Coronavirus How Can Society Thrive Postpandemic

Heather Boushey: President and CEO, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
How will inequalities and the economy continue to be connected?

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession is best understood in the context of what has happened to the US economy over the past 40 years. The last four decades marked a period of increased inequality and slower growth that left the economy and workers and families more vulnerable to economic shocks.

Now the pandemic has revealed in stark relief what those of us who have studied economic inequality already knew: Covid-19 laid bare the vast network of underlying fragilities that continues to threaten the health and well-being of the United States. The latest economic research shows the many ways that high inequality – in incomes, wealth, and across firms – serves to obstruct, subvert, and distort the processes that lead to widespread improved economic well-being.

The current crises have also presented us with a moment to reset. Policymakers should be keenly focused on reducing economic inequality and boosting growth. We must limit inequality’s ability to constrict our economy and tackle the ways that the concentration of economic resources translates into political and social power. And we must ensure that as we do, we address long-standing inequities across our society, including by gender and structural racism.

Now is the time for us to act collectively to create an economy characterised by growth that is strong, stable, and broadly shared, one that measures its success by the degree to which individuals and families have a chance at a prosperous life.

Daron Acemoglu: Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
How can institutions better serve us in a post-pandemic world?

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare that our institutions, both national and global, are not up to the challenges facing us. The most major problems confronting us have not been created by Covid-19: they had been in the making for the last several decades, if not for longer.

They come in two flavours. The first are clearly global challenges, such as preventing climate change and nuclear war (and containing global pandemics). But we lack global institutions capable of helping us deal with these problems.

The second set of problems, centred on creating prosperity in our age of automation and globalisation, appears national, but these problems require global co-operation as well. We need new institutions to help us navigate this tumultuous period, but because we have so far failed to recognise and deal with these challenges, trust in both national and global institutions has eroded.

The world will be different in many ways when the pandemic is finally under control: more work from home, less travel, more reliance on digital technologies, perhaps less than cities. My concern is that it won’t be sufficiently different. There is a danger that we will go back to business as usual and fail to remake our institutions again. Or we could listen to one of many siren calls inviting us to tear down institutions — in favour of empowering some autocrat or emulating some nebulous version of the Chinese model of less democracy and more authoritarianism. What we need is radical gradualism: build on our existing institutions but at the same time gradually remake them so that we can create a better safety net, redirect technological change to help workers and forge shared prosperity, reconstruct better globalisation, and start tackling the urgent global challenges.

Beatriz Colomina: Professor, History of Architecture, Princeton University
How could urban inequalities be solved after the pandemic?

When people speculate about the city of the future, as everyone seems to do during a crisis, they think of the visible city – its shape, materials, organisation, streets, parks and buildings. But what the pandemic has dramatically, even shockingly, made visible is the invisible city – not just the invisible urbanism of hyper-social micro-organisms but the invisible urbanism of inequities, hidden workers, and uneven access to care or empathy.

Cities are produced by medical emergencies that leave layers upon layers over the centuries. We tend to forget very quickly what produced those layers. We act as if each pandemic is the first. Yet the history of cities is the history of disease. Cities accelerate contagion but they also incubate ideas and relationships. We relish the contaminations they offer. The future city may not look so different but all its hidden rhythms will have changed. Think of working at home, in bed even, as millions have been forced to do. It was once a fantasised future and now a reality we are unlikely to give up. This turn indoors, which was already well underway in the last decade, is not a turn away from the city or from density. Far from an anti-urban force, the virus will inspire new forms of urban density, new forms of cross-contamination. The key will not be the shape of the city but affordable housing, education and access to healthcare.

Urvashi Aneja: Associate Fellow, Chatham House
How can we safeguard worker welfare and wellbeing?

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted just how precarious gig work is, with most platforms failing to take on responsibility for the health, safety and financial security of workers on their platform. The few piecemeal measures that have been put in place have tended to prioritise customer safety over worker wellbeing. New intrusive monitoring and surveillance mechanisms have also been introduced – location data, for example, is now continuously being collected.

These problems are particularly acute in developing countries because of weak labour laws, the absence of data protection frameworks and low levels of regulatory capacity. High levels of unemployment in many developing countries leave workers with little choice but to accept these conditions of work.

Gig work is also likely to increase. The financial crisis of 2008, and the economic downturn that followed, lead to the growth of the gig economy. This is likely to be the case once again, with a decrease in the number of jobs. But, if the past 10 odd years of the gig economy is anything to go by, this will not be good for most workers. Workers have little income security, no social protection and limited opportunities for collective action and bargaining.

This series is produced by: Philippa Fogarty, Simon Frantz, Javier Hirschfeld, Anna Jones, Sarah Keating, Emmanuel Lafont, Bryan Lufkin, Rachel Mishael, Visvak Ponnavolu, Maddy Savage and Meredith Turits.