Learning from a crisis

Mar 18, 2020

Sickness and deaths from the corona virus present challenges to save lives, but could also prompt discussion about different ways to live.

China’s strict quarantine measures have given breathing space to the climate. Factories were closed, few cars used, streets deserted and flights cancelled. The air is clearer and the slave labour required to meet the world’s dependency on Chinese manufactured goods has ceased, at least for now.

In Australia, the corona virus threat sees massive down turn in stock markets, financial difficulties in retail and tourism and anxiety about health care resources. Panic buying displays individuals’ selfishness, but ideas could be paraded about indispensable collective interests, such as the use of time and the nature of work.

There is a point at which work, especially full-time work, is not something people want or can do, hence the need for liveable incomes to enable choice of activities which are personally satisfying and could contribute to a common good. US surveys, for example, record that more than half of US workers are unhappy and would retire early if financial support and universal health services were available.

Here is an opportunity to replace the uncritical worship of the work ethic with consideration of the old idea of a universal income paid to an entire population. It would replace all forms of government provided income, would improve equity and could generate activities unrelated to economic goals.

French philosopher Andre Gorz wrote, ‘Let us work less so that we may all work and do more things by ourselves in our free time.’ In his recent book, A World Without Work, David Susskind argues that a future social and economic transition should not only be to jobs in a renewable energy sector but to a more equal, less competitive, less destructive society.

Given hours wasted in traffic jams, we would be mad not to consider better uses of time. Being marooned in traffic must give some individuals time to reflect that the job to which they are driving may not be fulfilling and might not be much use to anyone. They might recall that their non-economic activities encompass everything that is done out of friendship, love, compassion and concern.

Appeals from medical officers to be strict about personal hygiene and to be responsible in contact with others, emphasise the altruistic side of community existence,

Activities which promote public value, form life’s fabric. They contribute to socially desirable wealth: reforestation, beach protection, theatrical and sporting activities, housing and educational projects and a possible imitation of the work of the visionary William Morris, activist for arts and crafts in nineteenth century England.

The transition, for which corona could be a catalyst, is not simply about different work but to values and language to envision a future in which life-enhancing features of personal relationships and community activities are prominent. Economic stimulus packages may not benefit all citizens, in particular in Australia those surviving on basic wages such as the numerous casual workers who have no entitlement to sick leave and, until help promised from the Government’s stimulus package, no finance left if their work ceases.

In the US, the Congress has authorized $8.3 billion to fight the corona outbreak, though this is less than one tenth of the annual cost of the Afghanistan war, and before the stock market crash on March 9, one fifteenth of the wealth of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Prima facie it looks as though efforts to combat the epidemic that threatens millions of lives may be of less importance than protecting private profits and the health of financial institutions.

Constructive responses to the corona virus, not Australia’s toilet roll panic, could contribute to a politics for the future, a promise of far more than the repetition that we need economic stimuli in order to return to business as usual. Some politicians are familiar with alternative ideas, but most seem preoccupied with economic growth and with the going-nowhere climate-versus-coal controversy.

Response to corona virus dangers, in common with ways to learn from any crisis, can be used to raise questions about policies to consider new ways to live. But an obsession with recession will stifle even modest steps towards a socially just and ecologically responsible society.

Stuart Rees, OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney & recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.


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