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Lessons learned from the COVID-19 lockdown

Much of the media commentary of recent weeks has reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live our lives and, in many ways, served to highlight inefficiencies or flaws in how we have structured our society or how we conduct our business.

For example, hundreds of thousands of employees have, through necessity, ‘discovered’ new ways to work using technology that was already broadly available, as the current crisis has helped to highlight the fact that not all the work traditionally done from an office needs to be done there.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has also caused many of us to re-evaluate our perspectives on how society operates, and given us new found respect for certain professions and industries. Here are some lessons we hope that policymakers have learned from this current situation.

Broadband is a necessity, not a luxury

One of the clearest lessons from the crisis is that a good quality internet connection is not a luxury but is in fact essential to allow people to fully participate in society. This applies not just to economic inclusion, but to educational and social inclusion as well. If it was not clear prior to the current crisis that a quality internet connection is an equality issue, it surely is now. It is one that has both regional and financial dimensions, and covers a broad range of policy areas.

A recent article in the Irish Times noted that while school students may often have a good set-up in schools using various necessary platforms and software, many live in remote rural locations where they don’t have fibre broadband or sometimes even good computer equipment. These students are at a clear disadvantage compared to their peers when it comes to remote learning. The lack of a comprehensive rural broadband network in Ireland is already well-understood to discriminate against businesses in rural areas who need quality internet connections to function properly. It is now becoming clearer that this also has a negative effect on the educational outcomes of students living in these areas, albeit the disadvantage has been accentuated by COVID-19.
(See here, a recent piece by Social Justice Ireland on educational disadvantage and how other aspects of the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated it).

Interestingly, according to Teacher Tapp – a teacher survey app in Britain – 27 per cent of secondary teachers at private schools in the UK used online video conferencing to communicate with pupils in the first few days of the school closure there. This compares with just 2 per cent of teachers in state-run schools. Such information is not available for Ireland, but it is reasonable to suspect that there is a significant divergence between accessibility for online tools between pupils with differing levels of resources.

The pandemic and the economic lockdown that resulted from it have also called attention to the probability that so many of the journeys undertaken in the modern economy would be unnecessary if a good quality internet connection were available. Colleagues who traditionally work in offices can hold meetings online. Many employees can log on remotely to their employer’s network and carry out most of their work from their homes. Even professions that use very specialised software such as architecture and engineering can download and work on the large files needed for work if they have a large screen and, crucially, quality broadband.

These options have long been available to most employees living in Ireland’s cities and other urban centres (or close by). Many of those living in rural areas do not have this option. The potential transformative effects on employment flexibility and living standards generally once quality rural broadband is in place are huge.

A lack of quality internet can also lead to social exclusion. This is particularly so in times of social isolation and social distancing. But such social exclusion refers not just to the ability to socialise with family and friends. It also refers to the ability to engage with public bodies providing important public services, many of which are now primarily delivered online.

More flexible forms of work were already possible

As noted above, hundreds of thousands of employees have ‘discovered’ new ways to work using technology that was already broadly available, with the current crisis highlighting that much of the work traditionally done from an office can actually be done remotely from other locations.

According to the Central Statistics Office’s 2019 statistics on Urban and Rural Life in Ireland 16.2 per cent of commuters from ‘satellite urban towns’ and 13.4 per cent of commuters in ‘rural areas with high urban influence’ left for work before 7 o’clock in the morning. 12.1 per cent of commuters from ‘satellite urban towns’ commute for more than an hour in each direction, as do 9.1 per cent of commuters in ‘rural areas with high urban influence’.

Many people could save hours each day on their commute to work, and hundreds (if not thousands) of euros a year on the cost of commuting. A move towards more remote working – something which has been shown by the reaction to the pandemic to be eminently possible – would lead to reduced traffic on roads and an alleviation of some of the strain on our public transport network. The environment would be grateful, with carbon emissions potentially significantly reduced.

Even if the move towards more remote working was only for a portion of the working week for many people, rather than full-time, reduced time spent commuting each week would surely lead to other social benefits like improved mental health, more time with family, and generally improved living standards.

The pandemic should lead to a realignment in the thinking about how people living in urban centres work, and should provide the impetus to make the same options available to those in more rural settings.

The Remote Work in Ireland – Future Jobs 2019 report looks at the Irish context and acknowledges the importance of providing flexible alternatives from the point of view of sustainability, and increasing labour market participation among women and people with disabilities. The report acknowledges the ability to widen the talent pool, stimulate regional growth, and lessen accommodation and transport pressures on cities.

