Pandemic lessons for us and our government

In the wake of the pandemic, business-as-usual is not an option

No-one needs reminding of lives and incomes lost and disrupted by the viral pandemic and the lockdowns. But amid the chaos and anxiety there are signs that something of value can still be achieved after the virus has been put in its place.

It is remarkable how people have stepped up to support others. We’ve taken to looking up neighbours in need and shopping for them, feeding hungry people, passing on essential information, thanking front-line workers, posting art or performances or funny videos online.

We’re discerning what’s essential in life and what isn’t. We have rediscovered how great pleasure can be got from the smallest things: conversing with neighbours, greeting walkers and their children and their dogs, exploring local byways, hearing birds, feeling a breeze and the sun’s warmth.

We have revived activities from our distant past, like doing puzzles, repairing clothes, trying new recipes, writing actual letters to people. We are learning to slow down, to lower our sights, to live in the moment. And to appreciate that in the face of all that’s bad about the virus, these things alone can bring us pleasure and make our lives worth living.

And we have learned that staying alive and well and happy doesn’t need half as much stuff as we might have thought. Everywhere we see signs that the idea of stewardship is catching on, a sense of personal responsibility to our world and its inhabitants near and far, locally and globally.

Facing disastrous consequences of our over-consumption in the form of a destabilised climate, these things are our ticket to survival. If and when that is understood by current or potential leaders we might start to find a way out of the gloom.

But that is way out there. An awful lot would have to happen first, and it’s impossible to avoid the sense that this will necessarily involve large-scale economic, social and political disruption over a long period of time, imposed by the pandemic itself but by much more above and beyond that.

The experience of COVID-19 in modern economies like our own – we like to call them “advanced” – is exposing gaping flaws in the way nations and corporations do business, both at the macro level of global commerce and closer to home.

Every generation produces people with the urge to take charge. Early in the Industrial Revolution, with democracy raising its head, many of these would-be leaders spurned government as a path to power and took the simpler option of acquiring productive assets, like land, factories, offices and homes, or someone else’s business, and making money from them, thereby influencing government.

Using that simple model, called capitalism, those captains of industry invented the enticing narrative that every individual can become a big wheel by accumulating wealth. That narrative is as powerful today as ever. Capitalism is not going away any time soon.

But in weakening the capitalist economy the pandemic has dramatically undermined capitalism’s message that being rich is all that matters. COVID-19 raises the powerful alternative idea that while it may not be nice being poor, it’s arguably better than being dead.

People’s experience of those shut-downs is raising radical questions about a host of things they really care about: health, aged care, doing business, work and play, raising kids, education, welfare and a roof over one’s head (or its absence). Questions are also resurfacing about strong action to address the real and abiding threat from climate change.

Having seen the door opened to such radical analysis, how will governments respond? Will they accept that things have changed and venture along new pathways? Or, to redeploy a phrase from Scott Morrison, will they hide under the doona of old, discredited ways?

Alas, I fear the latter. The Morrison government is refusing to extend financial aid in the wake of its $60 billion Jobkeeper error revealed last week. And after months of following doctor’s orders, it demands reopened state borders despite warnings from state medical authorities that the NSW and Victorian situations remain unsafe.

A further sign is the government’s energy-climate “roadmap”. It offers hundreds of largely untested technologies for cutting emissions but spurns the only proven method of doing so: changing behaviour by pricing carbon pollution across all economic sectors.

The cost of failing to address people’s well-founded anxiety about the future will be immeasurable, far beyond the billions the government is spending (or thought it was spending) on the lockdowns. Yet just as we’re starting to see what’s wrong with business-as-usual, it wants to lead us back there. How dumb is that?

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