Matthew McPherson – a law student, Naval Reserves officer and Special Constable – says the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the need for major social reform, and when we emerge from the crisis this should be the calling of his generation.
We live in a time of unprecedented challenge and unimaginable change. But this is not new.
Our planet is dying. New superpowers are emerging. Inequality is widening. The rights of workers are being degraded. And a virus first identified in December has spread from a city in China into the lives of almost every human on earth.
Historians will view the coronavirus as a case study of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses at dealing with a truly global crisis. But the lockdowns, the new laws, the medical resources and the deaths will only be the first half of the story. The second half remains unwritten: what we did when this was all over to improve our economy, our politics and our society, so that we are better prepared to engage with the other emerging global challenges we face.
Our starting point must be that there is both good and bad in humanity. Whilst some citizens rushed to volunteer at food banks, hospitals and in their communities, others bought far more than they needed, exhausting the supply chain meaning some went without. Whilst the majority of businesses closed on the advice of governments, meaning the inevitable loss of income for business owners, the self employed and workers, others attempted to cash-in, stockpiling vital resources for sale online or promoting their club nights for ‘One last hurrah before lockdown’. Whilst the vast majority of citizens stayed at home and reduced their social contact to help others, organised criminals stepped up their behaviour, knowing police resources would be stretched and seeing an opportunity to exploit.
Those of us fortunate enough to live our lives in relative peace and prosperity, perhaps surprised by the selfish behaviour of others during this pandemic, need gently reminded of the bad. And those of us – like me, who has served as a police officer for a decade – unsurprised by humanity’s capacity for cruelty, sometimes need to be reminded of the good.
So how should our shared experience of this pandemic change our engagement with each other and the world? I think there are five pillars on which we can start to build.
1. We must allow the experts back. I was amused recently by an internet meme which described ‘Experts across the ages’. From the 1980s to the 2020s it progressed from ‘scientists’, through ‘economists’ and ‘historians’, to ultimately end up with ‘Karen, on Facebook’.
Opinions can be valid, and people mostly do not set out to mislead. But imagine taking your seat on an aeroplane, taxiing to the runway, when an announcement from your captain says, “Ladies and gentleman, I’ve never flown a plane before, but it’s okay, I’m an accountant”.
Many of our most powerful institutions are run in this way. People with great ability, confidence and opinion, but who are simply not qualified for the role. In the run up to the Brexit referendum the Conservative MP and ‘Vote Leave’ campaigner Michael Gove famously exclaimed on Question Time, “The people have had enough of experts”. Of course, half the audience burst out laughing. They stopped laughing when the referendum result appeared on their televisions.
Of all the suffering and unprecedented loss the coronavirus has brought us, one benefit has been that it has allowed the experts back in. Our leaders are no longer flanked solely by political advisers, but by medical experts, empowering the people with knowledge – not just opinion – on what should be done.
2. Self regulation is not enough. When the government appealed to the hearts of citizens to stay indoors, the law abiding majority obliged. Decent people across the country were doing the right thing, and whilst some vulnerable workers with few economic protections were driven to find any form of income, greed fuelled those who clearly felt the rules didn’t apply to them.
This was simply the latest example of a common failure. The uneven playing field enabled by self regulation has been at the core of many of our greatest injustices. Some of the largest companies in the world not paying a penny in corporation tax despite generating huge revenues in this country; businesses like Cambridge Analytica abusing social media to steal our personal information; a financial sector that privatised profits and left the public to underwrite their losses.
We have seen throughout this crisis that encouragement alone is not enough. Some people with wealth and power will act against the national interest, just as they do when it comes to fairness in our economy, consumption that harms our planet, and abuses that take away human rights.
3. We must change the established definitions of ‘employment’, ‘housing’ and ‘benefits’ to reflect the realities of our generation. The basic underpinnings of social policy are not understood by those in power. House price rises and salary stagnation has made owning a home fourteen times more expensive for millennials than for baby boomers, resulting in my generation being three times more likely to rent into their forties.
Coupled with the reduction in employment security (including the exponential growth in zero hours contracts), the economic vulnerability of young people in Britain – many currently saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt due to tuition fees and grant cuts – has been brought to a head by this crisis. The Financial Times reported half a million new benefit claimants in just the first nine days of the virus.
Had a younger generation been in power, rent freezes could have been announced alongside mortgage payment holidays. Advance loans on benefits payments could have been automatically issued or, even better, a national minimum income created for all who qualify. And the welfare system in its entirety could have been supported through the fair rates of taxation which small and medium sized businesses work so hard to pay.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave evidence to a Congressional Committee in the United States, one of the senators asked him how Facebook remains a free service. Zuckerberg seemed surprised to be asked such a basic question. “Ads,” he replied. Some smiled. We definitely should not. Legislatures around the world have been left behind by the pace of change taking place in our economy and society.
4. It is in our own interest to find global solutions to global challenges. Few issues we face do not have a global dimension, and most are related to the world’s growing population and its interdependence. Our post-WW2 world of three billion people will have grown to ten billion by 2050. The emergence of super economic and military nations (notably India and China, whose combined populations are already just under 3 billion) will result in profound changes to the way every human lives their lives.
The pressure this will put on energy consumption alone means that challenges facing one government will essentially belong to all others. And that is without consideration of the growing territorial conflicts we have already seen in Russia, China and the Middle East. The globalisation of social policy will dwarf the renaissance of nationalism on both sides of the Scottish border. Our politics, and our only viable solutions, must be based on unity. To take any other course would be to bury our heads in the sand.
5. Our capacity for change and hope for our future has never been higher. This pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in our economic, social and political fabric. But it has also shown that our ability to rise to such challenges has never been greater. The power of social technologies is no better exemplified than by the actions of Greta Thunberg, whose climate change strikes grew from one country to almost two hundred within a single year. The future can be bright – but the climate is not our only challenge.
The price has been astronomically high. But when our front doors open again, when buses, tubes and high streets are refilled, what world will we be stepping into? The answer is that it will be the one we left behind. Our world will have not changed. But perhaps we will have.
This pandemic has been our generation’s calling. We may not have had the political traction to change the past or present. But we can change the future. Above all, we cannot – and must not – go back to business as usual.