Covid-19 upheaval points way to solving persistent inequality

National Economic Plan provides opportunity for a new social contract

Our response to Covid-19 and the new challenges it presents has shown a solidarity not always obvious in the day-to-day experience of most people. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Our response to Covid-19 and the new challenges it presents has shown a solidarity not always obvious in the day-to-day experience of most people. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

 

Covid-19 has laid bare the inequalities on which our society is built and exposed the problems caused by underinvestment in our social infrastructure. The economic lockdown is imposing the greatest cost on those already worst-off. Thousands of jobs have been lost in hospitality, leisure and related sectors which are characterised by a high incidence of low pay. Many of those who are still working and risking their lives such as carers and healthcare support workers, as well as shelf-stackers and cleaners, are also among the lowest-paid in our society. We must address the inequalities that persist in this country. To do this we need a Government committed to delivering a new social contract.

Covid-19 has illustrated the critical value of having an effective public sector and decent public services and infrastructure. Despite well-documented problems and challenges, Ireland is in the privileged position of having public services and social infrastructure to rely on at a time of crisis. But we need to strengthen our public services and social infrastructure and reverse the damage caused by decades of underinvestment.

Michelle Murphy is research and policy analyst for Social Justice Ireland

The pandemic has caused fundamental social and economic upheaval, yet our response to this upheaval and the new challenges it presents has shown a solidarity that is not always obvious in the usual day-to-day experience of most people. As we learn to live with the virus and look towards the future, the Government faces a major challenge: it must decide how the experience of recent months and our response can be harnessed to shape the future of our society and deliver a social contract based on the principles of fairness and justice, with sustainability at its core.

Basic rights

The social contract underpins our relationship with the State setting out the often unwritten agreement whereby the citizen contributes to the common good, economically, socially and culturally, on the assumption that the State will ensure a minimum standard of living, essential social services and infrastructure, and the protection of basic rights. Its strength is in its ability to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of all citizens and communities. If the Government is serious about delivering on the programme for government commitment to a new social contract, the forthcoming National Economic Plan is an obvious starting point.

This plan must give equal weight to our environment, our society and our economy

This plan must give equal weight to our environment, our society and our economy. If not, this government will simply repeat the mistakes of the past. The National Economic Plan can provide the foundations of a new social contract if it is underpinned by five key building blocks: a vibrant economy, decent services and infrastructure, just taxation, good governance and sustainability. Investment in infrastructure and services contributes to a thriving economy. Just taxation funds this investment. Good governance ensures people have a say in shaping the decisions that impact them. Sustainability – environmental, social and economic – must be at the heart of our policies.

Flexible working

This plan should outline how the Government plans to deal with the current deficit, including a policy to ring-fence the Covid costs incurred from 2020-2022. It must boost public investment, recognising the need for both once-off infrastructure investment and recurring expenditure to generate structural change and reform. It must tackle the issue of low pay and precarious employment and commit to the European pillar of social rights directive on work-life balance. The clear message from employees is that they want flexible working and a work/life balance. Covid-19 has proved that flexible and remote working is possible and the Government must build on this.

Covid-19 has proved that flexible and remote working is possible and the Government must build on this

The plan should contain a target of 20 per cent of all housing stock to be social housing. It should introduce a minimum social floor of basic income and basic services. It should contain a commitment to increasing the overall tax take and broadening the tax base, with a pathway outlining how this will be done. Impact-assessment and poverty-proofing of all Government initiatives is vital, as is ensuring that budgetary allocations are valid, realistic and transparent.

A new index of progress, incorporating social and environmental issues into our national accounts must be developed. Finally, the plan must ensure balanced development, that all people and communities are treated fairly as we move towards a carbon neutral future, and that no one is left behind.

Now is the time for creative thinking about what our society could and should look like when the pandemic has passed. The National Economic Plan offers the Government an opportunity to implement a new social contract that could truly improve the quality of life for all, while charting a course for our long-term recovery.

The Government must seize this opportunity to deliver on its own ambition “to deliver a better quality of life for all, equality within society and a deeper sense of connection to the natural world around us, and each other”. This truly is in all of our interests.

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