The Great Societal Rewind

I remember the early days of the lockdown when there was a sense that maybe we would emerge out of this as better people, living in a better society. Three months into the start of the pandemic in the West, these thoughts sound so naive.

Let’s be factual. Consider two of the major problems that our society was experiencing pre-COVID: environmental damage and income inequality. The longer it takes to eradicate the virus, the more dramatic and irreversible the acceleration of those two pillars of our society’s decay.

Environment, first. Remember, in the eighteen months before COVID we were witnessing encouraging, albeit tentative, developments. There was a choral movement of citizen awareness, developing regulation, and, finally, real initiatives from corporations.

Recess is over (sound of a bell).

Understandably, the primary concern of people, right now, is protecting themselves and their beloved from contagion. Add to this, households’ financial stability has suddenly and dramatically worsened, due to the jump in unemployment levels. The environment has lost many positions in the ranking of preoccupations. Even worse. In the memory of most, the clear skies we are enjoying in typically hazy cities will link to the tremendous social and economic distress the lockdowns have caused. Climate change sceptics will quickly resuscitate the trade-off between environmental sustainability and economic growth that, as a society, we were starting to overcome.

An easy prediction: nation-states — that in this crisis have revealed what they are: a badly aged political institution— will re-direct resources earmarked for environmental improvements to other means. Of course, it is understandable to try to protect households through subsidising employment. But this is an unconditional subsidy to corporations, and it is a wasted opportunity. Policymakers should only grant financing to corporations that contractually commit to a better engagement on corporate sustainability. Or maybe it is too naive to hope that our national politicians could incubate such a complex thought.

For corporations, it is even easier to unwind the modest pre-COVID progresses. Here as well, it makes perfect sense that the priority of CFOs and CEOs becomes to repay debt that they are accumulating in this phase of the emergency. But it is myopia typical of our form of financial capitalism to do so by cutting investment in innovation and environmental programs. Yet, this is what is sadly happening.

Those and other factors — such as the avalanche of cars that will invade our cities as we demonise public transportation — hint at the extent of the damage that the virus will do to environmental sustainability. It is not only a lull in our fight against climate change. It is going backwards.

What about income inequality? It will worsen through two channels.

First, in the short- to medium-term, it is clear that the lowest income/wealth classes will lose the most. At the country level, the lockdowns imposed by public health authorities are affecting the most employment of the indigents. At a global scale, developing countries will lose a disproportionate amount of people compared to others with higher standard health services.

In the long term — especially if the pandemic permanently disrupts regular schooling of our children — income inequality will worsen through education.

I bet I am not alone in being hugely dissatisfied by the performance of the schools throughout the lockdown period. I have heard of some exceptions, but generally speaking, the attitude of schools has been to wait till the storm passes, offering shaky solutions that are maybe appropriate for one or two weeks recesses. The arrangements they have painfully put together are clearly inadequate to address the enormous challenges that the continuous circulation of the virus will create for school operations.

If we don’t find a vaccine soon, most of the burden of the education of their children will continue to fall on parents. The result is the creation of a dualistic education system. The well-off, those parents who can provide expensive online lessons or to dedicate more time to teach, will grow well-educated children. Conversely, families with impossible shifts and who can’t afford house help or tutors will suffer the most.

I am now to admit that my hopes of a post-COVID better world were embarrassingly optimistic. But that nobody — governments, corporations, educators, and others — is making the inch of an effort to turn this crisis into an opportunity for our society is (still) very painful.

I am an economist and author dedicated to finding applicable solutions to achieve social sustainability while preserving economic growth.

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