by Ian Greener
27th May 2020

How we explain to ourselves and to one another what is going on in our world at the moment is crucial in responding to it, as well as in working out what we might do next. There is a lot at stake. If our explanations lead us back to where we were before, we miss losing the chance to learn from what has happened, and surely that would be unforgiveable given the number of people who have died.

It is easy to characterise, at least in the advanced economies, the virus as being something that has invaded our ordered lives, forcing us into isolation. Wartime metaphors abound. We are in a ‘battle’ with the virus and what we have called ‘lockdown’ is now being gradually reduced. However, it remains an open question whether this is being done rather more because of the harm to the economy caused from the shutdown of so many businesses, than because infection rates really are low enough to justify the change. There is talk of government debt mountains and leaked documents from the UK government pointing to hard times ahead, igniting fears about how we are going to pay for the lost revenues and government support that has been put in place during the crisis.

As such, COVID-19 is an unruly force that has broken into our ordered lives, and while scientists battle to defeat the virus, and our health and care services struggle to cope with its effects, sometimes with further tragic consequences for those working in them, we await the chance to resume our lives again.

Perhaps we need to turn some of this story on its head and remember that the world was not a stable and settled place before the virus came to us.

For those lucky enough to have work which is reasonably secure and well-paid, and who are in relationships with others in similar situations, and who live in places which offer security and solace against the world, the world might appear to be stable and settled. But even for them, the virus has affected their lives in ways they could scarcely imagine. And they are the ones who were best prepared for it.

The virus has made us pay more attention to our care and health workers, and we have become more willing to hear the voices of those able to express their concerns at what they have seen. However, these services also depend upon less visible workers in insecure employment, are in less supportive (and even dangerous) relationships, who live in environments which are not those where they can spend large amounts of time safely. I’m not sure the world was a particularly secure place for them before the virus reached us. It is even less so now.

We have also begun to notice other workers we took for granted before the virus arrived. People who deliver our goods and services are suddenly ‘key workers’, but may be in the same kind of precarious employment situations they were before the crisis. People who are doing work such as cleaning our streets and collecting our rubbish have revealed how essential they are to our lives, but in doing so have also made themselves vulnerable to the virus by continuing to work.

Perhaps we need to step back, and realise that the world is a great deal less safe than we thought. It may always have been less secure for those who we overlooked, but we weren’t paying attention to them.

So what are we going to do about it? A starting point is that we owe our key workers a debt of gratitude, and to recognise that by giving them secure and decently-paid work positions. We have asked them to keep our countries going during this awful time, often at risk to themselves. If work is ‘key’ it should be protected and rewarded. This is the least we can do.

A second lesson is that many countries weren’t as well prepared for the current situation as they might have been. The same countries have often run exercises which revealed gaps in their planning and infrastructure, but didn’t do as much as they could about them. We need to act on what we have learned during the last weeks.

Where there are supplies and staffing that we may need in the event of a pandemic, we need to be able to access them quickly, and that means public ownership and UK manufacture. Where the world is chasing the same supplies and the same expertise, we can’t depend on it being able to get it through an international market. Protective equipment and clothing needs to be stockpiled, regularly checked, and for us to have the capacity to make it ourselves if need be. Extra testing capacity is often appearing through contracts with private providers at the moment, and although this is understandable at a time of emergency, we need to look hard at making these facilities publicly-owned and decently-funded going forward.

Finally, if we think of the world as being a place where, despite our best efforts, things can always overwhelm our efforts to contain it, then we need to have a rethink about what and who we value. Instead of castigating those that often face the greatest challenges in their day-to-day lives, maybe we can have greater compassion for them, especially when it turns out the same people have turned out to be in jobs we have defined as ‘key work’. Perhaps we might accept that the world offers an even greater threat than COVID-19, that of climate change, and that we need to get on with accepting and better understanding the risks it brings, and planning for them.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how fragile we are in the face of a new challenge we don’t really understand, and for which we seem to have been under-prepared. The threat of climate change is surely far greater for us all, and yet there is little sense we are even remotely ready to tackle it.

Ian Greener, Head of School, Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde, is author of Healthcare in the UK: Understanding Continuity and Change, and co-author of Reforming Healthcare: What’s the Evidence? and The Consumer in Public Services: Choice, Values and Difference.

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Image Credit: Sally Morrison