In Europe, together with COVID, there is another endemic condition: everyone is an expert at almost everything.
I still remember the early morning coffees between colleagues, back in the year 2000 in Italy. Then, everyone suddenly turned into an expert of competitive sailing. We all stayed up late, ensconced in our sofas to follow the adventures of Luna Rossa, the Italian yacht runner-up of that year’s America’s Cup. “The skipper should have jibed earlier,” “He should have covered in that windward leg,” “They have an illegal spinnaker pole, that’s why,” “In the left side of the regatta field there is always more wind at that time of the day.” It was all quite fun, innocuous, but ridiculous.
Nowadays, we are all virologists, epidemiologists, or public health strategists. We all know better when hairdresser should resume their activity, the percentage of protection you gain by wearing a mask type instead of the other, or the results of secret trials of hydroxychloroquine. It is less fun, more dangerous, and still ridiculous.
Now, there comes one crucial question, however, that is too important to be left to the overnight experts we have all become: what we can do, as a global community, to make sure we emerge from this crisis in a better, more equal, and just society.
Please, let us all pay attention. The suspension in our regular lives due to the pandemics is an anthropological turning point in the social, economic, and political history of humanity. There have been more deadly diseases in the past. Up to 200 million people (almost half of the global population) died of bubonic plague during the seven years’ pandemic, between 1346 and 1353. There were two world wars and countless, long-lasting conflicts earlier. But no crisis has been more mediatised, shared, felt like the current one. The whole world is suspended, and listening: an audience of 7.8 billion people, about to hear a final judgment. Because we have to understand that the decisions that we are taking today are final and irrevocable: they are going to save humanity or accelerate its disband.
Who should we trust, then? How to take the right decisions? I think it is quite elementary, so simple that no ‘expert’ would ever figure it out.
The key is to ask ourselves: who we have had to thank the most during the lockdowns? Without whom we would not have made it through? Make a list, and these are the people and the activities we need to support when we all emerge from the crisis: no big theory needed here, no big knowledge. Lockdowns have clarified our moral ideals as a society. These must now become our priorities, the pillars around which our society should evolve.
Here is my list, in no particular order.
- Healthcare professionals
I start easy. Doctors, nurses, and medical technicians top everyone’s list, I am sure. We have all seen very moving scenes of whole cities clapping at the unison in gratitude for the medical personnel. But what is so evident now, used to be neglected. Healthcare expenditure has lagged badly— in quality and quantity — other categories of public investments. Remunerations of health workers in the hospital systems differ across countries, but are simply scandalous in some ‘rich’ ones. In France, a specialist doctor in a hospital earns a mere 2.2 times the average national wage, a nurse less than 0.8 times. In Italy and Spain even less than that. In Europe, only German and Dutch specialists make more than three times the average wage. These people save lives…
It is not only about quantity. How is it possible that public expenditure on healthcare is broadly the same in France and in Germany, while the former has close to half of intensive care beds than the latter?
2. (Primary) Education
The lockdowns have been a moment of ‘transparency’ in schooling. Most parents, also those who are not ordinarily interested in what their children learn at school, had full visibility on schools curricula and operations. To me, this has been a harsh wake-up. I have discovered how uninventive, unimaginative, and bland is schooling nowadays. And how teaching methods — and taught notions — have evolved only little since my times, while everything else has changed. I am sure I am not the only one.
The problem is particularly severe for kindergarten and primary education, when kids are not yet independent and need guidance to discover the world they have landed on and form their interests.
But, with hindsight, all this should not come as a surprise. During the last ten years, investment in education has been falling (as a percentage of total government expenditure) in almost all developed countries (source OECD). The situation is particularly severe for primary schools. Teachers for early years students (4–11 years old) — the ones we trust to build solid education bases in our children — are paid a misery, with minimal seniority premiums. How is it possible that in France — a country that has invented the National Education through the Revolution and Napoleon — a primary school teacher makes only 69% of the French annual average wage. And this is 1,460 EUR a month, in case you wonder. Oh, and before taxes.
And it is not only a question of money. Becoming a teacher, especially for the primary school, must become extremely difficult, as it is in China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, for example. It should under no circumstances become a profession you are re-directed to if you fail anything else.
3. Better and more affordable housing
I am among the fortunate ones. I own a large apartment with two balconies surrounded by green spring foliage and birds’ songs. But I can painfully imagine the lockdowns of families of four in 40 square metres on the eighth floor of a city centre building. Or, how have homeless people welcomed the enlightened recommendations of our politicians to ‘stay at home to be safe’.
More than 18% of Italians live in overcrowd premises (definition by the OECD). In the super rich Germany, almost 340,000 people are officially homeless, 0.41% of the population, the fourth-highest among OECD countries. Incidentally, German house prices have been rising the most in the last few years among the top EU nations.
