New policies for social change needed after pandemic is over

Values like caring for others need to be instrumental in policymaking

About four months ago, my husband, who is English, decided to stop listening to BBC and Channel 4 News. His blood pressure was far too high and he was beginning every day by shouting at the commentators. He turned off British news and felt much better.

More recently, however, he has reverted back to watching the news and shouting. Boris Johnson’s poll numbers have risen with the successful vaccination campaign and the public seems to be largely ignoring the deleterious economic effects of the thin EU trade deal, the cronyism that has impeded containing the spread of the virus and undermined policy and the explicit culture wars embraced by the right of the Tory party.

Johnson’s decision to implement a 1 per cent pay raise for exhausted and overworked nurses and justify it through conventional excuses of affordability, shows that his government will retain the values of austerity and more specifically, disregard for the contribution of frontline workers. He may not – to my husband’s chagrin – pay a short-term political price, but likewise, the decision reflects only short-term thinking.

The Government could recognise the value of skills in `in-person` service delivery, which for some during lockdowns, has represented a primary form of human contact

Ireland should adopt a different path. This would not preclude subscribing to values in policymaking. In fact, the question is what these values should be and how they will manifest themselves in policies.


Employment figures

The immediate temptation for Irish politicians will be to focus on employment figures and leave issues like income inequality and quality of work for the future, potentially for a different government. However, without government intervention, positive trends in quality of work like flexible working, the four-day work week, and in-house mental health support could end up applying primarily to workers who have not been negatively affected by the lockdowns.

Politicians from Joe Biden to Johnson himself, civil society organisations, and even consulting firms have espoused the phrase “Build Back Better” as an expression of new values in policymaking. However, as former president Mary Robinson has rightly pointed out, utilising the word “back” rather than “forward” evokes the idea that life was grand pre-pandemic.

In Ireland, what values would push the policy agenda “forward”, instead of regressing to a pre-pandemic past? These values can be discerned in proposals for greater co-operation, rather than simply consultation, with civil society stakeholders in delivering social services; policies that mandate government assistance for citizens – like the $1.9 trillion stimulus Bill in the US and calls to invest in innovative projects that focus on protecting the environment, improving services and respecting diversity.

They all evoke caring for others, respect for individual rights – especially to a better quality of life and the imperative of reversing long-standing trends that threaten livelihoods and lives amongst the most vulnerable, like high levels of income inequality and carbon emissions.

The risk is that values like caring for others become marginalised in particular policy initiatives, rather than instrumental in policymaking more generally. Returning to the example of nurses in the UK and their meagre pay rise, the test of how values influence policy will be in regulating the labour market post-pandemic.

Two areas of work offer an opportunity to make a symbolic statement about social values and generate long-term positive effects for community development,public health, and local economies. The first is raising the pay and improving the working conditions of frontline workers in health and social care (including student nurses), food and essential retail, namely everyone that has kept working in public-facing, sometimes ostensibly “low skill”, jobs to fight the pandemic and meet public needs.

The second is less straightforward but also urgent. The Government could recognise the value of skills in “in-person” service delivery, which for some during lockdowns, has represented a primary form of human contact.

Mental health

Those skills could be put to use in addressing the scale of mental health issues, as well as the need for affordable care. The Government could invest in community-based health and social support workers, the expansion of libraries and community centres, and even the use of businesses hit hard by lockdowns, like restaurants and pubs, as part-time community hubs. With the closure of post offices and bank branches, these spaces will be needed more than ever.

The American author George Saunders explained the value of kindness in an address to the 2013 graduates at Syracuse University, saying “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really . . .We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defence, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be”.

He describes how self-importance fades away with the loss of youth, as the recognition of connection in mortality becomes more prominent. The effort required for individual success can become all-consuming, and with age, and dependents like children, this effort may lose its appeal compared to the “accomplishment” of giving to others.

He asks the young graduates not to wait for age but rather to “seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life”. Policymaking should follow the same prescription and not wait for future leaders and governments to implement the values required today.

Shana Cohen is director of Tasc, the think-tank for action on social change