On 18 June, I presented a webinar with this deliberately provocative title as the inaugural event in Fuse’s Covid-19 seminar series. I think the provocation is fully justified by the most recent summaries of the UK’s failed response to the pandemic, notably from The Economist, the Oxford Research Group and Reuters. (A superb one from The New York Times unfortunately appears to be behind a paywall.)
You can find an archived recording of the presentation here. My particular focus, as in an earlier posting to this blog (in which I pointed out that the Adam Smith Institute and the leader of the Labour Party were agreed on the importance of a coherent post-lockdown economic strategy), was on what can be learned from the experience of Russia in the generation since the implosion of the Soviet Union about the possible health and health equity consequences of drastic economic collapse.
Fuse have kindly collected the questions submitted by audience members, not all of which could be addressed in the available time, and I’ve provided brief answers in italics below, under several topic headings.
(This post was updated on 30 June to add a reference to the excellent Reuters report on the UK’s coronavirus response.)
Economic inequalities and uncertainties
Just an observation- what to do about inequality is known, what we lack is the political will to act.
On the other hand… I think we have a generation who will no longer stand for inequalities and injustice. In the words of the late Whitney- I believe the children are our future…
I am also concerned about this issue being compounded by the uncertainty of Brexit when the economy was already in jeopardy pre-Covid 19
A perfect storm – austerity, Covid and Brexit
Agreed that much of what to do about inequality is known … as a small example, researchers at the University of Warwick recently showed that just requiring everyone earning more than £100,000 a year to pay an alternative minimum income tax rate of 35 percent would raise around £11 billion per year, without changing the ‘headline’ tax rate. Raising the rate on high-income earners would further increase fiscal capacity, as would such measures as a one-off wealth tax of the kind proposed by Thomas Piketty as a way of paying off Europe’s rising debts after the 2008 financial crisis … and, of course, curbing tax avoidance by transnational corporations.
Agreed as well about the added uncertainties associated with Brexit. For example, what happens to the economy of the North-East if the Nissan plant in Sunderland cannot remain viable? The one bright spot may be what could be done, but probably won’t be, in terms of national economic redevelopment once EU rules on state aid no longer apply.
What we need to do is convince those in power that the health of the poor actually has implications for their wealth and wellbeing.
Ah, but does it? COVID-19 would appear to prove the point, but consider how much easier it has been for Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover with a house, a garden, high-speed broadband and professional occupations to work from home and reduce exposure risk … meanwhile, the poor and marginalised in service sector occupations that require in-person work and presonal contact are obviously unable to work from home, whilst in many cases more vulnerable to the various comorbidities that appear to increase the severity of infection.
A Basic Universal Income … a ‘healthy response’ to economic and social sustainability?
Maybe, if it is not seen as a substitute for investment in in-kind social provision (e.g. social housing, public transport, public health programming). If used as a substitute, a Basic Universal Income could function as a subsidy for private landlords and dodgy second-hand car dealers, with recipients acting as the intermediaries. I believe a better response is a basic living income floor, delivered to those eligible by way of a refundable tax credit.
Do we have economic evidence to argue the case for tackling inequality? For example if we introduced a Basic Universal Income does this have a cost benefit analysis that could convince the rich that it is a good idea?
Here, the answer is an emphatic yes – as the OECD, for example, pointed out in 2015 in a report called In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund have made a similar point about the need for inclusive growth. The political problem, as economist Branko Milanovic has shown, is that ‘the rich’ may have much more to gain from promoting policies that redistribute income upward, of the kind we have seen in the UK post-2010, than from promoting economy-wide growth. Building coalitions around the idea of inclusive growth will be absolutely essential if the pandemic is not to have the effect of ratcheting up inequality.
How many gold-plated Lear jets can one have?
Can’t speak to private aircraft, which is not a market in which I window-shop, but readers who love the sea and want to get really frustrated may want to check out the 200 largest yachts in the world.
Rebuilding economy and society: ‘Building back better’
The areas hardest hit economically seem to be in the North, Midlands, coastal areas etc. Do you have any insights on the impact of governance structures on preparation for and response to the pandemic? Do countries with more genuinely devolved powers respond better?
A very good question; I’m sure PhD dissertations will be written in the years to come on precisely that topic.
I think we can only depend upon the local communities. Take Grenfell: Government stood back, community rushed in to support.
The third sector have traditionally always stepped in when the statutory sectors have cut back support/resources. I’m interested to know what it is that enables the third sector to do this and what are the barriers that prevent the government.
I would agree that a communitarian approach is key. Hoping to appeal to the conscience of the rich seems wasted energy. For those of us in the academy could we try to make the case to our HE [higher education] institutions that working with charities, mutual aid groups and the third sector is part of our civic duty? There are groups, such as APLE and ATD Fourth World, pushing and campaigning hard against the worst effects of inequality.
What does the best response to avoid the potential Russian pitfalls more specifically look like at a local level?
