Coronavirus: Why Bernie Sanders is spot on about renewing our social contracts

People will need extra help from government well beyond the pandemic to adjust to the new realities of life

FILE PHOTO: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a campaign stop in Plymouth, New Hampshire, U.S., February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
Powered by automated translation

Writing in The New York Times this week, the former US presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders invoked the spirit of the late Nelson Mandela.

“I get very tired of the politicians and pundits who tell us how difficult it is to bring about fundamental changes in our society,” Mr Sanders wrote before quoting words attributed to South Africa’s first post-apartheid president: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

Mr Sanders made the point that there will always be those voices that push back against the future. But perhaps it is the spirit of his thesis that may well need to be more evident in the weeks and months ahead.

“If there is any silver lining in the horrible pandemic and economic collapse we’re experiencing, it is that many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system,” the senator from the state of Vermont added.

Nelson Mandela revisited the cell at Robben Island prison where he was jailed for more than two decades. Currently, his optimistically brightly colored pastel lithographs of his cell and cell window have sold well to enthusiastic bidders at "Touch of Mandela" auctions internationally. All proceeds go to the Nelson Mandela Trust, in support of his charitable causes. (Photo by Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images)

So it is. So are many governments re-engineering what the social contract look likes, whether consciously or not, with their crisis responses. For example, the US government is sending its citizens stimulus payments of $1,200 each. It is also estimated that the British government’s furlough plan will eventually cover eight million people.

There is even talk of a "People’s QE", or quantitative easing – an equitable twist on the flood of liquidity injected to save the financial system during the last great crisis more than a decade ago – that is designed to pay people to stay at home while the outbreak is fought. But the question is, what happens when we have emerged from the pandemic? People will arguably need just as much help then, too.

After all, we are only at the beginning of the journey.

Mr Sanders had hoped that a successful bid as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee ahead of elections in November would help usher in a new era of social support – crisis or not – that is akin to what the then US president Franklin Roosevelt managed to bring in during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Bernie Sanders was hoping to help usher in an era of social support akin to what Franklin Roosevelt managed to bring in during the Great Depression. AP Photo

Whether we agree with this aim or not, it now seems it may happen in some form – even without Mr Sanders leading it – thanks to the economic shocks of the pandemic.

In all likelihood, we will need to keep helping people directly, such as with financial assistance, for longer as they adapt – perhaps for up to two years.

This is partly because – to borrow from Roosevelt – we have fear itself as a factor for people to contend with once they can attempt to return to what we now refer to as "normal" activities – like going into an office, eating at a restaurant or travelling for a holiday.

We will need time and support to get used to what life will be like post-restrictions. It will be stressful.

Japan Airlines ticket agents wear masks as they wait for the few passengers flying with them at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in SeaTac, Wash. Flights at the usually busy airport have dropped from up to 1,300 a day to about 400 each day. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
It will all be very challenging, overwhelming even, for each one of us as outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics become a fact of life – it will be yet another risk that will enter into our decision making

What if the risk of a spike in infections remains? A vaccine being available or not, public health will see a transformation – politically, socially and economically. We will be screened constantly in real-time thanks to new apps being developed. We will want to adhere to much stricter hygiene standards.

When we do fly again, we may not be taking any carry-on baggage with us, hot food may not be served on the flight and we will probably be tested for the virus before we board. As we stretch out (there might never be anyone in the middle seat) we could be wearing a mask and gloves as part of a travellers’ equipment as well as the cabin crew’s uniform.

Amid any coronavirus spike or danger of one, schools may have to temporarily shut physically as a precaution with remote learning days becoming as common as snow days in countries where winters are often harsh. We will likewise spend many more days working from home whether by choice or under stricter workplace guidelines for any kind of contagious illness we might have.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 24, 2017:     General view of shoppers at the Lulu Hypermarket in the Al Barsha area of Dubai on March 24, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

Job ID: 15607
Reporter:  N/A
Section: News
Keywords: VAT, tax, retail, customer, shop, shopping, grocery, cosmetics, clothes, jewelry, value, bags,  *** Local Caption ***  CP0324-na-VAT-25.JPG

We may also have to reserve a time to go shopping so that there is a never a rush of people and there will be no or minimal staff to help when we do. As a result, shops will perhaps need to be open 24 hours to be able to accommodate everyone safely. Otherwise, queues outside supermarkets and malls will be a common site.

Eating out will entail a menu of temperature checks, fewer tables and waiting staff, masks, gloves and digital payments. The food should taste better after so long away but it will not be as carefree an experience, as we worry about the other diners and what germs they may be harbouring.

We will continue to shield the elderly, the sick and those most vulnerable as a precaution should the virus return. This will be hard and at times lonely for many involved.

The really fun things we used to do like attending sporting and music events, trying on new fashions and taking a car for a test-drive will also be fundamentally different experiences.

It will all be very challenging, overwhelming even, for each one of us as outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics become a fact of life – it will be yet another risk that will enter into our decision making. Accepting this situation will be the most urgent task for us individually and as people, as we strive to recover from this crisis.

We will all need extra help to adjust and we should get it – in every form possible – until we can begin to feel confident again. The heavy price we have paid socially, politically and economically in recent years from previous crises has been as much the result of not providing that help for long enough or in the right areas as anything else.

With so much change on the horizon, the examples of Mandela and Roosevelt are likely to be embraced far more frequently as we grapple with it.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National