This week, long-awaited news that community efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve appear to be working has prompted many to start thinking about “restarting the economy.” We’re not there yet, but we’re on the path, so it’s time to figure out how we will all safely return to work.
Let’s remember something important: the pre-pandemic economy failed us all in many ways. The coronavirus revealed, with terrible consequences, the inequities, weaknesses and wilful ignorance that had been built into the market.
No doubt, big business will lobby for lower taxes, relaxed regulation and less government intervention to prime the economic pump. But low-tax, weak-regulation environments are what have put so many at risk in the first place.
We should ignore the lobbyists, and try something different.
Let’s imagine a reset, not a restart. Let’s learn from this moment and create the economy we want — one that serves everyone, makes our infrastructure resilient and promotes sustainable growth resistant to future shocks.
Universal child care
No other service has a greater impact on workforce participation than child care, especially for women and low-income families. As we all lost access to child care (and schools), we acutely felt the impact on our ability to work. At my organization, the impact was immediate: while we reduced our expectations of staff capacity to help people adapt, we still had many with children at home who had to work at reduced capacity or take paid leave due to lost child care. The burden is disproportionately carried by women in our communities, even with fathers at home at the same time. The solution: ensure our new economy has high-quality, accessible, affordable child care for all.
Safe, secure work for all
Too much of our economy relies on cheap, insecure and sometimes unsafe labour — from grocery stores to package delivery to food production. As the virus spread, it redefined what “safe labour” means, and revealed the precarious nature of work for those in the service sectors. We also saw how the razor-thin margins of many businesses mean even a short-term shock can wipe them out. It will take months for those businesses to rehire and rebuild, if they can come back at all. There are a lot of potential solutions here, but at a minimum, it will require consumers to pay more of the real cost of goods and services, and for employers to provide safer environments and living wages.
Distributed work, distributed expenses
This crisis has illustrated to many businesses they can have a more distributed workforce. I’ve been working and leading distributed organizations for more than a decade. At my previous organization, we went fully distributed, with staff in five time zones. The challenge is that going distributed can also end up offloading the costs and risks of the “office” onto employees. Few employers cover the costs of at-home working, but they should. And the regulations and tax structures that support home offices should be revisited to ensure companies don’t just offload their office costs onto workers.
"No doubt, big business will lobby for lower taxes, relaxed regulation and less government intervention to prime the economic pump. But low-tax, weak-regulation environments are what have put so many at risk in the first place."
Internet as a utility
As much of the planet has had to learn to work at home, we’ve had to rely on home internet and mobile connections more than ever. We have some of the highest mobile data rates on the planet. Like heat and water, they’ve become essential utilities, but while the economy tanked, the telcos raised rates anyway. If internet access becomes an essential service to access work opportunities, then we should expect our regulators to keep prices fair and affordable for every business and individual.
Government as a partner, not a pariah
Our government institutions should be in partnership with business and the social sector, each one fulfilling different roles to create a resilient society. Unfortunately, when times are good, we often forget that essential role and treat government like a drag on the system, rather than a balance and a safety net. We’ve seen a lot of fairweather capitalism in these past weeks, as those who usually criticize government for overreaching suddenly became “crisis socialists,” demanding costly interventions to save their businesses. I’m glad governments stepped up to help, but I suspect memories will be short as we reach the end of the crisis. Perhaps the right reset is to acknowledge the essential and different roles of all three sectors, and ensure we fund government services adequately and consistently, in times of stability and in times of crisis.
There are big lessons this pandemic can teach us about the failings of our old economy, and even bigger calamities like climate change still on the horizon. What we think of as normal is gone, and it isn’t coming back. Let’s use this moment to reshape our future into something more fair and equitable — something that builds a better economy for everyone.