Covid lessons should be used to tackle inequality, climate change says President

Global, unregulated version of economy is greatest threat to democracy, Higgins tells conference

President Michael D Higgins: necessary to look beyond growth to measure economic success. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

President Michael D Higgins: necessary to look beyond growth to measure economic success. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos


Citizens from across the globe should use the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to tackle inequality, climate change and capitalism, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Addressing the OECD Confronting Planetary Emergencies conference on Friday, President Higgins said it is “no longer sufficient” to describe systemic failure and that we now “must have the courage to speak out and work for the alternatives”.

In his address, delivered online, he said Covid-19 has magnified the “imbalances, inequities and injustices” within society.

“The crisis has also shown us how so many of our citizens and their families are only ever one wage payment away from hardship; how the self-employed or workers in the so-called ‘gig’ economy lack security and are often impeded from access to basic employment rights; how private tenants in under-regulated housing markets are at the mercy of their landlords, how many designated ‘key workers’, those providing essential services, are shamefully undervalued and underpaid,” he said.

The President said it is necessary to look beyond growth to measure economic success.

He said the fixation of some economists on gross domestic product means it is maximised at “whatever cost to social cohesion and without any due regard to inequality or adverse ecological impacts”.

President Higgins said the world has now reached a point of multiple crises: democratic, economic, social, and ecological. He has called for a new paradigm, which has a focus on ecological responsibility.

“New ideas are, thus, now required and, even more, their communication to citizens – ideas based on equality, universal public services, equity of access, sufficiency, sustainability,” the President said.

He added that the pandemic provides policymakers with an opportunity to do things better.

“This crisis will pass, but there will be other viruses and other crises. We cannot let ourselves be left in the same vulnerable position again,” he said.

“ We have, yet again, learned lessons in relation to healthcare and equity, in relation to what is essential in terms of income and the necessities of life.”

The President added that all of these issues must be addressed, and that it is a “shared challenge” among the nations.

“What is a further, real basis for hope is that, within such a framework, it is possible to respond concurrently to the pandemic, climate change, the impact of digitalisation, inequality and what I refer to as ‘the unaccountable’ which threatens democracy itself,” he said.

“The ‘unaccountable’ – speculative flows of insatiable capital, a global, unregulated, financialised version of economy – represents the greatest threat to democracy, the greatest source of an inevitable conflict, and the greatest obstacle to us achieving an end to global poverty or achieving sustainability.”