system is called socialism.
The virus has already highlighted how class inequalities will have material consequences for those not able to self-isolate, work from home or receive adequate care. Debates during the 2019 UK election campaign which may have felt to some like distant policy questions have now become matters of life and death. Many middle class families will experience the sense of fear and uncertainty that is part of the lived experience of the precariously employed and marginalised.
While elites will jump on the crisis to create new opportunities for themselves, the rest of us see the need to re-assess the value of social work as well as universal basic income and services.
The most immediate priority is the provision of solidarity and support to those in need and social distancing to prevent the further spread of the disease. Staggeringly, the government’s business-first approach has put lives at risk and revealed once again how little concern the Conservatives have for working-class families.
But how will life be changed by the coronavirus in the longer term? How we view social care, work time and social welfare may all be up for grabs.
First, it may lead to a re-evaluation of the importance of social and care work. When the crisis subsides many people will owe their lives to the work of cleaners, sanitation workers, supermarket, care and medical staff. The tragic circumstances provide an opportunity for people to witness in starker terms just how absolutely essential certain jobs are.
One of the arguments against closing schools, for example, has been the potential depletion of NHS staff who would need to stay home to care for their children. Not only should the pay and conditions of care workers be improved, but the government should commit to quality universal childcare as a permanent solution to the provision of care.
Second, emergency measures to avoid non-essential social contact could also change how we work. A report by the Autonomy think tank demonstrates there is no positive correlation between productivity and working longer hours, which provides evidence for a shorter working week and investing in the health and wellbeing of workers.
“We are about to witness a mass experiment in working remotely,” Autonomy’s director, Will Stronge, told me. “We’ll soon see how much work requires workers to be in the office and perhaps which specific tasks have to be done at all.” Once people experience more flexible working arrangements it may be hard to corral them back into the office.
Third, the crisis also provides further evidence in favour of a universal basic income to provide for those struggling to meet basic needs. The coronavirus only intensifies the conditions of precarity already faced by workers on temporary and zero hour contracts. A universal basic income would guarantee a modest payment to all members of society funded by a progressive taxation scheme which asks more from those who can most afford it.
Even Republican senator Mitt Romney has called for $1000 cash payments to all Americans regardless of income. Only a few years ago this was a fringe idea in American politics, indicating how quickly the ground has shifted during the crisis.
Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, famously described illness as “a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community.”
On 5 July 1948, a Labour government established what is now regarded as the most valuable institution of British public life: a state-sponsored medical service which provides free diagnosis and treatment for all. Our experience with the coronavirus might help introduce new systems that could change our society for the better.
James Muldoon is a lecturer in political science at the University of Exeter