Editorial Peter Whiting. Covid-19 – return to a ‘normal’ world, or a radically different one?

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7 May 2020

By now, we’re all familiar with the rationale that we’re undergoing these Covid-19 limits to our personal freedoms and employment in order to ‘flatten the curve’, thereby saving lives and avoiding overwhelming our health system. Present indications suggest that we have succeeded in avoiding the worst outcomes, and talk is now turning to when and how restrictions should be lifted to allow a return to ‘normality’.

While we all seem to share the desire for a measured removal of limitations, different views are emerging about what the world should look like. Can we go back to ‘normal’, or has the world radically changed?

My father lived through the first half of the twentieth century, experiencing two world wars and the Great Depression. Towards the end of his life, he concluded that he would prefer to have lived in the preceding century, when (at least as he imagined it) life was lived at a slower pace with fewer complications than in our present time. Some of us might echo something of that backwards-looking approach, hoping that when this crisis is over we can go back to how things were before, albeit with such minor adjustments as are inevitably required.

Others are adamant that the Covid-19 shock highlights that the world has fundamentally altered, and that we need to pay great attention to the priorities we set as individuals and as a society.

Our contributors in this edition of the newsletter do not share the view of a return to a world similar to our pre-Covid-19 experience. Rather, they are convinced there is a great need and opportunity to rethink the focus of policies relating to the people, the economy, and the world’s ecosystems.

Joseph Camilleri, in Covid-19: Lessons Not Yet Learned, sees the pandemic as a symptom of broad malaise, and points to lessons we should extract. For him, this is the time to reinvigorate the national conversation, and breathe new life into our institutions.

Paul Gilding, in Covid-19 and the death of market fundamentalism, defines the malaise we are facing: ‘the virus is just the first black elephant in a stampeding herd racing towards us: climate change, ecosystem breakdown, deforestation, water shortages, food crises triggering geo-political conflict, ocean acidification, inequality, and many more’. He cites Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as noting that we will need increased State involvement in the marketplace in order to address what have become unmanageable economic risks. Drawing on the title of his recent book, he tells us The Great Disruption is underway.

Michael Keating, in his two part piece Economic policy post Covid-1 Part 1 and Part 2, addresses policy settings which will be required. He concludes that a significant and lasting increase in the rate of wage increase and equitable distribution of earnings will be necessary to sustain improvements in aggregate demand. This will be best achieved by significant investment in human capital, a strategy requiring increased government intervention and revenue. His perspective is clear: ‘The Prime Minister is right, the restoration of the Australian economy will require changes to economic policy settings. But that should not result in a business-oriented policy agenda’.

Geoff Hanmer, in his article Why the focus of stimulus plans has to be construction that puts social housing first, argues that the labour intensity and predominantly Australian supply sourcing of social housing construction provide the economic incentive to address what is a social imperative.

It is as well that, in all this talk of policy response, we do not lose sight of the reason for a response at all, namely to care for individuals, societies, and creation. Two contributions from Social Policy Connections members address this theme.

Danusia Kaska, in How can you self-isolate if you don’t have a home?, writes of her experience of the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of homeless people. Her appeal is for the government to act to alleviate the burdens on those who are homeless.

Bruce Duncan, in Pope Francis, the Amazon Synod, & Australia, explores the implications for Australia and our interaction with our indigenous people arising from Pope Francis’s response to the Amazon Synod. Progress in reconciliation has been made, but there continues to be much to do.

The reminder is very timely that it is all about the people and the world in which we live. At Social Policy Connections, we have been a consistent voice among those convinced that the neoliberal policy approach has deepened inequality of income and wealth in our society, and that its focus on the individual has greatly disadvantaged the poor and marginalised. None of us wanted Covid-19. But now that we have been forced to address the precarious nature of such an interconnected world, let’s hope we seize this opportunity to ensure recovery policies redress the worst of the inequities and neglect we have allowed to occur over these last decades.

You may like to see the Australia Institute webinar with Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz, former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, and Richard Denniss Chief Economist and former Executive Director of the Australia Institute, discussing Inequality in a Pandemic: Progressive Solutions to the Economic Crisis, 30 April 2020.

Photo COVID-19. UNICEF Ethiopia. flickr cc.
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