Our Post-pandemic Future

By Vanessa MacDonnell, Sophie Thériault and Sridhar Venkatapuram

What will our post-pandemic future look like?

This is a question on the minds of many these days. Indeed, in the weeks and months ahead, politicians, policy experts, academics, businesses, non-profit organizations and the broader public will have to make important choices as we rebuild our lives, societies and the international order.

Around the globe, governments at all levels are developing a range of recovery plans. Some of these plans will tilt toward austerity, tacitly accepting that some people can be left behind. Health care budgets may not see significant cuts, but other crucial public goods and services, such as education, could see their funding slashed.

Alternatively, some governments will spend their way out of the economic downturn. These governments will invest significant funds to support businesses and their populations and build new infrastructure in the hope of stimulating the economy. These investments will take different forms. In Canada, for example, there continues to be pressure to bail out the oil and gas sector and to loosen environmental protection measures. But there are also calls to convert the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, the $500 weekly payment to people who became unemployed as a result of the pandemic, into a universal basic income program.

In short, whether through cutting back or spending more, governments will be faced with choices. And what COVID-19 has shown us all is that the choices governments make can have immediate life or death impacts.

It is essential to acknowledge that the pandemic is the outcome of policy choices made by governments and not a natural disaster or an “act of God.”

The fingerprints of governments and their choices are everywhere, whether at the international level in the regulation of animal-transmitted disease threats and outbreak reporting, the regulation of international trade and travel, or how quickly and what kind of policies were implemented to contain the virus.

The devastating effects of COVID-19 are equally the result of choices: to tax and spend in ways that benefit some and disadvantage others; to intervene or not intervene in the economy when market forces prevent individuals from meeting basic needs; to view health as the product of a combination of luck and personal choices rather than the result of colliding social, economic and political factors; and to adopt particular foreign policies on international cooperation, including foreign aid.

Defective government policies created the pre-conditions for the pandemic as well as the extent of the devastating outcomes. Choosing austerity as the path forward is just a continuation of bad choices and social injustice. Cutting back government programs and social common goods are likely to further entrench existing inequalities rather than strengthen the economy or protect us from future pandemics and health shocks.

Slashing essential programs like education and incomes supports is more likely to create new vulnerabilities than to remedy old ones. Instead, recovery plans that commit to social equity – remedying disadvantage and exclusion, while promoting health and well-being – will protect our communities and societies from future harm.

We need meaningful and lasting policy change at both the domestic and international levels.

At home, this means being attentive to COVID-19’s gendered impacts on the economy and rejecting recovery measures that are not responsive to those realities. Ensuring access to affordable child care, and the full (but safe) re-opening of schools in September; fundamentally reforming long-term care. Spending to close the gaps in education and employment for groups that have long been marginalized and discriminated against. Ensuring access to housing, food and other basic necessities. Overhauling policing, criminal justice and incarceration policies. Extending rather than retracting environmental protection measures. And taking decolonisation and nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples seriously.

In short, it means that governments should spend their way out of the downturn in ways that respond to the structural inequities that prevent individuals and communities from thriving. This is the path to social and economic well-being as well as social justice.

Internationally, Canada must help create a more equitable global order. In 2019, Canada’s foreign aid budget was a dismal 0.27 per cent of Gross National Income. This amount is lower than Canada’s foreign aid flows under the Harper Government. But it cannot be just about money. The world has learned that the world order, and the health of people everywhere, can be held hostage by one or two governments. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Recovery plans must control infections and rebuild sustainable economies. But they also need to acknowledge our shared futures, and that we are all vulnerable in this deeply interconnected and yet deeply unequal world we have created.

Vanessa MacDonnell, Sophie Thériault and Sridhar Venkatapuram are three of the editors of Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19, out this week from uOttawa Press https://press.uottawa.ca/vulnerable.html.html.

Vanessa MacDonnell is an Associate Professor in the Common Law Section of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and Co-Director of the uOttawa Public Law Centre

Sophie Thériault is Full Professor and Vice Dean (Academic) in the Civil Law Section of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

Sridhar Venkatapuram is an academic practitioner in global health ethics and justice. He is Associate Professor at King’s College London and Director of Global Health Education and Training at the King’s Global Health Institute.