Coronavirus has been devastating for those who fell sick or lost loved ones. The restrictions imposed on everyday life to check its spread have been particularly difficult for people living in cramped accommodation, those juggling childcare and work, and those who have lost their jobs. But despite these huge losses, the pandemic has allowed us to glimpse what a different economy and pace of life might look like – one that is slower, more sustainable and less fixated on growth and consumption. A YouGov poll at the end of June found 31% of people now want to see “big” changes in the economy, three quarters want the choice to work more at home, and only 6% favour a return to a pre-Covid economy.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis in June, some 7.5 million people were temporarily unemployed – the largest quarterly decrease (18.4%) in total weekly hours since records began in 1971. Through the furlough scheme, the state made the unprecedented decision to pay the wages to those out of work. Those who were lucky worked from home and took mortgage holidays. Of course, this didn’t apply equally: many frontline workers had no other option but to go into their workplaces and put their lives at risk.
But the reduction in working time and drop in commuting across the board gave us an insight into what a less work-driven society could offer, one where important jobs that have long been undervalued and underpaid, such as nurses, carers and supermarket staff,are rightly seen as far more useful and important than well-paid “high-status” jobs. As the economy slowed, we had new reasons to question the old normal, with its frenetic productivity and mindless pursuit of economic growth.
For years, the consumer lifestyles on which economic growth depends have gone largely unquestioned. Outside the Green party, the left has been reticent to get drawn into debates about lifestyle choices – no matter how unsustainable these may be. Although most of us recognise that petrol-guzzling vehicles and fast fashion are environmentally damaging, we rarely question the negative aspects of consumerism for consumers themselves, including stress, depression and pollution.
Covid-19 may have caused us to re-examine this status quo.
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