A New Era of Governance?
How COVID-19 Could Change the Role of Government
As COVID-19 has spread globally, access to the outside world has shrunk, made increasingly off-limits by government lock-down, observable now only through glass. Our digital lives have expanded to fill the void, evenings previously spent with friends now passed plugged into laptops, obsessing over the latest figures, bailouts and newly-imposed restrictions - time blurs. Amid the chorus of leaders justifying ever more draconian measures, one thing has been hard to miss: the invocations of war.
Countries have implemented ‘war-like’ economic measures, requested ‘war-like’ solidarity, and Emmanuel Macron has even declared France ‘at war’. Its rallying qualities aside, the analogy touches on something salient: wars change the role of government, sometimes, in the case of the post-war consensus, radically. COVID-19 could do the same. Responses to the pandemic have shown that nothing is permanent about the current distribution of resources. To the contrary, things can be overhauled, and fast. Just turn on the news: state power is serially showcased, and it’s changing the way we perceive government. With the extent of its capacity laid bare, what can we expect - or even demand - of the governments of tomorrow?
Governments prove their might
The remarkable has become the routine. Across the world, legislation previously dismissed as profligate, pie-in-the-sky politics is being rolled out, unopposed, often at record speed. In one preventative measure, the city of London effectively ended rough sleeping by providing hotel rooms for the next 12 weeks to all those in need. When unveiling the initiative, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, magnanimously explained ‘rough sleepers already face difficult and uncertain lives and I'm determined to do all I can to ensure they, along with all Londoners, are given the best protection possible.’
While the intervention itself is a good one, one may have doubts about Khan’s framing. Where exactly was the ‘best protection’ before? The number of those sleeping on the streets in the capital has quadrupled in the last ten years, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that in 2019, 726 people died without shelter (a rise on the previous year) in England and Wales, a fifth of them in London. A month ago, the issue was too expensive to solve. Today, the problem doesn’t exist. The resources were found and distributed accordingly. In 12 weeks time, if containment is achieved, will those same resources be withdrawn?
A common retort is that these are extraordinary times, requiring extraordinary measures. But with respect to Khan’s intervention, is it all that extraordinary? Finland piloted a similar program before COVID-19 struck, and besides respecting human dignity and fulfilling the universal right to shelter, state figures show it actually saved money, reducing long-term health and policing costs. The only difference was will: the Fins wanted it; Khan’s hand was forced. But whatever the motive, the effects on how government is viewed could be similar. By acting so decisively, it’s seen as an assertive agent of positive change, possibly reframing popular expectations. People may wonder: if it can end homelessness at the drop of a hat, what else can it do?
Leopards and spots
Across the pond, things are no different, the US government showing even the most recalcitrant leopard can change its spots. Responding to the moribund American economy, congress passed a historic two trillion dollar stimulus, which contained a direct cash transfer. (That a Republican president put his name to a bill containing direct payments to citizens beggars belief). Under the plan, single Americans stand to receive a one-off payment of $1,200, married couples $2,400, and parents $500 for each child under age 17. Republican Senator, Mitt Romney, praised the bill, especially the inclusion of the transfer, explaining that ‘while expansions of paid leave, unemployment insurance, and SNAP benefits are crucial, the check will help fill the gaps for Americans that may not quickly navigate different government options’.
His observation is right. Expanding benefits is necessary, and a direct cash transfer will ease both the financial woes and stress caused by bureaucratic backlog. Like Khan, though, the issue is the implication that the need is only recent. In reality, the need for expanded social security is anything but new; just ask America’s 57 million freelancers. Often categorised as employers, a large number lack access to unemployment insurance - a deprivation made more severe by the unpredictable nature of their work.
Calls for adequate protections have largely fallen on deaf ears, American orthodoxy favouring market forces over government intervention. That is, of course, until now. On March 27th, in a hastily negotiated package debated for less than two weeks, congress abruptly answered these calls. Under the proviso, freelancers and gig workers are now entitled to half the average unemployment benefit in their state, topped up by an extra $600 per week.
But for how long? With almost 80% of all Americans living paycheck to paycheck, will all these protections be withdrawn once COVID-19 passes? Or, having seen the government flex its financial muscles, will people demand their preservation, maybe even their expansion?
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Harness the change. The world needs it
Transformative policies are now out of the bag, and the more they affect people’s lives, the harder they may become to wrestle back in. Certainly, the optics involved in returning them will be ugly. Attempting to do so may also be unwise, as large-scale government intervention is likely to provide a useful blueprint - in form, if not content - for future climate action.
There are technological obstacles still to overcome. But the climate crisis is ultimately a political problem that will require political solutions. That is an oversimplification. But it is true that state intervention is needed on a scale associated with wartime, and with no precedent in living memory this has often seemed intangible - no longer true in a post-COVID-19 world. Governments have proven their potency, having all but stopped the running of their economies, leaving them waiting, obediently, for the next instruction. Could this control - this decisiveness - survive COVID-19 and be transposed on to the climate crisis? Climate advocates will hope so, and some, like those in the European Commission, have already touted a Green Deal as the framework for an economic recovery, asking when, ever, has there been a better time for energy transition?
An uncertain future
The reaction to COVID-19 is evidence that the future course can be changed - it’s neither inevitable nor pre-determined. Plotting it, though, will be fraught, requiring a delicate balance between authoritarianism - a path down which some countries look likely to travel - and government control. With each passing day we see further glimpses of what’s possible, intervention demonstrating that extreme inequality, homelessness, indeed, much of what blights society, is the result of political prioritisation that can be reversed. It's a lesson of critical importance and one we forget at our peril.