Overcoming post Covid 19 social and economic challenges | Daily News


Life after lockdown :

Overcoming post Covid 19 social and economic challenges

There have been dark times in history that have called for courage and resilience. But the worst of times brings out the best in us. The Coronavirus outbreak is one such time. It is a swift and deadly virus that has claimed the lives of around 329,896. Countries across the world declared mandatory stay-at-home measures, closing schools, businesses, and public places. The response has been inspiring with the medical professionals all over the world risking their lives to contain and eradicate the virus. However, the unknown confronts all of us. The Daily News speaks to Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Colombo, Professor Siri Hettige on the Post Covid19 Social Set Up or ‘Life after Lockdown’.

The lack of freedom is part of the unknown. The loss of that which is familiar makes people uneasy. The requirement for adaptation and change makes a lot of people uneasy, particularly those who have got used to a certain lifestyle. The highly contagious nature of the virus means that it can infect a large number of people through just one person. Negligence and carelessness is all the virus needs to start a brand -new day.

“Given the unprecedented and overwhelming nature of impact of the Covid19 pandemic on all societies across the world, particularly on the global economy, it is not possible to forget and leave behind the memories of the pandemic and return to the old ways of living. This is particularly so because the threat of Covid19 is not expected to rapidly fade away any time soon. The sense of risk and uncertainty created by it will last long, even when the pandemic comes to an end, and will continue to affect human social relationships for some time to come. Among other things, one highly significant effect of covid19 is the disruption of social relationships beyond one’s immediate family,” said Professor Hettige.

He pointed out that social relations and other networks that enable people to rely on social capital to face unexpected adverse situations cannot be maintained during a pandemic, particularly when people cannot move around due to lockdowns and other public health restrictions. Moreover, fear of infection itself prevents people from moving around freely even when such restrictions are relaxed. It will take time for people to gain confidence and commence their usual social interactions and gatherings following the pandemic.

This is the first time that a public health epidemic evolved into a pandemic that engulfed the entire world almost completely disrupting the global economy that had connected almost all countries in the world through global flows of goods, services, raw materials, money, information, labor, migrants, consumers, business executives, tourists and students. He added that millions of people participated in the global flows of human mobility over the last few decades on a daily basis and these flows have been almost totally disrupted by now.

Finding interim solutions

“Imagine how this has affected the lives of millions of people in Sri Lanka. Think about an estimated 1.6 million Sri Lankan workers employed overseas and their families, families dependent on incomes drawn from employment and business in the tourist sector, students who had planned their future prospects on overseas education, youths who were planning to migrate overseas looking for greener pastures, people who were looking for overseas business partners and investors. Nobody knows when these things will be restored again, if at all. So, affected by these disruptions, people will have to find interim solutions to carry on with their lives, hoping that they will be able to return to what they got used to in recent years,” explained Prof. Hettige.

Prof. Hettige points out that the WHO has already stated that the pandemic is going to last long and it will not disappear from the world anytime soon. Countries that have eliminated the covid19 cases cannot remain complacent as no country can remain completely cut off from the rest of the world. While no health expert can possibly say when the covid19 virus is going to be eradicated, no country can become complacent and be oblivious to the possibility of the spread of the infection again. So, the period ahead of us, that may be several years or more, will be a time for careful management of international mobility of people to protect the country while still maintaining international relations as no country can remain isolated from the rest of the world.

Working from home

“Due to the pandemic, most people had to stay home but many began to work from home. State institutions had to find ways to communicate with people using electronic means. Some of these changes can be retained, streamlined and institutionalized.

Those who can perform their duties from home can divide their work between home and office so that not everybody has to drive to work or take crowded public transport every day. Government institutions can adopt e-governance methods to prevent people from commuting long distances to transact official business. Many documents can be delivered electronically. The benefits can be flexible work hours, less traffic congestion and healthier work life balance,”

Prof. Hettige explained that this epidemic is an unprecedented disaster but it has brought about many behavioral changes which are positive. There are many but to list a few: drastic reduction in consumption, in particular wasteful consumption, minimal use of private transport, moving away from unhealthy fast food in favor of slow, healthy food, more time with family and children leading to strengthening of primary social relationships around family and neighborhood, slower life, working from home, back to nature, reflective thinking, use of more electronic modes of communication, online conferences, and the realization that there is a need to economize on everything. Some of these changes are critically important from a sustainability point of view which is the need of the hour.

