The Debts We Now Owe Each Other – and How to Pay Them Back

by | May 7, 2020

As each day passes, coronavirus tells us even more about who we are as a society.

Much of what we’ve learned wasn’t exactly secret before the pandemic, but it’s a lot more obvious now. Inequalities in health, security and resilience are now visible to all, as are injustices in how some of us habitually think about and act towards people of different ages, abilities, social classes, and ethnicities. 

We have now a stark – and somewhat revelatory – account of which workers actually make the biggest contribution to our wellbeing. And we can see much more clearly things like why we should value genuine expertise, how much our communities are held together by voluntary action, and why our ability to thrive depends on our willingness to co-operate effectively across borders.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this site to celebrate the good things we now have as a consequence of COVID-19. I wanted to encourage a conversation about how we might protect these good things as and when, finally, we move into a post-pandemic era. 

I’m posting again now to introduce a collection of essays whose authors hope to turn such musings into actual strategy and action – the hard but inspiring work of effecting real change.

The collection is called Our Other National Debt and, as the title suggests, it explores the idea of the ‘debt’ that we now owe particular groups of people, particularly those who have proved instrumental in responding to the virus or who deserve targeted support. 

“Nothing about this is easy, but it’s nonetheless profoundly important. How can we encourage good things to flourish even in rough and damaged soil?”

Such groups include so-called ‘key workers’, healthcare providers, people in the social care sector, researchers, and community volunteers. They also include children, the elderly, disabled people, migrants, and people from ethnic minorities.

My contribution considers our debt to internationalist actors and institutions. We live in a world where some of the greatest powers – the US, China, Russia – are at each other’s throats, rendering the post-1945 multilateral system critically dysfunctional. But this reality should not – must not – lead us to give up on international co-operation, because it is on such co-operation that all of us, to at least some degree, depend. 

We have tried to make practical proposals for how to start turning gratitude or warm sentiment into real-world action that will make a meaningful difference. Nothing about this is easy, but it’s nonetheless profoundly important. How can we encourage good things to flourish even in rough and damaged soil?

It is striking that most of the authors in this collection see an important role for citizens and volunteers. Our own individual ability to empathise and to embrace collective action is of foundational importance – in other words, we have more agency than we might think.

The collection is primarily about the UK – it’s the British national debt that is referenced in the title. However, we would like to think that our ideas will have resonance in many places, and, more importantly, we are hungry for lessons to learn from other movements in other parts of the world. Our hope is therefore that this collection reaches a more global audience.

This is meant to be a starting point, a springboard for debate and engagement. So, please, have a read and let us know what you think. 



  • George Graham is Director of Conflict and Humanitarian Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children UK. In this role, he manages a highly influential and award-winning department of policy specialists, advocates and campaigners in London and leads the work of over 100 colleagues worldwide to influence policies and practice with respect to violations of children’s rights in conflict and other humanitarian situations. 

He is also a trustee of Conciliation Resources, a lifelong environmentalist and a dad. He tweets about conflict and social change at @georgewgraham.

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