Surely we created a North of Tyne Combined Authority and Northern Powerhouse to take control of our assets and our future.
Again, all important points. There are at least two different issues here: (a) local control over priorities for building back, which is essential, and (b) local resources for building back, which are hopelessly inadequate thanks in part to the fiscal evisceration of local government under post-2010 austerity.
Local governments and entities like NTCA simply did not have the revenue streams or revenue-raising capabilities they needed even before the pandemic, as I pointed out in the presentation.
I am convinced that the most likely approach to succeed at the national level is a national development bank, with a multi-billion pound initial capitalisation, empowered to lend on concessional (nowadays, zero-interest) terms and offer direct grants to private businesses and, especially, local authorities for green rebuilding projects, under a streamlined planning process. (Such rebuilding in war-ravaged Europe was, in fact, the original mission of the World Bank.) Think what such an institution could achieve with the resources that would otherwise have been committed to HS2 and the road infrastructure necessitated by the third Heathrow runway …
At the international level, a remarkable pre-pandemic blueprint for a global New Deal was produced in 2017 by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Good ideas are not thin on the ground.
Age and ageing
How do we challenge the ‘othering’ of the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions? There seems to be a tacit agreement that this is an expendable group.
Do you think ageing populations and care homes being in the spotlight during the pandemic will change how our society sees ageing?
Yes please to an ageing and Covid webinar!
Why have we [collectively] allowed the crisis in the care homes to accumulate over the past few decades?
There’s a cultural ‘groupthink’ that only other people grow old and get ill – ageing is ‘nothing to do with us’. How can we influence people to make the connection to the fact that it’s their own future care that’s in jeopardy?
All excellent points, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the elderly have been regarded as expendable, whether infected in care homes (and this has been a scandal throughout most of the high-income world) or effectively, in some countries like the UK, placed under house arrest. In Canada’s two largest provinces, Ontario and Québec, no one familiar with the long-term care sector’s decades of underfunding, patchwork public/private provision, casualisation of personal support workers and under-regulation was surprised when some facilities turned into charnel houses. Will this change? I am sceptical, although encouraged by the creative response of organisations like the International Longevity Centre here in the UK.
Fighting back, building ahead
How can we ensure that the public health community don’t shy away from the inherently political nature of inequality and its impacts?
How can we come together as a PH community – and bring about change in a meaningful impactful way without falling into a purely political debate which is a distraction from the key debate?
Public health is everyone’s business it will take all sectors working together.
Good questions, although I can’t agree that ‘purely political’ debates are necessarily a distraction. Choices about who gets how much of a society’s resources, and on what terms, are at the core of politics, and public health risks irrelevance by ignoring them.
Are we hindered because the Public Health community does not have a collective voice? This completely reduces our influence in the system.
I think the fact that we separate health from public health is part of this problem. All health is public health. It is a sleight of hand to suggest otherwise.
I’m not sure that the public health community lacks a collective voice. It has, in the UK, both the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal Society for Public Health. The problem seems to me rather that highly accomplished public health professionals have been deeply divided about such issues as the unequal distribution of health damage and long-term economic risk associated with the lockdown … which has meant that the political executive can cherry-pick the ‘science’ it wants. COVID-19 is hardly unique in this respect! But in the course of spending far too much time reading media coverage of the pandemic, I’ve been struck by the extent to which The Telegraph ‘got’ the issue of unequal damage from lockdown, and The Guardian didn’t.
I have a question following on from above – what do you see as the key points and forms of resistance to this? Especially given the positions of many governments, not least in the UK.
I’m very concerned that these stark inequalities are fuelling reactionary far right wing populism / nationalism / patriotism – and the current government are happy to let this narrative run. Any ideas of how this can be challenged?
I wish I had better answers; hopefully the important dialogue that Fuse has initiated will contribute to developing them, as will a revival of critical thinking in UK universities. As a political scientist, I have to observe that one of the undesirable characteristics of Westminster-style parliamentary systems is that a government with a legislative majority is so impermeable that it functions as an elective monarchy, in this case with a term of office that runs until the end of 2024.
What can universities contribute to the resistance of this future in terms of our teaching?
Education has been commodified and is not about transformation. We need to address who can access education and what is provided when they get there … thinking Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
These are of course critically important questions, about which (in particular) Stefan Collini and Lawrence Busch have written brilliantly. More recently another Canadian (like myself), retired legal scholar Philip Slayton, had this to say:
‘A curious and well-informed mind is a free mind, and a person with a free mind is a free person; creating this free person is what education, particularly postsecondary education, is meant to do. Universities need to reject a corporate consumer-driven model; a student is not a “client.” Universities must eschew misguided vocationalism, emphasize the development of critical thinking – in particular, the ability to distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument – and recognize that society needs dreamers at least as much as technicians. They need a fee structure that makes postsecondary education available to all without career-distorting long-term debt. And they need to welcome the expression of all views, even extreme ones.’