The anger generated by the murder of George Floyd has brought forth once more demands for real civil rights and an end to the racism that scars societies, not just in the United States but also around the world. In rightly addressing the cause of that outrage – the blight of racism – it is also necessary to address the fundamental inequalities amplified by the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the challenges of social injustice by placing a spotlight on the shocking disparities in the degree of risk to which different social classes are exposed. A Great Reset is needed to shape the post COVID-19 era, prioritizing the need to redefine our social contract. But, as the protests over systemic racism show clearly, this Great Reset requires not just a social or economic dimension. It must include a moral dimension.
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In the US, COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on African-American communities, low-income people and vulnerable populations such as the homeless. In Los Angeles, the death rate for black citizens is nearly three times that of its wealthiest residents. The fact that the pandemic affected so disproportionately black communities is a reflection not just of historic racism but also their continuation in existing systemic inequalities. In America, as in many other countries, people who face racial discrimination and marginalization are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and have poor housing and living conditions. As a result, their access to health care is more limited and they suffer more from pre-existing health conditions that make COVID-19 particularly deadly.
The great challenge for all those who share leadership responsibilities is to respond to the crisis in a way that integrates the hopes of the future. While reflecting on the aspects that a future social contract might follow, the opinions of the younger generation must be integrated, as they are the ones who will be asked to live with it – the same generation that is now so engaged at the vanguard of the fight against racism. They have taken to heart the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Their adherence is decisive, and therefore to better understand what they want, it is necessary for them to be heard. This is made all the more significant by the fact that the younger generation is likely to be more radical than the older one in redefining the social contract.
The pandemic has tragically ended lives but it has also upended them. A whole generation across the globe will be defined by economic and often social insecurity, with millions due to enter the work force in the midst of a profound recession. Even for the most advantaged amongst them, starting off in deficit – many students have educational debts – is likely to have long-term effects. Already the millennials (at least in the Western world) are worse off than their parents in terms of earnings, assets and wealth. They are less likely to own a home or have children than their parents were.
Now, another generation (Gen Z) is entering a system that it sees as failing and that will be beset by longstanding problems exacerbated by the pandemic. As a young student told The New York Times: “Young people have a deep desire for radical change because we see the broken path ahead”.
The worst response the world can have in this situation is further polarization, narrow thinking and the search for simplistic solutions – a terrain favourable for propagating rumours, misinformation and hatred. The COVID-19 pandemic has unequivocally shown that the world is deeply interconnected and yet also largely bereft of solidarity between nations, and often even within nations. Throughout the periods of confinement, there have been remarkable examples of selflessness and solidarity, but also counter-examples of selfish behaviour. At the global level, the virtue of reciprocal aid has also been conspicuously absent.
This, despite the anthropological evidence that what sets us apart as humans is the ability to cooperate with each other and form in the process something bigger and greater than ourselves. We see this manifested powerfully in protests at racism and injustice, and in the recognition that black lives matter. Will COVID-19 awaken our innate sense of empathy and collaboration, encouraging us towards greater solidarity? The examples of previous pandemics are not encouraging, but this time there is a fundamental difference: we are all collectively aware that without greater collaboration, we will be unable to address the global challenges that we collectively face.
In short, if there is any hope for improving the state of the world, it comes from the moral recognition that some things in our society are deeply wrong. The response has to come from a fundamental reset of our political, economic and social systems enabled by an open dialogue that respects the dignity and diversity of humankind.