With central banks inundating the world with their baseless money, cheap credit will go to affluent classes and will soon tap the housing market. A new housing bubble is coming. And together with the historic fall in middle/low-classes income, it will make the housing problem even more acute for our society.
4. Clean air
We have all experienced the sudden change in air quality during lockdowns. Fewer aeroplanes, cars, and factories caused a fall in global emissions and painted in blue the skies of cities typically covered in toxic dust. To open the windows and let fresher, cleaner air in was one of the few pleasures we had.
And yet, a study by Nature Climate Change measures that global carbon dioxide emissions fell by a mere 17% compared to benchmark by early April. The severe restrictions that hit our economies so hard left unaffected more than 80% of the global emissions of CO2. The same study estimates that by the end of this year global emissions would have fallen by between 4.2% and 7.5%. If these projections prove accurate, in 2020 we would have emitted as much carbon dioxide we did in 2018, only with an estimated 1 billion new unemployed.
This dismal observation shows how difficult and urgent is changing gear in the fight to reduce emissions. It also shows, even more importantly, that the presumed trade off between economic growth and sustainability is a fluke, fabricated by the mainstream to delay urgent action.
We need a dealbreaker, a revolution that will achieve sizzling reductions in emissions without compromising economic growth. Instead, we talk of a general carbon tax (see this week’s The Economist), something that will only polarise the public debate further, leading to new deadlocks and fatal delays.
5. Waste management
Lockdowns or not, we have all gotten our trash collected. It has been a remarkable achievement, one that we will, however, forget even quicker than our gratitude for doctors and nurses.
Think about it. As the insane startup/VC world is burning cash on making Alexa’s answers more accurate, nothing changes in waste collection. Women and men are still there, precariously holding handles on the back of polluting, noisy trucks, in the middle of the night, in freezing weather or smouldering heat, virus or not. And when we wake up, our trash is gone, by magic.
6. Food and distribution
It is quite remarkable that, even at the height of the emergency, the supermarket around the corner remained open, its shelves as full as possible. During the early days of the pandemic, long queues had formed outside outlets. But these were due to our irrational fears, rather than real risk of food shortages. Hence, these queues dissipated quickly and the supermarket cashiers became our only real human (touchless) contact, outside of our homes.
It mattered and it matters, and we should not forget it. Food distribution is a complex chain, involving several women, men, and entire industries: from farmers to truck drivers, from stockroom employees to cashiers. They all worked for us, quietly, risking their lives for the misery of their remuneration. Together with doctors, nurses, and teachers, the people behind the food chain deserves better work and financial conditions.
Finally, supply chain services have worked tirelessly to prevent that lockdowns turned into chaos, riots, or even civil wars. It might seem an exaggeration, and this is partly the issue that has affected the logistic sector for long. We expect logistics services to happen as easy as light when we turn the switch on. The recent frenzy of ‘Free shipping’ has exacerbated that expectation. Of course, shipping is not ‘free’: business that promote these facilities charge us in different ways to recoup the fees they pay to shipping companies. But this promotional trick participates to the broad-based feeling that logistics is a negligible quantity, something that must happen whatever happens.
It is not, of course. Several complex operations start with us clicking on the ‘Buy’ button of our preferred e-commerce portal. In each of them, there is a risk of disruption, magnified by the ever shorter delays we are willing to bear before we get our merchandise home. And yet, all these risks are minimised, one by one, by extremely professional workers and expensive IT systems. ‘For free’.
It is not only us citizens, by the way. Corporations have grown to consider supply chain services as a commodity, something that must happen, as there exist no reasons why it should not. Logistics providers have become their favourite source of savings, as the former frantically compete for volume in an underpaid business.
Supply chain services are incredibly complex operations. They are not a ‘given’. It is high time that corporations and individual recognised this: there is no better time than now, when our whole society was kept afloat by fully functioning logistics chains of food, healthcare material, and other primary needs.
I have shared my top seven emerged needs. I am quite confident that our lists overlap. Now, what we need to do is not to pat on the back of doctors, nurses, teachers, architects with a passion for designing large balconies, green economy adventurers, waste management operators, supermarket cashiers, and truck drivers. Nor we need to give them medals.
In our extreme version of capitalism, we have long abandoned the concept of ‘value’. Or, as better said by Mariana Mazzucato (UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose) in her book The Value of Everything, we are all keen to reward value-extraction more highly than value-creation. What we need, then, is to reform our economic systems completely, and turn the social and economic value we all recognise in each of the categories listed above into money. Because, sadly, money is the only thing that really matters here.