Embracing the ‘new normal’: What’s next after the pandemic?

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Sketch by Wong Soak Koon

Young people have a huge burden to carry and they must realise that the fight will not be over once the pandemic subsides, writes Dineshwara Naidu.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has called on the people to adapt to “the new normal” brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

What exactly should be “the new normal”? The whole idea of the new normal shouldn’t just be about changing the way we shake hands, as mentioned by the PM. Rather, it should be a complete 180-degree change in our behaviour, perspectives and ideology.

The world as we know it might never be the same. The global economy has slowed, people are living in isolation, and the death toll is rising daily.

Apart from the obvious, this pandemic has exposed issues that have always existed in society – and it is no surprise that the most vulnerable and the marginalised are the hardest hit.

The outlook appears grim. We could have been better prepared if governments around the world had been more welfare-oriented instead of serving the interests of the top 1%.

So what should be normalised after this pandemic subsides? The quest for change involves all levels of society, from the top to the bottom, to avert another global catastrophe that pushes more people into poverty.

Government’s responsibility

Welfare policies must be prioritised.

Malaysia has a somewhat decent welfare system put in place. But we still see many living in poverty, with issues such as single-income households, housing affordability, lack of education, lack of childcare support and the rising cost of living. These issues plague many families, and we cannot ignore them.

A crisis invariably hits the poor working class, including migrant workers, the hardest. Large firms often deem them expendable and retrench them with meagre compensation. This hits workers’ livelihoods, for they usually lack a social safety net.

A crisis also affects the middle class, many of whom are on relatively low wages. They are often unable to save because of the high cost of living. Expenditure on food, rent and student loans gobbles up their incomes. When faced with a stay-at-home order, they cannot cope financially as many of them are losing their jobs or are hit by wage cuts.

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Yes, governments have announced stimulus packages, but we must think long term, as these packages cost a lot and are unsustainable.

What are the solutions? A universal basic income, guaranteed by the government, could widen the social safety net in the long run. For example, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged C$2,000 (RM6,184) a month for the next four months to workers who have lost their incomes because of the pandemic.

This idea of a universal basic income shouldn’t be confined to times of emergency but should be expanded on a monthly basis to each household. The Bantuan Sara Hidup (cost-of-living assistance) is too low for many low-income Malaysians; it needs to be raised, with payments made monthly.

Decent wages should be a priority. Capitalism, by nature, is unjust to the working class, as the ones who owns the means of production get richer while workers often do not get a fair wage. As a result, inequalities occur. In Malaysia, as we progress towards becoming a high-income nation, the provision of a living wage to the people – rather than just a minimum wage – should be considered.

A 2016 paper by Bank Negara states that a living wage is essential for employees to go further than just being able to afford food, clothing, utilities and shelter. A living wage would allow workers to participate meaningfully in society and provide opportunities for personal and family development. There would be no need to live from pay cheque to pay cheque.

The central bank said the living wage for a single adult living in Kuala Lumpur would be RM2,700 – much higher than the current minimum wage of RM1,100. Both employers and employees would benefit – the former through improved productivity and worker loyalty and the latter through a reduced financial burden and a better quality of life.

If the government could bridge this gap soon, it would cost it less in times of crisis, as more people would have enough savings to cover their cost of living, leading to less risk of social unrest.

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But how are we to fund this? By taxing the top 1% or top 20% more. The top 20% have accumulated the largest share of national wealth over the past decade through tax deductions, higher wages and various subsidies. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2019, 246 persons in Malaysia earned $50m-$100m (RM218m-RM436m), 159 individuals made $100m-$500m, and 26 earned over $500m.

The government must therefore come up with a fair, progressive tax system and reduce deductibles and rebates for the wealthy. It must also not be bullied by the corporate sector when enforcing the minimum wage.

Healthcare is another sector that needs improvement. It is reassuring that we have a high-performing public healthcare system to handle uncertain situations, but we must prepare for the next crisis. The public healthcare system should not be in a situation that it needs extra funding just to buy, for example, more personal protective equipment; such resources should always be readily available.

Total healthcare expenditure was 4.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), about half of which was for public healthcare – not enough for an upper-middle-income country. The previous health minister said in 2018 the country should aim for 6-7% of GDP. This would help ease the burden of overstretched, understaffed public hospitals in the country.

The coronavirus pandemic shows the need for well-supported and organised public healthcare services open to everyone and capable of responding to health emergencies.

For example, the Indian state of Kerala carried out aggressive testing and contact tracing and provided cooked meals for the poor and migrant workers. A robust healthcare system staffed by many healthcare workers made aggressive testing possible, and they quickly flattened the state’s coronavirus curve. So we can see how well-funded, efficient public healthcare systems prove their worth in the long run.

We also need to introduce and expand environmental laws. Covid-19 and climate change are interconnected crises: both are unintended consequences of unregulated human activity. To cope with another crisis, we must be better prepared. The International Panel on Climate Change said in a special report that if global temperatures increase by 1.5C, society would suffer dire consequences.

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We cannot ignore this. The global south will feel the effects more than the global north. Already, we see water and food scarcity in India, and this could very well be the reality in Malaysia. Hopefully, people will be more concerned about sustainable environmental policies after the current pandemic. We wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared by another crisis.

After all, “missing climate goals could cost the world $20 trillion” (RM88tn). Why? If the world, driven by corporate greed, does not cut emissions globally, it will suffer a massive dip in agricultural yields and the collapse of industries. So governments around the world must prioritise robust, comprehensive policies to combat the climate crisis.

Youth responsibility

Young people have a huge burden to carry. The youth must realise that the fight will not be over once the pandemic subsides. Yes, we can celebrate being free when the quarantine is over. But we still have to become more aware of our surroundings. We must be more socially conscious of the inequalities that exist. And we must remain vocal and keep pushing our representatives to act on these issues.

We, the youth, should shun the old individualistic mindset and embrace a new sense of communal solidarity. Human beings are most resilient when everyone comes together for a cause. This was seen under the movement control order, when many displayed solidarity in helping the marginalised.

The youth must not think we are helpless in issues like climate change. On the contrary, this virus has taught us that with commitment comes change.

Dineshwara Naidu from Subang Jaya studies political science at a local university and is passionate about human rights and climate change. In his free time, he enjoys watching and critiquing films

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