Responding to the Covid-19 Pandemic in Inclusive Growth
The outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020 has uniquely and significantly affected both the research process and the potential importance of the research project itself. The West Midlands faces a plethora of challenges that the West Midlands Combined Authority have committed to responding to through an Inclusive Growth Strategy. The purpose of the research project was to conduct a case study that will shape a comprehensive policy analysis.
As the severity of the pandemic became more evident through March and April the focus of attention switched from planning out an interview strategy and contacting potential respondents to trying to understand the implications of the pandemic. Perhaps selfishly the first thought related to the implications to my research. Constantly questions came to prominence in the middle of the night; Will anyone want to be interviewed during the crisis? How will interviews be conducted, reported and meet ethical considerations? What if inclusive growth is no longer a realistic policy?
The second thought related to the communities and regions in the West Midlands that needed a successful policy strategy prior to the pandemic. How will they cope now, and what place will they have in any post-pandemic social contract? Economists predict a severe shock to the economy, worsening the longer the pandemic affects our ability to work, shop, enjoy the arts or attend sports. Crucially, the people who needed help before will be even worse off than they are now. It is a myth that the pandemic is a leveller of society, inequality is still present. Put simply, those in comfortable secure housing, those with outdoor space for recreation, those without debts and bills casting a shadow, and those who have not suffered from decades of health inequalities have a considerable difference in experience of the ‘lock-down’.
Early on the immediate thought that dominated was that inclusive growth, such as it is, would be too small a policy programme to address the impact of Covid-19. The term inclusive growth though is incredibly fluid in definition and versatile in design and application. It has the potential through rebranding and design to play an even more crucial role. Several indicators as to why this could be the case are outlined in the following paragraphs.
One of the most striking statistical stories of the early stages of the pandemic is the imbalance in deaths of BAME individuals, including the first ten Doctors to sadly lose their life. It may be tempting to look at the number of NHS staff who are BAME compared to the general population and alight on that as an explainer. However, delve further and one-third of patients in ICU beds are also BAME. Some possible reasoning for this lay in the reality of people living in communities with persistent health inequalities, a shortage of community and language support as well as living in overcrowded urban environments. In fact, research from the New Policy Institute suggests that the top five most crowded areas in the UK have 70% more cases than the five least crowded. These communities are the very ones that would have, in theory, be helped through inclusive growth. It can be argued, therefore, that the need for such a strategy is even more prescient now.
Another key indicator of the pandemic impacting upon poverty is the increased demand for food banks. The Food Foundation state that one-and-a-half million people are not eating because they do not have access or do not have money to purchase food. Compounding the situation is the increased demand with supply, logistical and social distancing measures. Food supply ties in too with the replacement of provision for those who receive free school meals. Currently a voucher system is being established to provide parents with vouchers for food purchases as supermarkets, however, there are again issues with supply and demand. The well documented increase in emergency food provision in the last decade is another crisis that inclusive growth is set to address.
Last week, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to support the UK Charity sector through a significant financial stimulus. However, he also accepted that the government could not save every charity. Many charities have already reported a significant shortfall in cashflow. The charity sector play a significant role in inclusive growth strategies, both in the developing world and the more recent ideas in Europe. Keeping hold of a strong charitable sector is the immediate challenge to empower them to respond to the pandemic in now and in the future as part of an inclusive growth response.
The evidence above of the early impact of the pandemic alongside the potential for far deeper implications for the communities already facing multiple deprivation is stark. So can inclusive growth or strategies similar to it perform a useful function in the current and post-pandemic world? John Goddard writing for CITY-REDI states; “The coronavirus crisis is creating new found social connections and networks of care to get us through this initial crisis and it is important that we recognise and find ways to hold onto and build those connections”. This is significant because it suggests that the growth of community networks is essential to responding to the impact of the crisis and is additionally inclusive in nature.
A search of the current literature also suggests a prominent role for inclusive growth. Georg Kell argues that four lessons must be taken from the crisis: a focus on the link between human health and that of the planet, investing more in prevention, collaboration and the importance of the private sector. Mariana Mazzucato also suggests four approaches to reshape the economy including a call for increased government investment in institutions to prevent crises, a focus on public health, protecting the green economy and re-establishing public-private relationships to ensure both citizens and the economy benefit.
Furthermore following the agreement of the European Council’s reaction to the economic impact of the pandemic its President Charles Michel expressed that there was an imperative to create a strong economic rebound that would “bring the EU back to strong sustainable and inclusive growth based on a green and digital strategy”. Despite Brexit, it would be perhaps surprising to find many dissenting voices to having a similar strategy.
All of which put together suggests an important role for inclusive growth in the rebuild of the economy during the pandemic and into the middle and long-term future. To what extent it is the ‘same’ inclusive growth strategy in the West Midlands as it would have been without the pandemic is open to question. However, early indications suggest a policy analysis of an inclusive growth strategy in the region is still both possible and more significantly, research that can contribute to policy making in the face of extraordinary circumstances.