The Covid-19 pandemic is having an enormous short-term impact on all of our lives. But will life in lockdown lead to fundamental changes in how our society and economy operates? Or will we revert to how things were before as soon as it is over?
The focus of many in civil society is understandably on doing whatever is necessary to meet immediate needs, but it is important to look up and ahead if we can. Despite an uncertain future, we can start to identify key questions and possible scenarios. That way we can work out what needs to be done now to ensure we end up with the future we want and avoid going down the wrong path.
These are some of the key questions that have been most on my mind as I have been speaking to people about the current crisis, looking back at previous crises and trying to think ahead.
We have seen incredible generosity from the public, giving to support to medical staff and other key workers on the front line of the response. But at the same time many question whether the need to draw on charitable giving simply highlights longer-term underfunding of our health service.
There is also a question about whether people will shift their giving closer to home and if that will hurt efforts to fight the pandemic and poverty overseas. Could the huge generosity towards NHS charities at home and a massive desire to shore up local organisations create a lasting change in the landscape? And if it does, will other causes lose out?
The pandemic could give way to a new swathe of social action. Spontaneous acts of solidarity, such as clapping for the NHS or the 2.6 Challenge, have seen millions rally round those at the sharp end of fighting the pandemic. Never in recent years have so many people shown such fellow feeling towards neighbours and strangers. Could charities harness that energy once things return to normal?
There has also been a noticeable increase in crowdfunding, which bypasses traditional charities (and the tax breaks that come with Gift Aid donations). How this could continue, and whether people will shift to different forms of giving, perhaps with less regulation or movements that are less centralised, remains to be seen.
And because many foundations are sharing data to make the most of funding pots for charities during this crisis, could we see more transparency in a post-Covid-19 world? It is possible that breaking down barriers to producing and sharing more data will allow us to understand what is being given, what work is being done and where the gaps are. This also gives way to questioning whether the disparities in the amount going to different causes and different locations will be more apparent, and of how funders will respond to the pressure to even things out.
As well as the questions that lie ahead, there could also be a wave of new problems to address. The potential for significant mental health impacts – both on those working directly at the front line of the pandemic response and on society more broadly as social isolation measures and increased anxiety take their toll – appears significant.
There might be new challenges to address among children and young people, whose life chances will be affected by the disruption we are seeing to schools and other services. Changes to policy and legislation around surveillance and data collection, made in the interests of short-term public health needs, could yet lead to longer-term human rights and civil liberties issues that we might be unpicking for years to come.
These are just a few of the scenarios we are (and should be) considering, and I’ve written about several more, yet I can only think that I have barely scratched the surface.
One thing is for sure: we want to come out of the current crisis stronger and able to meet the challenges of society in the future. To do that, we need to think about these questions today so that we are ready to play our part for society tomorrow.
Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation