In this guest post, Helen Taylor discusses the advantages of applying a Rawlsian lens to assessing and responding to the impact of COVID-19 on society.
COVID-19 and inequality
COVID-19 has had a remarkable impact on society, communities, and individuals’ lives. Few elements of everyday life have been unaffected by the pandemic. Two key elements of political theory – freedom and equality – have been a fundamental part of the lockdown experience.
The relationship between equality and the pandemic is complex. Two accounts have emerged. The first is an ‘equalising’ account: the pandemic has created a more even sense of equality in terms of what individuals are able to do. All individuals have experienced restrictions on their movement, who they can see, and what activities they can undertake.
The second is an ‘exacerbating’ account: the pandemic has categorically highlighted and exacerbated the existing inequalities in society. For example, regarding access to food, individuals and families who were reliant on foodbanks or free school meals to meet their basic needs faced substantially more precarity when access to these services was suspended.
Both the ‘equalising’ and ‘exacerbating’ accounts relate to issues of basic needs. These include access to food, individuals’ relationship with home, threat to health, access to education, and ability to work and earn money. On the first account, individuals who might not have experienced precarity in relationship to these areas potentially are experiencing it for the first time. The restrictions on, and our experiences of, these issues are more similar than they have been previously. On the second account, if individuals and communities were already experiencing precarity in relationship to these issues, the pandemic has manifestly increased this inequality.
As we have heard in what has become a popular pandemic expression: ‘we are in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat’.
Applying a Rawlsian lens
A Rawlsian approach to justice can be useful here both in providing an analysis of the relationship between COVID-19 and equality, and in looking to the future. With such a fundamental shift in how we live, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to remake society, focusing on real priorities that have been illuminated by lockdown restrictions.
As I have argued elsewhere, the application of a Rawlsian conception of justice can be used to evaluate and inform social policy, particularly that which relates to matters of basic justice. In the context of COVID-19, the device of the “original position” can be used to guide what the ‘new normal’ might look like.
The original position functions as a choice situation within Rawls’ theory of justice, where individuals agree on the principles that should underpin society from behind a veil of ignorance. Here, individuals are unaware of the particularities of their lives and therefore have to make decisions about how society should function from a neutral point of view. Rawls states that individuals in this construct:
do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations. (1999, p. 118)
With the ‘old normal’ paused due to the pandemic, we can use the device of the original position to contemplate what we want from the ‘new normal’. The ‘equalising’ impact of the pandemic has meant that many of us have experienced precarity that we haven’t experienced before. It has removed (some) of the particularities of our socio-economic circumstances and replaced them with (temporary) barriers around being able to meet our basic needs with complacency. It will have raised questions such as:
- How am I going to access food in a safe way?
- Is my housing suitable to meet my needs when I need to stay at home?
- How do I keep myself healthy?
- Do I have the resources available to provide education for my children?
- Is my work safe or does it put me at risk?
- Am I earning enough to meet my basic material needs?
What is clear from the ‘exacerbating’ account of equality, is that individuals’ answers to these questions are and have been drastically different.
The ‘new normal’?
By understanding the relationship between the pandemic and COVID-19 through the construct of the original position, we can create a space for discussing the ‘new normal’. Some of this work is already ongoing within the Welsh Government, for example. The ‘exacerbating’ account of equality demonstrates, again, that there are fundamental issues of inequality in meeting basic needs in the UK. There should be serious consideration of this in this period of lifting lockdown, with an imperative for these not to be replicated in the ‘new normal’.
Rawls, J. (1999) A Theory of Justice (Revised edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Helen is a lecturer in Housing Studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on the application of political philosophy to contemporary social policy, and to housing and welfare policy in particular. She is Vice Chair of the Housing Studies Association, the learned body for Housing Studies in the UK.