Jonathan Carr-West on why it might not be too early to start thinking about the kind of society we want to see emerge from the Covid-19 experience.
The new normal is that nothing is normal. Our lives have changed profoundly in a very short period of time. Many people have lost their lives. I filed my last MJ column from Sydney as we launched LGiU Australia, a month later we can only leave the house for essential purposes. That’s a pretty radical change by any standards.
Meanwhile, local government is one of the organisations at the front line of the battle against Covid-19 keeping communities safe, caring for people and attempting to protect local economies. Councils across the country are in the front line of supporting those who cannot leave their homes, coordinating volunteers and working with the thousands of grassroots mutual aid initiatives that have emerged over the last fortnight. On top of this, of course, they have to keep services going from waste collection to social care in order to secure the foundations of a functional society. And they do this in the face of staff shortages that are already starting to bite.
While so many in local government are working all hours to keep going, it’s hard to think about what comes afterwards, but there’s a growing consensus that this crisis will change the world in some profound ways. That needs some interrogation of course. A lot of the change people are talking about may be the equivalent of religious conversion in moments of extreme peril, sincere when it’s uttered, but quickly forgotten “let us get through this and I promise I’ll never undervalue a key worker again!” In reality, it’s very hard in the moment to tell which crises instigate permanent change and which see a reversion (temporary or permanent) to the status quo. And sometimes it’s years before the real impact becomes clear. (Women in the workplace during and after WWII is an interesting example).
Early thinking about the impact of coronavirus divides into the broadly optimistic and the more troubling.
On the positive side people are wondering if we will see a sea change in state investment, an increased valuing of key workers, a recognition of the importance of social care and a reset on social values and sustainability with new thinking about growth and what really matters to us.
Others fear we may see another decade of austerity to pay for the government’s interventions, excessive centralisation, increased surveillance and control, an exacerbation of existing economic and educational inequalities, a neglect of less visible services and increasing nationalism and isolationism.
None of this is set in stone of course – there are choices to be made – and we should be making the argument now for the world we want to live on the other side of the pandemic. For local government there are three areas I’m particularly interested in:
- What do we learn about the appropriate levels of power and decision making? The Covid-19 pandemic shows that we need collaboration at international level and strong, strategic national leadership. But we are also seeing a vital role for local government leading action on the ground, and for community action. Does this crisis shed any new light on how power should be exercised at different levels and why? How do we play that forward into the debate on devolution/levelling up?
- What gets left behind? All the challenges local government faced pre-Covid, social care, sustainable finance etc are only getting worse while attention is focused on this crisis. What needs to happen post-Covid to fix this and what damage had been done in the meantime? What about less visible or popular services like community mental health – how do we ensure they are not forgotten in post-Covid spending decisions?
- What is the social and institutional impact? Will this bring us together or drive us apart? A realisation of how much we need each other or a permanent social distancing? What’s the long term affect on our wellbeing? Will it ameliorate or exacerbate existing trends around declining trust in institutions and democracy? What does that mean for councils as institutions?
It’s hard to think about these issues when we’re right in the middle of a full blown crisis; when we’re busy and stressed and scared. But there’s a risk that it’s too early until it’s too late. Those of us who can need to start asking the right questions now.
Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.