Things can change quickly in life. The security of one moment can quickly become impermanent before we have chance to realise it. This is certainly the case with the crisis that has resulted from the global outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Thousands in the UK have been infected and over a hundred have already died from the outbreak. The general public is advised to remain socially distant from one another and to regularly wash their hands. The economy has gone into freefall, a recession, if not a depression, now seems likely. Panic buying in the shops is rife. But most of all people are scared.
What seemed certain only a couple of weeks ago, no longer does. People are worried about the most basic things in life; putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads, being able to see friends and family members. People are fearful about losing their jobs, not to mention becoming unwell due to the virus. They want to know that they and their loved ones will be safe. And this is before we mention the looming emergency facing our National Health Service and all the brave doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, hospital cleaners and many, many others in the NHS who will be putting themselves in harm’s way to serve the public and the common good.
Prior to the emergence of this virus, the NHS was already stretched to breaking point, many worked in insecure, precarious employment and the living standards of the poorest had been reduced after more than a decade of austerity. Things cannot go back to the way things were prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Things have to change. This needs to start with the nature of our economy and our society. It should not take a new deadly pandemic virus for people to be kind and compassionate towards one another. It should not take a major crisis for the government to think about protecting those in low-paid employment. It should not take a global virus for us to drastically reduce our carbon emissions internationally.
There needs to be hope at the end of this crisis. Hope is what will get people through this crisis and will make the many enormous sacrifices easier to bear. In 1942, at the height of the Second World War when victory against the Nazis appeared far from certain, William Beveridge released his radical and comprehensive report into social security. The Beveridge Report became the founding document of the modern British welfare state. It helped to forge a new progressive consensus, based on clear social liberal principles. Its ideas informed the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, one of which, the introduction of a free universal health service, became the NHS in 1948 following the great work of the socialist Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan.
Beveridge and his report gave hope to millions struggling through the Second World War, hope that was eventually fulfilled. Today, we need to start building a progressive future again. We need a similar vision to Beveridge that will give people the hope to struggle through this crisis and to assure them that a better future awaits.
The case for a universal basic income is now extremely urgent. Everyone should have a guaranteed minimum income and the right to own some capital. A regular guaranteed income would help to mitigate the insecurity of modern employment and the threat to jobs posed by automation. It would give people the opportunity to become more creative, exploring new business opportunities and innovative work opportunities. It would help support people with caring responsibilities either those looking after children or elderly relatives. It would help those WASPI women who have been short-changed by pensions reforms. But most of all it would be a shield against poverty for millions of people across Britain.
We need to substantially invest in and restore our National Health Service. If nothing else this will be our debt of gratitude to those in the health service who have sacrificed much to keep us safe during the coronavirus crisis. In particular, we also need to invest more in mental health services. The impact of the coronavirus and the exceptional situation that is emerging is causing great stress and anxiety no doubt in millions of people in the UK. They need support now and in the future with the mental health difficulties that this crisis is creating.
The culture of low pay and insecurity also has to end. Following this crisis, we need to see a strengthening of workers’ rights and everyone in employment paid a liveable wage. This must include legislating to put workers on company boards alongside corporate management. We also need to ensure that workers have a real stake in their workplaces, ranging from worker company share ownership rights all the way across to employee owned cooperatives. The injustices of austerity need to be reversed. Heartless welfare policies such as the bedroom tax need to be consigned to history and never repeated.
We face a global health crisis and only international cooperation will help to solve it. International cooperation proved vital in ending the Financial Crisis of 2008. Governments today need to put aside petty nationalism and work together to defeat the coronavirus. The same energy needs to be channelled into tackling the looming climate crisis. Climate change and the destruction of our environment risks us seeing a higher increase of global pandemic viruses in the future. The world must act to challenge climate change with the same resolve that it now has in confronting the coronavirus.
During and following the coronavirus, we must continue to show solidarity and compassion towards one another and deny oxygen to hateful nationalists who may see this as an opportunity for political growth, just as fascists in the 1930s benefited from the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. As President Roosevelt once famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is, fear itself”, both economic fear and political fear. We must learn the lessons of history. Progressive hope will defeat nationalist fear.
Beveridge style social liberalism offers one very hopeful route to a better future. The progressive left also has many other routes to choose from. Together we must achieve a universal basic income; restore our NHS; defeat mental illness; protect the rights of working people; end austerity; cooperate on an international basis; and overcome climate change. A hopeful future will be one of true liberty, community, solidarity for each other, social justice, environmentalism and international cooperation.
The coronavirus crisis will not last forever. Eventually it will end, people’s lives will begin to get back to normal and no doubt the economy will begin to recover. But we can never again go back to the social hardships of the past. We need to build a brighter future that will dispel the darkness of the coronavirus. That task starts today.