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

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

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. 


Things We Now Have and Don’t Want to Lose

Things We Now Have and Don’t Want to Lose

COVID-19 has brought disruption, fear, suffering and grief everywhere, and especially for people who were already most vulnerable or marginalised. It has also shaken up so much of what we’re used to taking for granted across politics, policy, economics and public attitudes. It is destabilising and stressful.

But in these unsettling and unsettled times lies great opportunity. While the rapid changes we have seen in recent weeks have arisen from urgent necessity, and many carry very heavy costs, it is also true that some of these changes are profoundly positive. They are clear improvements on what we had before. 

This post is an attempt to start capturing some of these improvements and to sketch out a plan for how we might protect them as we move into the post-COVID future that will ultimately come. So, here’s the beginning of a list of new good things.

Things We Now Have and Don’t Want to Lose:

1. Widespread recognition of the indispensable work done by people at all levels in our society and from all backgrounds and walks of life. The realisation that there’s no correlation between the size of your contribution to society and the size of your pay packet.

2. Greater government and popular support for public services – especially the health service – and for functioning safety nets.

3. A significant decline in carbon emissions and atmospheric pollution, and signs of increasing biodiversity.

4. An extraordinary increase in global health and scientific cooperation – mostly networked rather than driven through formal institutions.

5. The emergence of ceasefires in some of the world’s conflicts.

6. A more active debate about where the limits should lie on data collection and mass surveillance.

7. A stronger sense of solidarity with our neighbours and beyond, regardless of who they are or where they’re from, and greater awareness of the various challenges that many face in our society.

8. A more active conversation than ever before about mental wellbeing and the simple things that can help protect it.

This is deliberately short – a comprehensive list would be much longer.

If we agree that these are all gains – things that we now have and that we’d really like to hang on to – then the key question to answer right now is this: what is the best possible means of protecting them?

Unprecedented opportunity

We know that times of unprecedented crisis are also times of unprecedented opportunity. Our task is to seize this moment. If we don’t, it’ll be gone.

To win, we need the demand to protect these new good things to be so strong and so widespread that it becomes politically unavoidable. Progressive agendas don’t generally advance through behind-the-scenes lobbying or cloak-and-dagger politicking; they advance through irresistible public pressure. 

This means we need a simple and universalising approach, to bring together everyone who right now is hoping for a brighter future. 

We need to collaborate like never before. This agenda is way bigger than any individual political or organisational interest, and the best ideas and strategies nearly always emerge from diversity. We need to flex our empathy muscles more than many of us are used to, expecting and embracing differences of view and working through them in a spirit of collective purpose. 

And we need to inspire each other, to tell stories that both set out an exciting and hopeful long-term vision and demonstrate short-term steps that make it feel realistic.

Prosperity, Protection and Planet

I’ve been playing around with a possible framework for articulating what needs to be done. For me, the agenda falls into three big “buckets”, labelled Prosperity, Protection and Planet.

Under Prosperity would sit all the work that needs doing to build back economies that work for everyone. Economies with wealth more evenly distributed and better pay and job security for those workers whose indispensability has just become so much more apparent. 

Is now the time, finally, to win the war against tax avoidance so that we all can benefit from the public services we now realise we rely on? Or to tackle the unproductive rent-seeking that keeps so many people in the poor cramped housing that is making social distancing so hard?

Under Protection would sit the transformations that we clearly need to see to ensure proper resourcing of healthcare and safety nets. It’s also where work would be done to reinvigorate the idea of fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, and to get serious about tackling the scourge of violence in all its forms – not least, the domestic violence that makes lockdown so hellish for so many. 

Protection is also about building on those warm fuzzy feelings of pandemic-prompted solidarity to get serious about the idea of inclusion in our societies – the principle that everyone should have an equal voice regardless of who they are or where they’re from. 

Under Planet would sit the work to transform this crisis into the game changer that nature so desperately needs: to secure year-on-year cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, permanently cleaner air in our cities and increased biodiversity everywhere.

A job for all of us

I’m wondering whether citizens’ assemblies could be the vehicle through which conversations and demands arising around these ideas could gain real public profile and legitimacy. That may not be the answer – it’s just an idea – but I feel sure that something is needed to put these precious new things up in lights and to make clear to decision-makers that we want them to stay. 

The key thing is that we cannot be complacent. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a reset, to stop what clearly wasn’t working very well in the past, to come to a shared view on the things that we care most about, and then to protect those things.

However we end up doing it, this feels like a job for all of us.