Clear data on the prevalence of remote work in Ireland from before the pandemic is not available. However what data does exist shows that remote working is a growing phenomenon. Surveys are skewed by the high response rate from the Finance and ICT sectors. Nevertheless, it does offer useful insights, such as noting that remote working was much more prevalent in the private sector than the public sector prior to the pandemic. The report also highlighted as an area of importance the striking a balance between work and family, particularly for women returning to the workforce. Given Ireland’s dearth of affordable childcare options, remote working provides families with additional flexibility.

It makes sense that increased flexibility of work practices, especially in relation to working from home, would open the labour market up to many groups that often find access difficult. That includes, in particular, people with disabilities, and people with parenting duties. Parenting duties predominantly fall on women, whether on single-parents – the vast majority of whom are women – or those in two-parent households where the majority of the childcare duties are still left to female partners. The ability to work from home opens up greater possibilities around school drop-offs and other aspects of family life.

Some potential health impacts from the aforementioned Remote Work in Ireland report include findings of higher morale, lower stress levels and lower absenteeism.

We have an opportunity to re-evaluate society’s policy priorities

The government’s actions in response to the pandemic also showed how capable we are at directing resources towards important issues when the political will exists.

Within a few days of the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak becoming apparent, rent-freezes and bans on evictions – which we had been told for years were unconstitutional – were suddenly the reality. Practically over night, we had a single-tier healthcare system.

This just confirms what many of us already knew: that prevailing situations in social policy during ‘normal’ times are the result of policy decisions, rather than inevitabilities. When the political will and additional need exists, it’s amazing what can be achieved.

The draft Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil document on framing government negotiations includes many aspirations to be enacted post-crisis, including the move towards a permanent single-tier healthcare system, and many others policy innovations that would represent a new social contract including the implementation of a living wage, a renewal of real social dialogue, and real action on climate and sustainability. This document is likely to form much of the basis for the next Programme for Government.

These goals are very welcome, but the next government must show the same kind of political will in implementing these much-needed policies.

We now have a better idea of who the truly essential service providers are in our society. We understand now better than perhaps ever before that many of those working in low paid jobs (delivery drivers, supermarket workers, carers, cleaners) and those around the average wage (nurses and many other medical practitioners) provide a far more valuable service than many of the most highly paid people in our society.

We now also have a better idea of what the truly essential services are in our lives. This crisis has served to teach us what the essential industries are, which we can do without for a while, and which are totally superfluous. As noted by Time magazine, lists of so-called vital professions were published all over the world, and unsurprisingly, positions such as 'hedge-fund manager' and 'tax specialist for multinationals' were not on them. “Suddenly it was crystal clear who did the really important work in health care and education, in public transport, in supermarkets. The general rule seemed to be: the more vital your work, the less you are paid, the more insecure your employment and the more at risk you are in the fight against the coronavirus.” Such stark division has led many of us to quite rightly question whether it’s right to reward hedge-fund managers and others like them with salaries that are multiples of those of nurses and other front-line workers.

When needs must, we can take action that benefits the environment

Though it seems like more than just two months ago, one of the earliest noted effects of economic lockdown measures across Europe was the positive effect on the environment.

Satellite imagery has shown carbon emissions falling across the industrial regions of the continent. Around the world, levels of toxic air pollutants are dropping. Fish were visible swimming in the clear canals of Venice. The ‘return to nature’ of many parts of Ireland was noted in the media, while GPS navigation systems and other measures showed traffic at a fraction of the norm.

However, these improvements and the benefits from them will not automatically remain, particularly as they are merely side-effects of actions taken with other goals in mind. There isn’t even any guarantee that the fall with last any serious length of time. It is worth recalling that in 2009, at the onset of the recession caused by the financial crisis, worldwide CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production dropped by 1.4 per cent. A year later, however, they were growing again by almost 6 per cent, faster than they had done in seven years.

While many of the actions taken by policymakers have had environmental benefits, these were unintended consequences and so will only be temporary. However, it does display the capability of policymakers to prioritise and make, when political will is present, difficult but necessary decisions.

With talk around potential corporate bailouts by governments as part of an economic stimulus once the lockdown is lifted, it is important that government takes a considered approach to this, ensuring it extracts concessions from the industries and firms assisted. Simply ‘throwing money’ at established versions of industries like transport (including airlines), food production and energy will not help produce the social change we require. This money should be directed wisely, by encouraging climate-friendly versions of these industries: more electric vehicles and eco-friendly transport modes; more eco-friendly modes of food production; more renewable energy. Similar calls, were made in 2008 and 2009. They cannot fall on deaf ears again.