Using the COVID-19 crisis to build a better future for all

President Michael D Higgins, in his interview with Pat Kenny on Newstalk on Friday March 27th, highlighted that during this COVID-19 crisis we have learned undeniable lessons which must lead us to fundamentally question how we have been doing things up to now. He said that we must now take advantages from the situation which has been presented to us to prepare for a better future. A future where we build a society and economy based on accepting collective responsibility for shared needs.President Higgins concluded his interview by saying “we can’t risk some notion that we can recover what we had and that would be sufficient. That game is over”. 

President Higgins has highlighted something which has been clear to many people for some time but which the crisis has brought to the fore. Our social welfare, health, housing, childcare, education and wider public services are inadequate to meet the needs of many and structured in a way which reinforces inequalities and sustains poverty in our society. However, in equal measure it is also clear that addressing these inadequacies and inequalities is a political choice rather than the natural course of things or a foregone conclusion.

The current COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that the Government, and the wider political and official system,can act with decisiveness and speed for the common good and address some long existing weaknesses. We cannot go back now to doing things the old way, but instead must use the momentum to continue to move forward for more sustainable change in how we design, deliver and fund our public services and social protection and welfare systems.

Some of the recent measures introduced by Government to deal with the impact of COVID-19 that demonstrated that a seismic shift is possible are worth highlighting.

The introduction of the non means-tested COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment of €350is very significant. The level of the payment is based on an understanding that it should be adequate for recipients to maintain a decent standard of living. While the full implications of the new payment are yet to be fully understood, it puts into question how decisions are made on the levels and adequacy of other welfare supports, including the €203 which most recipients currently receive.

The payment highlights the need for the benchmarking of social welfare levels against a measure that provides adequacy. A level which lifts people above the poverty line and provides them with a Minimum Essential Standard of Living. This is something which EAPN Ireland and other organisations have been lobbying on for a number of years.

The new payment also raises other questions about how we provide adequate supports to those who need them without the stigma that is attached to receiving targeted welfare supports.

Another seismic measure is the effective take-over of private hospitals by the Government, albeit temporarily, is something probably very few saw coming. For now,it gives us the single-tier health system envisaged as a key element of the ten-year Sláintecare strategy to reform our health and social care systems.

There are other important changes taking place too, which were long needed and obvious to many, but not possible at a political level, and which benefit those who are most marginalised in our society. This includes taking advantage of the collapse of tourism and Airbnb, to move some families out of overcrowded and completely inappropriate emergency accommodation and into houses and apartments.

However, the crisis has also made even more stark the failures in our approach to the delivery of public services, including the failure of successive Governments to adequately invest in public services, as well as depending heavily on the private sector for delivery. These failures are now clearer in relation to the provision of health and housing services and also childcare. The Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that public services play a crucial role in equalising some existing inequalities in our society, and when they are removed, these inequalities get magnified. This is now being played out in our education system where children are all studying from home, mainly online, and we can expect that children in families with more space, more money, and where parents have had a higher level of educational success and ambition, will pull away from their peers who do not have these advantages.

If public services are to be delivered for the greatest common good there is more than enough evidence to show that we must now seize this moment to redesign a system of affordable and accessible universal public services. These are basic services that will be there to protect everyone, irrespective of their income or background andlinked to a social protection system which provides people with the level of income that is adequate for them to live with dignity. While many will argue that we cannot afford such a system, especially now, it is worth remembering that many of the core elements of existing welfare and public services throughout Europe were put in place as a direct response to the World Wars and the Great Depression in 1929. So now is just the right time for such a radical change.

After learning lessons from the negative impact of austerity policies during the last crisis there are suggestions that European Unionleaders will not want to return to similar policies as a response to the economic impact of this crisis.  Austerity policies led to sharp increases in poverty and hardship and turned many against the EU. The direction it took was contrary to the EU’s Treaty values of equality and respect for human dignity and human rights.

While we wait to see what the actual EU response will be post crisis, it is essential that a new Irish Government pushes for austerity to be taken off the table at EU level and ensures a different policy response at national level. Instead it needs to work in a meaningful way with all sectors of society, including those representing the voice of the most marginalised, to map out a route to delivering on a higher ambition for the collective good.

Alongside human rights commitments at global and European level we now also have the European Pillar of Social Rights, developed as a response to the social impact of the last crisis. At a global, European and national level all countries have signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals,which provide us with a good starting template for this collective ambition and which can deliver for people and planet, while leaving no-one behind. Let’s not waste any time and let us build on the momentum of change that we have seen is now possible.

By EAPN Ireland Director Paul Ginnell.

Note: You can listen to President Higgins interview from Friday March 27th here.

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