The Covid-19 pandemic aggravated existing inequalities and evidenced how compound global crises exacerbate challenges to collective governance. A new social contract is needed to move forward: one that engages the public in cross-sectoral decision-making.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on social inequalities and then magnified them
The COVID-19 pandemic constituted an unprecedented shock to humanity, bringing health, social and economic systems to their knees worldwide. However, its impact was not felt equally by everyone. In addition to the elderly, who were quickly identified as the most vulnerable group, the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on the most disadvantaged and overlooked people in society, particularly, those that had already been living under conditions of economic insecurity and subject to adverse social determinants of health.
This resulted in significantly higher mortality from the virus for specific societal groups identified along ethnically marginalized lines and/or by socio-economic status (for instance, communities of colour in the U.S. and underserved communities in England), as well as greater economic fall-out for the income vulnerable, such as irregular workers, migrants, or the disabled, owing to containment measures.
Taken together, COVID-19 has undoubtedly left people worse off than they were, amplifying pre-existing social inequalities and health inequities, which persist even as the pandemic has eased into a more tolerable, endemic phase of existence.
Societies are shifting from a state of acute crisis in the pandemic to ‘permacrisis’
Regardless of the end of most lockdowns and the general decrease in anxieties over infection and mortality, there has been little time for political leadership or the public to breathe easily over the past year. Instead, a new and equally unnerving laundry list of crises has emerged: swelling international conflicts - including the war in Ukraine -, drastic cost-of-living increases, rising social tensions and fractures between the so-called political ‘left’ and ‘right’ on issues of gender and identity politics, women’s rights and representation, migration, and racism, and a slew of natural disasters, just to name a few.
This is taking a heavy toll on mental health worldwide, particularly amongst children and adolescents. Alarming levels of social isolation and loneliness have been reached across the world, the severity of which is underscored, for instance, by the American Surgeon General’s recent calls for action to advance social connection to combat the “public health crisis” of loneliness.
These challenges, not all of which are entirely new, are now rising against the backdrop of long-standing concerns over climate change and environmental disasters, as well as growing awareness that current economic systems are failing to serve people and the planet. The combined impact of these acute and chronic issues has contributed to a prolonged period of insecurity and instability, which has aptly been described as a state of “permacrisis” by the European Health Forum Gastein.
As a result, people are losing hope in their own future and that of the next generation. Data for Europe, one of the world’s wealthiest regions, is revealing: Gallup Poll International established that less than half of European respondents (49%) reported that they felt that their lives were “better” off than that of their parents and a substantial number (22%) reported that their lives were actually “worse”. In a similar vein, when adults around the world were asked about the financial security of future generations, survey data by the Pew Research Center revealed that large shares in many countries are pessimistic, including 53 % of German respondents.
In other words, despite the often contentiousness and divisive nature of politics at present, it appears that many people around the globe can agree on one thing: the present and future are bleak.
Restoring hope and a new social contract are essential to move beyond the status quo
Irrespective of whether the views held by a large portion of the world’s population are historically accurate or will prove punishingly true going forward, what is clear is that a collective if not global malaise has set in, and will continue to solidify if people’s hopes and aspirations for the future are not (re)built. To do so, however, demands a fundamental shift in focus away from purely crisis-driven, reactive policy making and catastrophizing public discourse to a long-term vision that builds on humanity’s past achievements in areas such as human rights, health, and technology, as well as our shared goals and ongoing commitment to human and sustainable development.
But how can this be done in a climate in which trust in government and public institutions is remarkably low and people’s faith in the future overwhelmingly negative?
One increasingly popular answer to this question can be found in the call for a new social contract between government and society. Whether specific to working conditions, in the context of health and well-being, or with regard to a global commitment to human rights, the notion that governments need to deliver better on its stewardship of politics and the economy is nearly irrefutable.
As to the exact ways this can and should be achieved, here there is much more room for debate. What is becoming more and more evident is that such debate needs to involve multi and inter-sectoral dialogue that breaks down policy silos and brings together leaders in finance and economics, alongside health and other social policy sectors to find solutions. At the heart of all solutions must lie people’s needs and the public good, which can only be understood if the public is included in the debate. This will surely involve uncomfortable conversations, at best, and painstaking confrontations, at worst, but is the only way to even glimpse a sign of hope for the future.
And frankly, at the rate things are going, what other choice do we have?