Pandemics and a renewed social contract: the hope of a ‘new normal’ for a future beyond lockdown

Pandemics and a renewed social contract: the hope of a ‘new normal’ for a future beyond lockdown

Maru Mormina

As I write this, the world is still engulfed in the Covid-19 outbreak, most of us live under some form of lockdown  and over 300,000 lives have been lost worldwide. The good news is that rates of infections are starting to recede. This means we can finally begin the slow transition from containment to recovery. A gradual lifting of quarantine measures, reopening of schools and shops will bring back to life towns and cities, whilst returning people to work will kickstart the economy allowing the careful roll down of emergency rescue packages.  Whilst we all yearn a “return to normal”, coming out of lockdown, we are told, will be more difficult than going in. It will involve some unpalatable choices whose consequences may be felt for years to come. We will have a recession, unemployment, doom and gloom.

Many say this is an entwined health, social and economic crisis of a magnitude probably not seen in most of our lifetimes and with effects still not fully understood. But it can also be an opportunity for a long-due change, as individuals and society, a turning point to revert some of the social ills that afflict us. We can, if we choose to, forge a different path towards a fairer society, a “new normal”. This will depend largely on the moral and political choices we make, individually and collectively, at this watershed moment in history.

Much has changed in our Covid- stricken world already and a “return to normal” may be no longer an option. Our social life and relationships as families, friends, colleagues and neighbours are being redefined in the “Zoomsphere”. Our unquestionable freedoms, although no longer taken for granted, may soon be limited and monitored by tracking apps, whilst every embodied interaction is now imbued with a heightened sense of vulnerability that calls for a constant reassessment of our trust in others.

The phrase “new normal” is now the inevitable afterword to every conversation about the mundane activities and social habits that until now peppered our everyday life and that have been transformed for ever: handshakes, shopping, holidays abroad, etc.  But it also reflects more broadly our uncertainty about our collective social and economic futures, and the possibility that new norms can and perhaps should reorder them.  The “new normal” is indeed an open invitation to choose how to reset and reboot the societies in which we live. We are at a historical crossroad, where the individual and collective decisions of this time may change humanity’s course forever.

The burst of political energy that until now has powered the sprint to tame Covid-19 needs to turn into a slow release of considered effort to grapple with all its complexity in the long-haul. This will require bringing to the surface, scrutinising and deliberating on the underlying moral values that are implicitly guiding public policy decisions. In particular, we need a more grown up debate about what is often pitched as the mutually exclusive aims of saving lives and saving the economy.  Whilst people’s lives and livelihoods must be rescued now, this need not be at the expense of a long-term, 360-degree vision that understands and addresses the interrelated inequalities that have been laid bare by this outbreak.  Nor can the provision of welfare be left to the “invisible hand of the markets”.

A retreat of the state to its “corrective only” role is a derogation of responsibility. On the other hand, tax-funded financial packages cannot simply reproduce the same old paradigms of unsustainable consumption and unequal growth that have opened societal chasms almost everywhere. This model has undermined the ecological and social fabrics on which we all depend and without which we all remain vulnerable to the next pandemic. We may not prevent further waves of infections by this or other viruses, but preparedness requires a new social settlement that reaffirms the moral worth of every individual in society and their inalienable social and economic rights.

Crises break down the securities we build in our lives and create spaces for new frameworks to emerge. Crises force us to recalibrate our values, as individuals and societies, change and grow. Systemic social change in the post-Covid world is not only possible but may be inevitable. In exposing the burning inequities that run deep in our societies, Covid-19 has shaken the collective conscience. It can no longer be acceptable that those occupations deemed “essential” to society are the lowest paid. Being quarantined in expensive properties with large gardens is an uncomfortable admission of privilege when many endure crowded accommodation without the respite of safe outdoors.

And financial bailouts directed to sustain corporate profit, soaring unemployment and the curtailment of workers protections can no longer tolerated as the inevitable consequence of an economy that concentrates rather than distributes. In many ways, seeds of change are already sprouting in the coming together of communities, the myriad of humble acts of kindness between strangers and the mobilisation of invisible armies of volunteers to help those with the greatest needs. For these early shoots to develop into lasting social change, it is incumbent on all of us to attune to the demands of social justice and work towards a new people-centred model of development.

