The Chambers Dictionary defines ‘normal’ as “usual, typical, not extraordinary, mentally or physically sound”. ‘The new normal’ has become an oft quoted phrase from the pace at which we are embracing technology to how businesses are to innovate and adapt in order to survive. Covid-19 has made us reflect on what ‘normal life’ was like before the pandemic.
Concerns about inequality surface almost immediately during the first lockdown. There were reports of an increased risk of domestic violence on women as a result of the COVID-19 measures, with the UN describing it as a ‘shadow pandemic’. In the UK, as part of the Counting Dead Women project, the Femicide Census project reports “the number of women killed by men in the three weeks between 23 March and 12 April is the highest it has been for at least 11 years”, with at least 16 women and children dying. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are disproportionately more likely to die from the virus and more likely to be fined for breaching the rules. Women across Europe are experiencing a triple burden of paid employment, housework and home schooling during lockdown. Migrant women are disproportionately represented in key worker roles and have to live with the consequences of no recourse to public funds, leaving women destitute.
These heart-rending statistics represent an increase of what was ‘normal’ before rather than brand-new problems for many marginalised people in our communities. How can we believe our society was normal before Covid-19? The Trussell Trust issued 1.2 million food parcels in 2016/17 up from just 41,000 in 2010. The Women’s Budget Group report that 86 per cent of the spending cuts since 2010 have been borne by women. Stonewall’s survey in 2018 found 41 per cent of trans people and 31 per cent of non-binary people experienced hate crime in the previous 12 months.
How lives were experienced before Covid-19 was not normal and should not be viewed through such a lens. The signs of inequality during the pandemic – for example, the difference between those who can work from home and those who have to go out on the front-line of the pandemic – are there for all to see. But it does not have to be this way. The only key to unlock change is by putting those used to being at the margins of our society centre stage. Take for example, the experiences and consequences for women who lose out because of the gender pay gap and hence face a pension gap. What does it mean to feed your children or to buy a property if you are paid less than your male and white counterpart? What is life like on your reduced pension when you have had to leave work through homophobic bullying?
Those who do not get a lift up to the highest floor of the social mobility tower but instead have had to trudge the numerous floors, via the stairs, often tripping and falling along the way, are the ones who have learned the hard way. Our institutions and society can change and may even be saved if we respect such experiences. The intersectional experiences of being a woman, of being poor, of being disabled are what must be brought into our policy development, research, our local government chambers, our political campaigns and board rooms. But it is not enough to hear the voices: there must be action too. It is those voices that we need to build welfare and economic infrastructures that understand the are built on a real understanding of our lives and hence protect us all. We can do this right across economic and social policy development.
Take for example the Green New Deal. We will need to have processes in place that give equality of access to the high-skilled, well-paid, secure jobs required for the technological revolution within the Green New Deal. A single parent with three young children should be able to secure a high wage green job as easily as anyone else, because there will be sufficient childcare. If we want equality of opportunity, developing policy when the demographic of the researchers represents a small but elite part of our society, whichever part of the political spectrum you are on, will not work.
Now we are facing lockdown restrictions again, we again have a chance to show there is no ’new normal’. It is ours to create. And if we believe equality should be ‘the norm’, that means proactively giving up a surplus of power, currently held by a minority, as seen across boardrooms, our unions, our MPs, our voluntary organisations and our think tanks. People need to move aside to equalise, to realise a vision of our society where normality is equality. We need this now more than ever.