A return to a new normality | Patrick O’Brien

Getting economies back on their feet will require a creative approach, unlike anything the EU has delivered to date. A quick recovery depends on the right response

Patrick J O' Brien is director of communications at Exante

The European Commission will publish a “European roadmap towards exiting from the COVID-19 pandemic” in the next few days against a backdrop of growing concern in Brussels over the potential for an unclear, and deadly exit from the current restrictive measures.

Debates about the world that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic have already started apace. Many commentators are wondering whether the crisis offers the opportunity to set the world on a more sustainable and equal path. But as exhausted health workers worldwide are wondering how to summon the energy to meet the limitless demands they face as families continue to endure grief, and patients, those inclined to roll their eyes at the Maltese Prime Minister announces stricter measures over these two weeks to stay inside might think clearly about walking in their shoes before complaining.

It is clear in his message that the Prime Minister has appealed for solidarity over self-interest; remember, it is the virus that has driven us into our homes, not government decree. Nonetheless, the confinement cannot go on indefinitely. Government officials are rightly examining strategies for a “phased” exit from travel and social restrictions. But we will have to move on to a different terrain in the coming months. Such a move, however tentative, is inevitable.

People are worried about futures and livelihoods. Getting a handle on the pandemic can be achieved, but there is some way to go. We are used to living calibrated lives rounded by routine. For the first time in most of our lives, this power of agency has been stripped away. The scenes of mass burials in New York serve as a grim reminder of how high the stakes are.

A return to normality, or at least an acceptable level of brokenness, must still be our priority. To this end, testing and tracing procedures have to be enhanced. Italy and the US show us that given the opportunity, this virus will run rampant.

Schedules still seem to count for little, as this year’s exams students are learning. Hopefully the provisional late summer sitting can be achieved. They might have hoped for more certainty, but like so much else, precise dates are not yet within grasp.  

The lessons we have will take from this pandemic include the growing urgency of the climate emergency which has engaged many concerned citizens and created mass social movements demanding change. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that more sustainable ways of living are possible. We have also learnt that we need now to curtail corporate and investment profits and protect workers and consumers, including through social welfare reforms and progressive taxation. Governments are already playing a much stronger role in helping their citizens and economies weather this crisis

At least some degree of agreement was finally arrived at in Brussels to put a package together to help countries through the emergency. It is to be welcomed, though unlikely to be enough. Countries which will need assistance are suffering not due to their own misconduct or mistakes but due to a broad public health effort. Massive unemployment is a result of economies being put into comas. The companies that will survive, in the medium and long term, will be those with the greatest capacity to adapt and that know how to innovate the most at this time in order to really take advantage of the opportunities that will be created tomorrow.

Everything we will encounter will possibly be different and our mentality will have changed completely. Getting economies back on their feet will require a creative approach, unlike anything the EU has delivered to date. A quick recovery depends on the right response. On a country-by-country basis, while frailties were exposed, so too were inspirational strengths. But what is needed is a systemic change that goes far beyond financial instruments to recalibrate societal values and provide a more sustainable underpinning for the future.