Retaining positive changes

“Many positive changes that have unexpectedly come from the fallout of the pandemic can be retained for the benefit of people and wider society only if we collectively decide to retain and build on them. In other words, we need new policies that can facilitate the processes of change. Who does not want to promote healthier habits, ecologically sound consumption patterns, behavioral changes that improve environmental quality, workplace practices that reduce traffic congestion and allow people to have a better work-life balance? But, for all these, we need to revisit existing state policies that existed before the pandemic and modify them to suit the post-covid19 era that will dawn when the pandemic is fully contained. But we should not wait till then to take action, because it will be too late then. With the virus has come unprecedented changes. As is well known, the pandemic has curtailed human activities and mobility drastically. Hitherto congested cities have become virtually empty. Most of the passenger planes are grounded everywhere. Motor vehicles are parked in the garages or by the road side. Many factories are shut down. Large shopping malls are empty. Most people remain indoors. These are unprecedented changes. On the other hand, emissions have been drastically reduced leading to a rapid improvement in environmental quality. Noise pollution is minimal. Drastic reduction in consumption of goods and services has reduced production of waste, in particular, non-biodegradable waste like plastics and polythene. All these have created more space for wildlife to come out of their hideouts into the open and can be seen moving around more freely. These are positive but unexpected changes as the pandemic itself was unexpected. But who cannot appreciate such an improvement of environmental quality? The challenge for people now is to figure out how they can change their behavior and adjust consumption patterns to ensure that we do not return to the same toxic environment again.”

Sri Lanka has depended on export of labor to many parts of the world, particularly to the Middle East and East Asia and the remittances these workers have sent to the country have accounted for about 70 percent of the trade deficit in recent years. Given the large number of Sri Lankan workers employed overseas, a large section of rural and urban families have relied on remittances not only to meet their day to day needs but also to educate their children, build houses, buy economic assets and even start self-employment activities.

Finding alternative employment or livelihoods

“Given the massive global recession that is expected to follow the Covid19 pandemic, it is more than likely that many of these workers will not be able to hold on to their jobs. Once they return, they are unlikely to be able to return to their original places of overseas employment. So, they need to be accommodated within the domestic economy. Another challenge is the management of their return and reintegration as we do not yet know their current health status. On the other hand, the loss of foreign exchange earnings from remittances will naturally have a highly significant impact on public finances in the country.

As is well known, tourism has been a major source of foreign exchange earnings for Sri Lanka for many years. Many local and foreign investors have invested their capital in tourist infrastructure in all parts of the country. Given the present pandemic, we cannot expect any revival of the tourist industry for a significant period of time. Given the global recession and mass unemployment even in the most developed countries, there will not be many who would leave for overseas holidays anytime soon, even if the pandemic is under full control. So, people who were reliant on direct and indirect incomes connected to tourism will have to be accommodated in areas of alternative employment or livelihoods, yet another challenge following the pandemic. Infrastructure that has been built around tourism is so vast that it might be necessary to find ways of making best use of such facilities for productive purposes until tourism becomes a viable area of economic activity,” said Prof. Hettige

He stated furthermore that some people say that Covid19 affects everyone equally. However, the evidence tells a different story. The most important factor is the socio-economic status of people. When there is a lockdown, it is easy for well to do people to remain indoors and have their household needs delivered to their doorstep. But the poor who are living in slums and dependent on daily incomes cannot do the same. People who are living in overcrowded settlements often do not have the sanitary facilities or the space needed to maintain social distancing. This is true in many countries, including a highly developed country like the United States where minority communities like Black Americans are far more exposed to the pandemic than others. Similarly, migrant workers and refugees living under poor social and economic conditions face far greater challenges in avoiding the adverse impacts of the pandemic. In such situations, only effective State interventions can provide protection for them.

Vulnerable sections

“The Pandemic has affected almost all countries. But the capacity of countries to protect the vulnerable sections of their populations varies widely. Rich countries in general have a greater capacity to mitigate the effects of the socio-economic fallout and protect the poor and those who become unemployed. Countries where publicly provided good quality health services are available for the entire population give added advantages to people by way of testing and treatment facilities.

This is evident in many European countries, as well as Canada, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. On the other hand, poorer countries that experience chronic financial problems such as accumulated domestic and foreign debts face serious challenges finding financial resources to support failing private businesses or the poor and the unemployed during the pandemic. Such situations make the socio-economic impact of the pandemic worse,” stated Prof. Hettige

Prof. Hettige finally added that the impact of the pandemic has not been uniform across countries. It has already become quite clear that some economies and societies have been more resilient than others, depending on their economic and social conditions. These conditions in turn have been the result of their economic and social policies. Our past economic and social policies have made the economy and Sri Lankan society extremely vulnerable to external shocks. For instance, over dependence on external sources of revenue made the country less resilient in the face of the pandemic. This demands that we revamp our economy and public services like education, health, transport and social protection to make our people more resilient in the post Covid19 era.

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