A blog post from Eurofound’s Executive Director on the Coronavirus crisis

To quote John Lennon, these are strange days indeed. This is not a futuristic movie nor a dystopian novel. This is our reality. Every news bulletin reminds us that a new context prevails. Every stark statistic and image, every new measure put in place, reflects the shock of our day-to-day existence.

The Coronavirus outbreak is, as we hear constantly, an unprecedented situation in so many ways. Unprecedented implications for individuals and economies, calling for unprecedented action and leadership. And while not the worst health crisis in history, it is the one having the greatest, most far reaching, most profound impact on the way we live and work, across both Europe and the globe. This means that it is also cutting through at the heart of Eurofound’s mission.

An increasingly globalised economy, rising population mobility and an expanding information society have all influenced the impact and reach of this pandemic. But the same elements that have contributed to the rise of the Coronavirus can also help stem the crisis. We are still in a position to take concerted global measures to promote understanding and awareness of what needs to be done and when, to reduce mobility and activities as required in order to slow the spread of the virus, thus buying time for our health systems to cope and for science to find longer-term remedies.

What is absolutely certain is that inaction is not an option.

And so extraordinary measures have been taken in many areas affecting our life and work. Schools and universities have closed their doors; bars, restaurants and other establishments are shut; theatres, concerts and other events are empty if not locked; transport and border restrictions are increasingly evident.

For the economy, there is an immediate and obvious impact. Disrupted supply chains, entire economic sectors grinding to a halt, jobs under threat. Stock markets are reflecting the shock, and national and EU authorities have launched a first package of support measures, not least to relieve the immediate pressure suffered by specific sectors, many self-employed and SMEs.

Public services such as health and long-term care are under severe stress, as are social security and welfare systems, which are being stretched to capacity and beyond.

At the workplace, we have also seen sudden and radical changes to our work environments, with workers teleworking from home on an unprecedented scale, the extensive use of digital platforms to maintain activity, the application of short-time working schemes and temporary redundancies across the labour market, and employees accessing leave not just for sickness but for quarantine and caring needs. The social partners have been fully engaged in these efforts.

More generally, our lives have seen immediate changes in the provision of e-services in education, public administration and services, leisure and many other areas. Steps have also been taken already to start addressing the needs of those most at risk, for example those who face difficulties in mortgage payments, utility bills and debts.

These are mostly short-term problems and responses to the very clear and present danger we are all facing. At the same time, we have an equally urgent obligation to prepare for the aftermath.

When this is over – and it will be – we must have in place the foundations to ensure that we are ready and able to support the economy as it takes tentative steps back into the new version of a global economy. We need to have taken stock of our experiences, strengths and weaknesses to offset the risk of long-term aftershocks that could trigger another recession with lasting economic and social effects. The impact of this on a European and global population still feeling the reverberations of the Great Recession in many places is unthinkable. Action now, building on and developing the solid structures that are already in place, will allow us to provide the support that will be required generally, and also specifically, for the sectors, occupations, regions, groups and individuals most affected.

There will most likely be no ‘back to normal’. There will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Coronavirus outbreak. We will be shaken as a people, understanding our impotence in the face of the power of something we cannot see or control. So many imponderables remain. We still do not know for certain if we can be assured of immunity, to what extent we can rely on future vaccines, or how we can manage a potentially intermittent cycle of illness and disease that will rattle across our nations for an unknown period. In the face of this situation, we feel anxious and out of control.

And yet perhaps we are already beginning to see small shoots of hope emerging. The crisis has shown us just how irrelevant political borders can be in an interconnected, globalised world, while at the same time highlighting the critical benefits of coming together and cooperating across countries. And while a crisis will always bring out the worst in some, we have also seen the very best emerge across our communities as people join forces in acts of selfless generosity and solidarity. We are learning that no business continuity plan or national emergency procedure could truly foresee a crisis of such magnitude. But we are also beginning to learn about the systems that have worked well and about those that, we now know, need to be changed. We are learning first hand how to maintain social interaction and productivity without intensive physical interaction and the consequent carbon footprint.

This could indeed be our moment – the time when we can learn from the sadness and shock to be a better society into the future. We all have a responsibility in this.

My own role over the past few weeks has been to ensure the health and safety of the Agency’s staff and their families. We continue to remain vigilant while continuing to deliver the public service entrusted to Eurofound.

Now we can turn our efforts to the contribution we can make to building that better ‘after’ world. Our business is providing the evidence that can help shape real and permanent changes for the good of European citizens in their lives and work. We are already working on how we can adapt our current programme to respond to the critical information needs of policymakers as they emerge from the crisis. Which jobs have been lost and which can be recovered? Which measures have been most effective and why? Which tools have worked well and which need to be adjusted? How can we live and work better in a digitally connected world? What roles have the different authorities played and what has been their impact? How have the social partners contributed? What role did civil society play and in what way?

What we learn from today will be crucial for how we live and work tomorrow. In the circumstances, it is a moral imperative.

This is where Eurofound is already working to play its part.

Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.

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