Opinion: Neil Mackay: The 10 hard questions we need to answer if we’re to build a better post-Covid world

CORONAVIRUS has shaken the world. The future is in flux. If we’re to protect people and democracy, and promote common decency and fairness, then rules must change. Just when things seem darkest, perhaps thinking the unthinkable will help build a better world. Here are 10 hard questions that need asked ... and answered.

Do schools really work?

It takes a village to raise a child, right? Not in the modern world. During coronavirus teachers and parents have been basically left to fend for themselves.

On government performance, it’s a clear case of "must do better".

Teachers work hard, parents do their bit and pupils want to succeed. It’s not the people who need to improve – it’s the system itself. Classes sizes are maxing out, there’s not enough support staff.

One radical idea which would change education forever is the idea of civic mass participation in schooling. Each adult should play a role – to the best of their ability – in the education of children.

Why shouldn’t a journalist like me help out in English classes at my local school once a month? Or advise on the school’s online newspaper? Why shouldn’t a firefighter take safety classes, or maintain school emergency plans? Why wouldn’t a chef help prepare lunches? Or a retired soldier assist with PE?

Citizen participation shouldn’t just depend on skill sets, though. A journalist doesn’t have to help with media projects. I could tidy school grounds; collect tickets at the school concert. It’s simple participation that matters.

Not only would children thrive educationally, we’d all feel the reward of mentorship, and a sense of community would grow from mass participation. Schools would become every community’s beating heart – just as churches once were.

We live in a fractured society – placing the school at the centre of our lives would address that dysfunction.

We all know the only way to fix society’s ills is with good education. In his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Professor Stephen Hawking addressed how we build a better future. His answer was simple: education.

Some may say mass citizen participation in education is utopian – that’s true, the idea quite literally has its roots in Utopia, Thomas More’s 1516 book imagining a better world. In musing on the perfect education system, the Renaissance philosopher also says that learning must be lifelong – again, another ideal we know we should emulate.

Perhaps we should also consider emphasising critical thinking and civics in schools, at a time when facts are threatened, hate is spiralling and democracy is being undermined. Ending digital poverty is key to reimagining education – with a laptop for every child.

If education was central to society – and we paid educators accordingly – then maybe it wouldn’t feel to many of us that we’re living in an age of idiocracy, with reason a thing of the past.

Should we bring back national service?

This isn’t about the military, but rather a "national youth corps" that guarantees a paid job to young people, providing them with skills and inculcating a sense of community.

Coronavirus has left the young in greatest financial jeopardy. This summer will see the cruellest labour market for 75 years. Youth unemployment could hit 600,000 shortly. In a world where governments have shamefully abandoned the ideal of full employment, a national youth corps at least places some onus on politicians to promote the dignity of work.

Youth corps jobs shouldn’t prop up private industry, but make the country a better place. What are the big social problems we face? An ageing population, homelessness, rising mental health problems, social isolation, not enough support staff in schools, hospitals and social work.

If young people were paid to help out in these key areas they’d benefit immeasurably and so would society. We’d foster a generation of caring, independently-minded active citizens who see it as a duty to improve the world.

Just this week, a raft of voices from academia, youth charities, think tanks, and the arts favoured a national youth corps. It would be a lifeline for a generation facing desperate times.

Should politicians earn the national average wage?

Unless you live in New Zealand, it’s hard to see politics as anything other than a failure amid coronavirus.

Politics has been shown to be venal, secretive and inadequate – and one could argue that’s because we’ve allowed a rarefied political class to embed itself in society. Think-tankers, special advisers and political researchers coalesce, define their vision of the world and then become the next raft of MPs and MSPs, with the addition of a few ambitious lawyers and jaded journalists.

It doesn’t work. It’s not politics which has failed but politicians. Many of society’s best people don’t go to work for big salaries, but because they believe in what they’re doing – nurses and teachers are just two examples.

