- Governments and the older generation must be careful
By: Dr Rajkumar Singh
With the global humanitarian system already on its knees due to unprecedented demand, an injection of resources will be urgently needed. Development organizations and institutions should already be retooling for a future where fewer developing countries will be able to thrive from export-driven economic growth.
As a measure of working together, governments can institute measures where shareholders and creditors take most of the pain, while public funds are used to keep people solvent and to get them back to work as soon as it is safe. The world’s international development actors must also move onto a crisis footing. Poorer countries are younger demographically, so they may not see death rates comparable to those of China and Europe. But their populations are sicker, their health systems weak and their economies vulnerable. Even some— and perhaps many— rich countries are in the early stages of a humanitarian crisis. Above all, this is the time to move beyond mere rhetoric about building more equal societies. Historically, war has often led to sharp reductions in inequality, as the wealthy pay a higher share of taxes and governments intervene in ways that cut the slice of the cake taken by investors. Initially, these measures can be paid for through public borrowing, but eventually the rich will have to foot much of the bill, with more of the burden of taxation shifting from labor to wealth.
Otherwise, we believe it is inevitable that capitalism itself will increasingly be called into question. We must not repeat the mistakes of 2008 and allow popular anger to fester. Neither can democracies afford to let a sentiment take hold that authoritarian governments were better at responding to this challenge.
In a networked world, new forms of cooperation will be needed that thoroughly blur the line between state and non-state actors. We must all decide whether to see ourselves as separate islands or as part of “a Larger Us” that understands, and acts on, our irreversible interdependence
But democratic governments must build models that are true to their own values, fighting the pandemic not just with the consent of their citizens, but through the active participation of all parts of society. That means bringing leaders from civil society, faith groups, youth organizations and businesses into the heart of the emergency response from the beginning, with key individuals given the security clearance needed for them to contribute to strategic planning.
Global business can help by creating new standards for productive virtual working; ramping up production of life-saving products, as a group of CEOs convened by the World Economic Forum is already trying to do; and proposing plans for protecting jobs in industries at risk of being destroyed by the pandemic.
Grassroots organizations are mobilizing in impressive numbers and must be funded so they can be most effective in protecting the vulnerable, providing virtual services, offering psychosocial support in tackling loneliness and starting on the hard work of rebuilding community-level resilience. Those who, having been infected, have developed immunity will become a precious resource, as soon as a serological test can be used to detect antibodies. Democratic governments should invite them to join a global network of volunteers—call it the COVID-Positive Corps—exempting them from social distancing and freeing them to help vulnerable people and communities survive.
Governments must also scale up their communication expertise. Many are doing a horrible job of explaining to their citizens what they are doing and why. Very few, if any, have thought about the need to listen to people and communities during the crisis. Social media companies and news organizations will have an especially important role in framing how we think about the outbreak, particularly when it comes to countering the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on their platforms. They will help determine whether people move into “fight-or-flight” mode, favoring the individual over the collective, or instead “tend-and-befriend,” in a way that promotes empathy and insulates us from extremist views.
We must also start mitigating the intergenerational impacts of the pandemic and renewing the social covenant between old and young. The world has shut down to protect its older people. If we were all under the age of 65, the most effective strategy might be to allow the virus to spread, while trying to protect those with preexisting conditions. As it is, the young are being asked to sacrifice and step up for the old. The vast majority accept that their parents and grandparents are rightly our immediate priority, but solidarity between the generations must work both ways. The redistribution of wealth from older people with assets to younger people with little to their name is part of the answer. As young people are asked to sacrifice their education, it is essential that school and university budgets are protected and not diverted to pay for urgent health needs.
This is also the time for older generations to support the decisive action on climate change and on more sustainable, equitable and resilient patterns of development that many younger voters desperately want. Space must be kept open for these priorities in a critical year for the Paris Agreement on climate change and for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which offer the closest thing we have to a global blueprint for future resilience.
As industry and travel grind to a halt, leaders around the world should declare 2019 the year of peak emissions and launch a Green New Deal that turns this downward trend into accelerating progress toward decarbonization. This is the time to make tough decisions— for example, to prevent short-haul air travel from ever returning to pre-pandemic levels— while also creating jobs at the scale needed to build zero-carbon economies.
Without a doubt, powerful vested interests will lobby for their own bailouts, while arguing that pro-climate measures are too expensive and should be delayed once again. By cooperating across borders, progressive governments, global civil society and green businesses can face these interests down and give us all much-needed hope in a better future. We also expect that new treatments will become available— perhaps more quickly than expected— and hope a vaccine will be available and widely deployed within 18 months. Mass testing may also allow a shift from a blanket lockdown to more targeted restrictions.
Decision-makers must create space to plan for the medium- and longer-term challenges identified and to start immediately developing options for a world after the pandemic has been brought under control. As yet, it is too early to say what form this innovation should take, but it is time to begin addressing this question. The COVID-19 pandemic is a new kind of crisis, one that involves the behaviors and beliefs of billions of people and that has public health, economic, political, social, psychological and cultural dimensions. In a networked world, new forms of cooperation will be needed that thoroughly blur the line between state and non-state actors. We must all decide whether to see ourselves as separate islands or as part of “a Larger Us” that understands, and acts on, our irreversible interdependence.
The writer is head of the political science department, B.N. Mandal Unversity, Madhepura, Bihar, India. He can be reached at: [email protected]