Article by Laura Morazzini | Illustration by Armadilly
2020 has been a difficult year from many points of view, with new problems upsettingly emerging and old ones inexorably worsening. However, with the new year comes an uplifting drive to change things, and, although it is impossible to draw exhaustive conclusions, there surely are a few areas of intervention worth mentioning. So, what can be recommended to States to improve an already critical situation in 2021?
Get those backup plans out!
“Nothing happens until it happens” is an old saying that brings a lot of wisdom to the table, as it became evident in 2020. Whether a State, a company, or an individual, 2020 proved how back-up plans and flexibility are key when facing disruptions, and that the worst-case scenario remains, in the end, a possible scenario, no matter the likelihood of its occurrence. Indeed, many shortcomings of State responses to the virus, arising from structural flaws like corruption, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and low coordination between the central and local governments, manifested themselves in inadequate emergency planning. Hiding behind the unlikelihood of such a catastrophic event to justify the underfunding of the healthcare sector is an unpersuasive excuse.
In hindsight, it is clear that we forgot uncertainty and grew accustomed to the lack of disruptions. Understanding uncertainty means understanding the urgency of fixing structural national vulnerabilities, in order to not get caught off-guard again. Similarly, at the individual level, the past year has undoubtedly been a stark reminder that, while following your dreams is a good thing, having a reliable alternative to make ends meet is not uncool, but a life-saving habit.
Make labour markets more accessible for people in their 20s
People in their 20s may be kept waiting for vaccinations, but they should not be left hanging for economic recovery. As they queue up behind ‘early Millennials’, who were already kicked away from the labour market by the 2008 economic crisis, employment opportunities will wither even faster. This is especially concerning since many countries, like Italy, Spain and Greece, haven’t even fully recovered from the previous wave of unemployment yet. Moreover, as this section of the population will receive the vaccine at the end of 2021–or, as WHO anticipates, even in 2022–, it might have to bear restrictions even longer than others. As a consequence, their access to the labour market might become even more difficult, particularly in sectors where international travel is required, or where constant interaction with the public is unavoidable. Moreover, due to varying vaccination rates worldwide, young workers coming from the most affected and poorer countries will face unfair international competition. The solution is, therefore, to improve national labour markets and ease access for this specific category.
Transition to e-government and open data
As we all know, corruption is the cancer of all good governance efforts. In 2021, it will be crucial to mobilize all national resources in the fight for economic recovery. To that end, longstanding government inefficiencies should not be tolerated. For instance, according to the Open Government Partnership, “corruption in public procurement can reduce the value of contracts by up to 15%”. Considering that, on average, 20% of GDP is spent on public procurement, the loss for the citizens is great.
The implementation of e-government platforms can improve the quality and accessibility of services provided to enterprises and citizens, increasing transparency, and eventually lowering the price for the State. According to a World Bank study, the biggest problem in the implementation of more digitalized services are civil servants themselves, for reasons of power and authority, lack of flexibility, increased supervision, and possible cuts in personnel. Addressing this issue should definitively be a priority.
Develop comprehensive plans on mental health
Concealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, another forgotten affliction has been spreading, one that will probably have deeper and more insidious repercussions on health, society, and economy than the virus itself.
The unbearable weight of the pandemic has undoubtedly affected the mental health of everyone, generating and worsening cases of anxiety and depression. Disturbingly, it also heavily disrupted the already precarious mental health services needed to confront these issues. Just in Europe, because of COVID-19, “1 in 2 young people (aged 18–29 years) are subject to depression and anxiety, and 1 in 6 are probably affected. Up to 20% of health care workers are suffering from anxiety and depression”, said the WHO Regional Director for Europe. Moreover, as the pandemic disrupted mental health services in 93% of States, the WHO has urged them to invest in a “critically underfunded sector”, one that receives less than the 2% of national budgets.
Appreciate technical competence in politics
If political shrewdness makes you win an election, technical competence makes you run a country well. Recent trends in some countries seem to indicate an ideological shift towards appreciating technical competence over political representativeness, as if democratic competition were less important than good governance.
While we should not compromise democracy in the name of good governance, there surely is something to learn from these countries. We should broaden the meaning of ‘legitimacy’ in defining political leadership and find some space for technical competence, too. Governments should not just be accountable to their citizens, but also responsive to their needs. As Northern European countries demonstrate, it is possible to combine democracy with good governance. 2021 must be the year where this compromise is found elsewhere too. Citizens and the media share with politicians an equal responsibility in this task.
Show kindness and empathy to fight populism and extremism
“We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of. […] you can be both empathetic and strong”, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said in an interview with the Guardian.
In these hard times, people cannot help feeling a quickly expanding divide between them and the political class, which, mixing with longstanding disillusionment towards political participation, ends up fuelling global waves of populism. The argument of prime minister Ardern can illuminate us on how to fill the gap between rulers and ruled without falling into the traps of the populist propaganda. Indeed, politics cannot be solely “against the other”, but also “for” and, most importantly, “with the other.” As aggressive political language is taking the lead in many countries, not least in the United States–with the consequences we are all witnessing–, the exercise of kindness from the political leadership is a good antidote against extremism and a lesson of civilization for the nation as a whole.
Always have a long-term approach
Since they seek re-election, political leaders are usually incentivised to value short-term effects over long-term benefits. While this is an element embedded in representative democracy, we are living in times where the urgency of action in the interest of the next generations have reached a level never experienced before: not only because economies have broken down twice in one generation and some countries are experiencing worrisomely low birth-rates as a consequence of economic downturns, but also because the prioritization of climate change cannot be postponed any longer. According to the UN, “Readily-available technological solutions already exist for more than 70 per cent of today’s emissions”. If we have the technical means, then what we are lacking is the political will and the international consensus to move forward. Sadly, when our generation will take the lead, it will already be too late. There are only 9 years left to curb emissions by 45% and stop irreversible damage, will we make it?
Care for the forgotten ones
Some categories, like minorities, women, economically and mentally vulnerable people, and binational families have been particularly affected by the events of 2020. Indeed, while 2020 showed us that even democracies can, if justified, breach human rights and suppress freedoms, not everyone has been affected equally. For the moment, some issues have been postponed for emergency reasons, while others have obtained only a partial redress. Nonetheless, solving the problems at the basis of these asymmetric effects has less to do with COVID-19 and more to do with structural flaws and biases within the social, legal, economic, and political sphere.