Friday 20 March 2020 12:08 pm

What does life look like after coronavirus?

Right now, the priority for all countries must be to confront the immediate challenges of the coronavirus pandemic: ensuring access to healthcare, maintaining the flow of essential supplies, and managing the economic fall-out that risks seeing businesses and individuals devastated through no fault of their own.

But historically, periods of national crisis have often been tests for radical ideas that, when the situation is over, can prove to be a better way of doing things than what came before. 

The women who staffed the factories and shops during the First World War did so as temporary replacements, but their ability to take on men’s jobs fundamentally upended perceptions of female labour, and today it is impossible to imagine a society without working women. Similarly, the Great Depression is often credited with the institution of the two-day weekend, with working hours reduced to combat unemployment.

We are currently facing unprecedented challenges on a local, national, and global scale. How we tackle them could provide us with lessons for the years ahead, long after Covid-19 is distant memory.

Feeling flexible

Britain is currently undergoing the biggest ever work-from-home experiment. On Monday, the Prime Minister urged anyone who could work remotely to do so, especially in the capital. And with schools now closing, millions of parents will suddenly find themselves unable to make it into the office.

Some jobs, such as in healthcare or manual industries, require a worker’s physical presence. But for the vast majority of “white-collar” roles, the technology already exists — and has existed for some time — to work anywhere with an internet connection. Email, cloud-computing, and video-conferencing software enables virtually anything that can be done at a desk between the hours of 9 and 5 to be completed at a time and place of the worker’s choosing. 

But for all the talk of how this technology could revolutionise the workplace, many organisations have been reluctant to trust their employees to make the shift. A culture of presenteeism and the pressure to be physically seen to be working prevail.

Now, organisations have no choice. Meetings have been turned into conference calls, software is being loaded onto personal laptops, and workers are keeping to their homes, whether they’re self-isolating themselves or just trying to limit social contact, juggling emails and projects in between childcare commitments. 

When the crisis is over and they are allowed to return to work, many may well point to their achievements while working remotely and flexibly to argue that they should be allowed to continue. This could have huge implications for productivity, and also for gender equality, as it is often women with childcare responsibilities who are penalised most by the demands to be in the office at certain times.

Gender agenda

Speaking of gender equality, one unintended consequence of social distancing and school closures is that parents will suddenly be spending a whole lot of extra time with their children. For those who are not usually the primary caregiver — often fathers — this could be an eye-opening experience. In households with two working parents, the usual assumptions about whose job it is to mind young children will get thrown out the window.

This could accelerate the shift away from childcare being seen as women’s work. The option of shared parental leave was introduced in 2015, but take-up has been abysmally low, with only two per cent of new parents choosing to split their leave entitlement. 

Depending on how long this situation lasts, that could be about to change, as more fathers discover the joy of spending crucial time with their young children, and businesses adapt to the idea that these responsibilities are an issue for all working parents, not just mothers. A more equal childcare split could drive a higher number of women to succeed in male-dominated fields and narrow the gender pay gap.

Robot cash

On the financial side, emergency measures are being introduced all over the world to respond to the crisis.

While the chancellor has made it clear that he will support struggling businesses, there are calls in the UK for protections for workers whose jobs are at risk, and for freelancers and contractors whose work has dried up or who do not receive sick pay for self-isolating. Millions of people face losing their homes or being unable to feed their families if they cannot work.

One idea that has reared its head among those on the left and the right is a Universal Basic Income — putting the tax system into reverse to deposit, say, £1,000 in every adult’s account, to help with immediate bills and living costs.

Clearly, this would be a temporary measure to deal with the immediate Covid-19 impact. But if it works, it could offer a blue-print for the future. 

With automation making more and more jobs redundant, concerns have been growing about what happens if a substantial subsection of the population are unable to participate in the economy. Currently, that’s exactly what’s happening, and how we protect the economically inactive now could be a test of future policy. 

Similarly, our tax system was designed in the aftermath of the first industrial revolution. Perhaps now is an opportunity for a rethink.

Generation game

This crisis has reignited the conversation about intergenerational responsibility. The common perception of millennials and generation Z (broadly, people under 40) is that they are self-centred and lack a sense of civic responsibility. This stereotype is about to be tested.

Younger people, meanwhile, have blamed their elders for failure to take radical action on climate change, and have pointed out that, with an ageing population, the state pension system as it currently stands represents a huge transfer of wealth from the young to the old. Such accusations have generally not been taken well.

Right now, it is younger people who are being asked — rightly — to curtail their social activity and make financial sacrifices for the sake of protecting the health of older generations, who are more at risk of Covid-19. They are, for the most part, doing so gladly. 

But when this is over, we might consider whether it is also right for the young to ask the old to make more significant compromises on environmental sustainability to protect the planet, or to be more flexible in their pension demands to reduce the debt burden on future generations. The simplistic refrain that such challenges are “not my problem” will be easier to refute in a post-coronavirus world.

Going global

Finally, is this it for globalisation, or is this the moment that our globalised system reinvents itself?

From information sharing between countries to tests for cures and vaccines underway across the globe, the world is already working together to combat this crisis. Yes, countries are shutting borders to deal with the immediate impact, but wider recovery will only be possible with multinational cooperation.

This crisis has revealed the weaknesses in our global institutions. Who knows how much this pandemic could have been halted had the World Health Organisation had greater powers to instruct affected countries on how to act? Now, perception is dawning that, in an interconnected world, strong global governance is vital. 

Coronavirus has taught us that we cannot afford to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world. Some challenges do not respect national borders — pandemics, international fraud, climate change. 

We have already seen a huge drive towards collectivism and community spirit to deal with coronavirus, neighbours helping neighbours, social networks coming together to offer support. Maybe now can also be the moment when we recognise the importance of the global community. 

This is not the last cross-border crisis that the world will face. This is an opportunity to strengthen our multilateral institutions and our international relations, so that, when the next one comes, the global community will be ready.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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