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by Alison Shaw
3rd April 2020

The world will inevitably change as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and after struggling through the fear, sickness, care and loss of loved ones, many of us will want to consider how we can move beyond this catastrophe to improve lives and change societies for the better.

Since Policy Press’s inception we have worked with our authors to help bring about positive social change, and in establishing Bristol University Press we sought to extend this mission by helping readers to understand and tackle global social challenges. This pandemic is certainly a significant global challenge.

Different governmental responses are coming into sharp relief as the crisis develops, from moderate ‘citizen empowered’ policies to more authoritarian ‘surveillance state’ ones. Nations that are less developed are facing an unimaginable catastrophe where lack of clean water, sanitation and basic health care is already a considerable challenge. In a Financial Times article, Yuval Noah Harari, calls for global leadership and unity in order to pull through this pandemic together and The Elders Foundation, a group of global leaders established by Nelson Mandela, calls on a global collective response, recognising our common humanity and shared vulnerabilities, with developed nations helping less developed ones.

What this points to is that all citizens need access to a safety net and that effective social, political and economic structures and policies to support this are crucial now but not only in times of crisis. Providing adequate support for those that need it – a welfare safety net – has to be a fundamental responsibility of government and civil society and it is a global responsibility to ensure that nation states that currently do not have the means to provide one are supported to do so.

 

Access to healthcare

Living in the UK, a country that has a National Health Service, we are incredibly fortunate that a coordinated response to a health crisis is possible, and that access to health care comes without any requirement to pay. But the pandemic won’t affect everyone equally. Those who are homeless, who have underlying health conditions, are disabled or frail will be amongst those disproportionately affected. As many of our authors have eloquently shown, people who are living in poverty, in poor housing, in fragile employment and without access to enough food are always vulnerable and this will now be exaggerated by this emergency. With local authority budgets in England reduced by 49.1% between 2010-11 and 2017-18, responding to the additional social care, public health, police and education needs will be a challenge.

Across the world, frontline workers from care assistants to refuse collectors and shop assistants, are putting their personal safety on the line whilst working long hours for low wages often on precarious contracts. Challenging inequality, including the poor treatment of low-wage workers, is something we continue to focus on in our work. I found this article by Frances Fox Piven, City University of New York, helpful in highlighting the immense contribution of working people to our COVID-19 response, and how this underlines the imperative to rethink the social and economic policies that have punished the poor.

 

Changing the poverty narrative

A ‘good society’ cares for all its citizens and ensures their basic needs are met. Maslow’s oft quoted Hierarchy of Need shows that physiological needs (food, water, warmth and rest) and safety needs (security and safety) are fundamental to survival, yet in the UK, and many global regions, our societies fail to provide that for everyone. In the UK, the arrival of foodbanks, with 1.6m emergency food supplies given by The Trussell Trust 2018/19, and the significant rise in homelessness (up 169% between 2010 and 2018) has to be one of the clearest signs that we are not providing an effective safety net for those that need it.

In the UK and US the rhetoric perpetuated about poverty, often portraying hardship as a personal failing, has underlaid the harsh austerity cuts to the social security system. The notion of those in need as ‘scroungers’ has taken hold, enabling punitive policies to be implemented and sustained. Mary O’Hara’s The Shame Game, passionately calls on us to overturn this toxic poverty narrative on both sides of the Atlantic.

The fallout of the pandemic on jobs and businesses, and people’s livelihoods, will be significant and far-reaching. The OECD is providing up-to-the-minute modelling of the likely impact. A staggering 950k people applied for universal credit from 16-31st March in the UK and over 6.6m registered as unemployed in one week in the US. We have started to see people unused to living on government support, now experiencing the level of income provided in social security benefits, and they are horrified. Even the possibility of a universal basic income has been raised again as countries struggle with potential significant un/under-employment. Does the fact that ‘we are all claimants now’ mean that the narrative about poverty, and the need for social support, will change? I do hope so. It has been a long time coming.

 

Creating supportive states

What has become clear through this crisis, is that governments can respond swiftly to a social issue when they want to, as demonstrated by the rapid removal of rough sleepers from the UK’s streets. The table below shows the percentage of OECD countries implementing policy measures to try to stem a potential economic collapse, with the majority of countries putting in some form of fiscal support for firms (92%) and 89% having some income support for those losing their jobs/income (89%).

Following the immense fiscal packages put in place during this pandemic, it is hard to see how countries like the UK and US can return to a position of rolling back the state, under-funding public services, and seeking ever-lower tax rates. These are emergency measures, and tax payers will undoubtedly have to contribute more individually, but I am hopeful that a shift in public attitudes towards welfare and tax, in particularly a more stringent approach to taxes on global corporations and high wealth individuals.

 

Supporting human rights

The impact of the crisis extends beyond the economic. As a publisher, we are driven by a desire for social justice across all groups and we must not see the rights of any of these diminished during this pandemic.

Many organisations are addressing the discrimination and human rights issues that have come to the fore, including the British Society of Gerontologists who have published a statement rejecting the ageist assumptions built into the UK Government’s response to the pandemic. Equally Ours has collated others from across a wide range of organisations concerned with the impact on equality and human rights.

The human right to personal safety is being tested as enforced lock downs are placing those who face violence, intimidation and abuse from within the family in harm. The pressure cooker effect of families forced together without any support systems will be frightening, and potentially lethal, for the women and children suffering domestic violence and sexual abuse. In the UK, the numbers of calls to Childline are already increasing and warnings about increases in domestic violence are widespread. The many reports of increased mental health issues from around the globe also forewarn of a potentially significant increase in ill-health under these unprecedentedly anxious times for many. Government funding and investment in services for these sectors is needed more than ever.

 

There is such a thing as society

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that there is such a thing as society something many of our authors have never doubted. The 750k volunteers that put themselves forward to help the NHS in just a couple of days shows the huge sense of community responsibility many of us feel. Our editor for Community Development, Sarah Bird, shared a passage with our team that is helpful in reminding us of the importance of responding collectively at a time of crisis.

“Suffering of community in crisis cannot be absorbed by individuals, no matter how tenuous and invisible the bonds of community are. Individuals cannot respond. You must do it as community, for safety, for comfort, and for survival.” Rev Dr Barbara Holmes (drbarbaraholmes.com)

This blog started with the premise that the world will never be the same again. If anything good is to come of this global crisis, we must use this opportunity to refocus our lives, our politics and culture on what matters most – the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet.

If ever there was a time to double down on our social purpose as a publisher then this is it. We will do this by providing evidence-based research for our readers and opportunities to write and publish for our community of authors, editors and reviewers.

In addition to the recently announced free and flexible access to content for institutions here, we have curated a reading list that we think will be helpful to you during this time which includes a range of free ebooks and 50% discount across all formats for others.

We are also keen to publish work that will help us navigate this unprecedented crisis and offer ways forward as we start to rebuild our communities. If you have thoughts on where we should focus our efforts, or ideas for specific products or content, please do get in touch with myself or the relevant commissioning editors you can find here.

Despite the horrific pain and loss arising from this pandemic, we will also see the best in people, even when facing the worst of situations. I hope that it will bring out the best in our governments and the global community too, not just in the short-term but in the long-term. Everyone needs a safety net– we just never know when we might need it – and perhaps now together we can help create a more effective one for all citizens.

 

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Image credit: Adi Goldstein on Unsplash