Despite portrayals of Covid-19 as a public health emergency, we need to acknowledge its complex social nature. Understanding complexity requires bringing multiple perspectives to identify those aspects of the problem that lie outside our individual fields of vision, due to the blind spots that inevitably come about as a result of our moral values, worldviews or interests. Rather than a Babel of subjective valuations, public deliberation must be the moral space where legitimate concerns and interests coalesce into a new objective reality, one that is constructed by listening to different opinions and concerns. Understanding and dealing with complexity requires harnessing a multiplicity of experiences and knowledge, avoiding narrowly defined conceptions of expertise, and seeking a plurality of voices beyond those already amplified by power and privilege.

Plurality and a kaleidoscopic vision should lead to comprehensive efforts underpinned by the acknowledgment of the complex interdependences that take us beyond simple fixes and make evident the uncomfortable truth that no action is without its trade-offs. It should provide the wisdom and courage to make difficult decisions cognisant, as far as is humanly possible, of the inherent risks of operating in a zone of uncertainty. It should also legitimise decisions through a process of democratic and inclusive deliberation that balances different risks and interests.

All this should help us better understand why we are “all in this together”. Not just because the combined power of our individual behaviours – whether by adhering to social distancing rules, volunteering in the community or doing our bit by downloading contact tracing apps – will see us out of this crisis, but because in many ways we have caused it. Though we might choose to see Coronavirus as a “foreign intruder” brought to us by global interconnectedness, in many ways it has emerged from the cracks in our societies. Austerity-weakened healthcare systems and fragmented social nets have combined with underlying social inequalities to create the background conditions for this virus to thrive.

These are the consequence of economic paradigms that contrary to what we may like to think were not imposed upon us by callous governments but actively opted for by many in the ballot box.  But if we are all in this together because of our combined actions and choices, we must also be together in finding the path, not back to our old ways of life but into an altogether better future for all.

Iris Young, in her posthumous book, Responsibility for Justice, reminds us that the “cumulative outcome of the actions of […] individuals enacting their own projects, often uncoordinated with many others” create the particular social structures that expand or narrow the set of options open to people. Whether it is families crammed in unsuitable accommodation in London or people unable to maintain social distance in the slums of South America, these states of affairs are not simply the result of the poor choices and bad luck of those concerned. They are a consequence of our individual actions and choices that, combined, make the market forces, social norms and political ideologies that create differentials in the ways individuals stand in relation to one another and experience their freedom to make life choices. Our societies are structured along relations of privilege and disadvantage in which directly or indirectly we are all implicated.  It is then incumbent on all of us to flex our imagination to root out the background injustices that compound to weaken people’s resilience in the face of health and economic crises, included this one.

World War II sensitised nations about the need for international cooperation and paved the way to the creation of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank. In the UK, the post-war years saw an unprecedented expansion of the state through a series of reforms designed to guarantee basic universal social security, which culminated in the establishment of the National Health Service and what became known as the welfare state. The war had changed people’s attitudes, instilling a new sense of solidarity and a pursuit of equity that made everyone better off. Rationing had improved malnourishment and as a consequence of social support overall life expectancy rose dramatically.

What may have appeared at the time like uncoordinated acts of kindness from ordinary people, combined into a new mindset that saw the key role of the state in providing basic protections and the emergence of a new social order. In a similar way, there are signs that this pandemic may be re-awakening our collective sense of justice. It is up to each one of us to harness this impetus to push for a new social contract and shape the social and economic structures needed to affirm the equal moral value of every person, regardless of his or her position in society.

Crises often bring out the best in people and fuel a capacity for positive change. The bigger failure of this pandemic would be to come out the other end unchanged, individually and collectively.


Maru Mormina is a Senior Researcher and Ethics Advisor at the Ethox Centre and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, of the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.

Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash