Coronavirus, Health & Working Life: Thoughts
Without doubt, the challenge that faces us globally as a result of the rapid spread of the new coronavirus is one of the greatest of our generation. A report published by the COVID-19 Team at Imperial College London, which is advising the UK government on its coronavirus response, warns that the current threat to public health is the “most serious” from any respiratory virus since the Spanish Flu in 1918.
This challenge should not be under-estimated but, at the same time, it must be managed sensibly without panic and on the basis of our developing understanding of the nature of this particular beast, its behavior and its effects.
COVID-19 threatens our health and most particularly that of the older members of our societies with underlying health concerns of substance. Their very survival can be threatened, although not always, while those less at risk might manifest much less of a threat to health.
The effects of COVID-19 and the way in which it is being managed, however, go far beyond those of individual and public health and are impacting our ways of working, the nature of our work organisations and of our working lives. Many of these effects will most certainly be long lasting and, at this time, we stand on the edge of significant change in the world of work.
In terms of health service provision, COVID-19 has made clear that most existing health systems cannot easily cope with such large scale challenges to public health and for two particular reasons. The first is clearly the lack of funding sufficient to keep pushing medicine-in-practice ever forward in relation to both public and occupational health. The second is the commitment to what is too wide a spectrum of service provision. In particular, we strive and seemingly need to provide health services that cover minor ailments and injuries, ones that should primarily be the individual’s responsibility. The situation that we face in this respect is partly driven by a longstanding lack of appropriate health and social education at school level.
In terms of the world of work, we are using working at home largely supported by ICT and less travel and social interaction, as a strategy for slowing the spread of the virus. This may prove effective. However, at the same time, it greatly accelerates changes in working practices that have been growing over recent years. Once established, these will not be easily reversed and this will, in turn, change the nature of our work organisations. At the same time, these changes could offer a greener working life agenda. However, social isolation, even in relation to reducing the risk of infection, may in itself prove a long term health risk. Our knowledge of the effects of such isolation have been growing and in recommending it as a public health strategy – sensibly so at this time – we may be trading a medium term win (hopefully) against a longer term cost.
Finally, there is the question of the resilience of the world economic system in the face of the COVID-19 challenge and its management. Undoubtedly, the signs are that the world is in or fast approaching a global recession with all that follows from that. Looking back, the total collapse of the system has been forecast several times across recent generations and it is still here and functioning to be challenged yet again. Recession is one thing, total systems collapse is another. There is an argument that the economic system cannot totally fail. However, that does not mean that it will not live on the edge of chaos for some time to come.
In focusing our attention and our concerns and fears on managing the spread of COVID-19, we must not ignore the changes that it and the way we manage it are having on our health behavior and on work and our working lives. To do so, will leave us unprepared for the future however it is shaped by the current challenge.