By Jess Berentson Shaw –

The economy will be okay if we focus on what matters in our decision making: caring for each other, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw

It doesn’t make too much difference whether it is an economic recession, climate change or a pandemic, the primary lens through which to decide how to respond to these disruptive global events needs to change. In the particular case of Covid-19, if we put what really matters at the heart of our decision making – taking care of each other – we will come out the other side of this challenge better for it as people, communities and as a country.

There is a huge amount of uncertainty about Covid-19 in New Zealand and globally. That is because there is simply a lot that we cannot know.

Uncertainty is not a comfortable place for many of us to be, including people in government trying to decide how to best respond. No doubt many people across the public service are beavering away desperately trying to predict the unpredictable as demands are being made to provide data and ‘model’ likely outcomes.

However, there is a lot we do know that we can use to inform both our personal decisions and policy making responses. The most common sense way we are going to get through this (whatever ‘this’ turns out to be) and come out ready to rebuild, is by focusing on what we can do to take care of each other while it is happening. In our workplaces, in our schools, in our government institutions, in our communities and in our families and whanau.

Research from across disciplines shows that during major events, be that earthquakes (something we have some experience of in New Zealand), pandemics, or climate change related events, people and the economies they drive, recover best when strengthening connections with each other is the priority.

That message however is not being consistently told or heard. What is being discussed and framed consistently, are financial losses, GDP impacts and economic slowdown (with a healthy side of fear for our own and our family’s health thrown in). It’s a conversation that activates our most individualistic nature.

While washing our hands is critical, there are less personally beneficial and more challenging actions we are going to ask people to take to slow the spread.

In the context of thinking about money and in fear for ourselves it is very difficult to think about much more than ‘what is the most easy thing I can do for me and mine?’ This framing primarily happens when  people in media, politics and business and policy simply ‘answer the concerns they hear from the public”’, instead of setting a context and direction of travel for the discussion.

When these narratives are reinforced and amplified, in media, in political speech making, in conversations, we get unhelpful and shallow decision-making during uncertain times – including how to respond to Covid-19.

Look no further than the rejection of Chinese people (or people who ‘look’ Chinese) in our communities, panic buying of loo paper and hand gel by people who don’t need it for such examples. In this conversation there is little room for people to think about the most effective ways to build community connections.

Supporting effective responses

A large part of an effective response to Covid-19  is going to be slowing the spread of the virus. Both to protect those who are most vulnerable (our kaumatua and kuia, our parents, our grandparents, and those who are immune compromised) and so our health system is not overwhelmed. We only need look overseas to Italy to see why these responses are essential.

While washing our hands is critical, there are less personally beneficial and more challenging actions we are going to ask people to take to slow the spread.

There will likely come a point where people in government will be asking those who are the least likely to be infected by the virus, healthy, younger people, to stay away from work and other people primarily to protect the more vulnerable. People are not going to decide to prioritise community care over their own wellbeing if the main context in which they are making that decision is “what will this cost me?”.

Policy makers, politicians and businesses will find it harder to decide to support actions supporting community wellbeing if they are not hearing a lot about the importance of community building and care in responding to the virus.

Using a more sensible decision-making lens during Covid-19

People in policy, politics, and business are going to need to explicitly apply a very different lens from a cost or growth one to decision-making in this context. Wider community care and connection has to be the central focus. It is a lens which leads to questions such as does this action build our community connections and trust in each other? Does this help keep vulnerable people healthy? And what is the cost to that person or a community in doing so over both the short and the long term, compared to a person in a different set of circumstances?

It is very different from simply asking what is the cost implication to the economy from the virus and how might we mitigate that?

It would lead to very different policies responses. For example, you may expect to see wage relief for people in precarious industries and those who cannot work from home. Or a living wage for people who are caring for vulnerable people and keeping them away from the infection. It is exactly this policy making lens that experts, like Dr Ruth Cunningham, advise needs to be used during pandemics.

So which of the many proposed policies would meet such criteria of community unity, rather than erode it, leaving us in a better position over the long term? Minimum wage cuts, income tax cuts, quake-style wage subsidies, increase in benefits?

Any policy that further erodes resources in an already under resourced group will have a very damaging effect on people’s stress levels and ability to cope in conditions of both uncertainty and potential ill-health. Minimum wage cuts for example would not build community cohesion. The welfare advisory group has made it very clear there has been an erosion of income support in real terms, and this has a clear flow on effect on people’s mental and physical wellbeing, especially on children’s health.

Policies that centre community connections would need to increase incomes and support for those most impacted by the virus (and that is always those with the least resources in a community). This would be a great time to consider a family type benefit. Any self isolation, additional care work for older people and children, will fall more heavily on women. So recognising their contribution and the particular opportunity costs women will experience would be an appropriate policy response.

Personal income tax cuts would give small amounts to those who need it least, which is irresponsible when what we are going to need are stronger more flexible social and health systems- something tax is used to do (and any additional government borrowing). Our health systems are not set up to cope and will need everything we can put into them.

Is foundational community resource there when we need it?

It is worth considering whether the community connections we need to draw on have been weakened because of that withdrawal of the state support for specific groups in New Zealand. It may be harder to find that critical community spirit (something wellbeing economics is designed to

Many Iwi and hapū have remained strong and prioritised people’s wellbeing in spite of problematic government policies so will be well placed to act in a positive direction. Look at Ngai Tahu that after the earthquake – they were often leading a lot of the community care response. Those in more isolated, less connected communities, have been impacted by the neoliberal project. Its proponents saw little value in people in government supporting connections between people. It will be much harder to draw on many community organisations to help respond given how social agencies have had their funding pulled away from them over the years. Another reason for bringing a better policy making lens to the issue now for the long-term.

It is very challenging work for people in government to respond to these types of events. Everyone’s a critic (or an expert or both!). That it is an election year makes this even harder for people in the current Government to navigate. However, a focus by all people, in and out of government, on the things that will build our connections to each other, is what will serve all of us, our health, our community (and, yes, the economy) best in the short and long term. That is the responsible approach to decision-making.

*Originally published in newsroom. Republished with permission.

Jess is the co-director of the Wellington think-tank The Workshop, and a Research Associate at the Public Policy Institute.

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