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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the existing cracks in the global economy: rampant consumption, a race to the bottom and growing inequality. Now is the time for radical change, says Kate Ferguson.
For some, it will be the moment the call ended. The white blur of the nurse's glove across the screen. The last thing to come between them and their loved one. Others will recall the long wait in the nursing home car park. The closest they could get.
The lucky ones will say: Remember when people wore masks to go grocery shopping? What year was that again? 2020? Yeah. Wow. Everything closed for months. I got so good at baking! Learned to play the piano, too. They were crazy times!
But we are not there yet. We are not yet reminiscing. There is still time to learn from this mess. We must seize the opportunity with all the strength we've got.
Economy in focus
Like most crises, this one too is about the economy. About the haves and the have-nots. The should-haves and the should-not-haves.
This week, the oil industry gifted us with a metaphor to illustrate the worthless abundance that characterizes the global economy. As producers of West Texas Intermediate ran out of storage space, they were left with no option but to pay others to take it off their hands. As a result, the price of the US benchmark plunged to below zero for the first time in history.
The barrels may have been overflowing but the people were getting poorer.
Meanwhile the grounded planes, shuttered factories and closed offices have enabled a far more precious commodity to emerge: time. Time at home. Time spent in nature. Time with your family. Time to cook. Time for art. Time to think.
More time for yourself?
In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would lead to a dramatic reduction in labor time. He envisioned a 15-hour work week, with the surplus time devoted to intellectual advancement, leisure and the arts.
He could not have predicted that the trend would go toward fetishized productivity and obsessive consumption. That time would become the scarcest commodity of them all.
More and more superproductive industrial robots should actually enable us to reduce our working hours step by step. But it's just not happening
A population with little time and next-to-no job security is a gift to populists and a threat to democracy. It leads to mindlessness and fatigue and mobilization in all the wrong directions. It is what we have today.
Just look at the United States, where the president — as usual — has twisted and commodified the crisis for his own gain. Many lives have been lost as a result. Despite this, protesters gather in the streets to oppose measures that more sage governors have implemented to protect them.
In China, where the virus originated, doctor Li Wenliang who spoke out about it, was brutally silenced. Once the wind changed, he was exonerated but by then it was too late. He was already dead.
In Britain, Brazil and the Philippines, the arrogance and ignorance displayed by leaders has cost lives. In New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan, in contrast, humility has proven to be a life-saving force.
Something was rotten before
In much of the world, the labor market is now divided between those who are essential and those who are not. Many of those upon whom our survival depends are not paid accordingly. Care workers, cleaners, nurses, truck drivers, supermarket cashiers and fruit pickers continue their work as advertising executives, marketers, stockbrokers and football players stay at home.
All of this is indication that the global economy was sick long before the coronavirus struck. Thankfully, there are remedies available. Many of them begin at home. We can buy less and buy local so that the race toward the cheapest labor in the poorest conditions can finally come to an end.
We can enact laws that require essential workers to be paid no less than a country's median salary and ideally, considerably more.
We can refuse to accept leaders who sow hatred and spite and instead celebrate those who display compassion and sagaciousness. We can reclaim our time by demanding flexibility from our employers and by abandoning ladders that aren't worth climbing. We can stop worshipping wealth and start cherishing the arts instead.
We must acknowledge that the only bailout for the moral bankruptcy this crisis has exposed is a functioning democracy. We must be mindful that this requires informed, engaged citizens who have the time and the means to act locally on the basis of what they want to see globally. This is the only way to restore health to an economy whose ailments far predate the coronavirus.