Slash politicians' pay down to the national average wage – about £30k a year – and let’s see if we get a better class of candidate.

Perhaps politicians should also have a maximum term in office? Politics is cosy, and cosy means lazy – there are backbenchers drawing salaries who we never hear from, so maybe no politician should hold office for more than 10 years. That would refresh the talent pool, keep politicians on their toes, and mean new ideas rather than self-interest were the driving force behind government.

During coronavirus some legislatures went digital. As we return to normality, would an increase in online committee hearings and debates keep the cost of politics down?

There’s a fear of even discussing issues like compulsory voting to tackle declining participation and trust in democracy. But should we be even more daring in discussing the future? Shouldn’t we also strengthen global governance?

Coronavirus proves global unity matters. If we’d listened to the World Health Organisation – or been made to listen by a strong United Nations – countries would have been testing, tracing and isolating from early on.

On a planetary level, how do we deal with the rise of robotics and AI, which will destroy jobs with virus-like speed, unless we find a common way, through global agreement, to harness technology safely. Do we need to reimagine the United Nations?

Is it time to nationalise care homes?

It’s hard to give any answer other than "yes". Care homes are the epicentre of the coronavirus catastrophe. There’s a horrible irony that while we celebrated VE Day, the last veterans were dying in their thousands, out of sight and out of mind, in care homes.

Care and health must be synced. Governments have long talked about it and done little. The national disgrace of mounting care home deaths surely demands that once this pandemic is under control, then nationalisation must be one of the first pieces of legislation enacted.

Should we let the oil industry die?

It’s a brutal question to ask – but we must think the unthinkable now.

Coronavirus proves humanity’s frailty in the face of nature. However, the virus also hands us the perfect opportunity to tackle climate change. Oil and gas prices are at rock bottom. The invisible hand of the market is already pointing to the exit door for an industry which has played a huge part in destabilising the planet’s eco-system.

Perhaps it’s time to administer the euthanising injection? However, that can’t be done unless every job in the oil and gas sector can be replaced with jobs in clean and green industries.

Getting economies back on their feet doesn’t mean throwing cash at old, dirty industries on their last legs, but funding new, clean industries which represent the future and innovation. The oil and gas industry is a dead – and heavily subsidised – weight on the world; a green economy would herald a new age.

Low interest rates caused by coronavirus also mean entrepreneurial borrowing to help forge these new industries would come within a financial sweet spot. As the economy shifts towards environmentalism, green utilities should be kept in public ownership and made part of a sovereign wealth fund which can be used for the benefit of the people.

The time is right for change, the only question is: do we have the courage to take the first radical step?

Should we ban cars from cities?

City life needs reshaped – coronavirus has taught us that much. It’ll be a long time until consumers pack out shopping districts again. In a world of social distancing, pavements need to get bigger, and so roads need to get smaller. We’ve all noticed how fresh the air is now car travel has dropped. Many have taken to cycling.

Reimagining the shape of our cities and our relationship to the car, really isn’t revolutionary. Birmingham had already moved to ban private cars taking trips through the city before coronavirus. York announced plans to ban private car journeys last year.

In an age of declining income, we’ll need more not less public transport – especially as social distancing will mean fewer people able to travel on individual buses and trains. The car will have to move out of the way when it comes to city life.

Our cities need greened as well. More parks, not more pound stores. The rise of online shopping points that way already. A park could create as many jobs as a pound store – with coffee stalls, ground keepers and fitness advisers.

As high street shops, pubs and restaurants are mothballed by profit-driven shareholders, so smaller, less greedy, individually-owned enterprises will replace them. With our high streets dying, cities could become places of outdoor and indoor leisure ringed by entrepreneurial local firms providing food, drink and entertainment: a stroll in a city centre garden followed by a snack at a locally owned cafe, a movie at an independent cinema and then a drink in a locally owned pub. Turn abandoned city centre properties into social housing.

Declining international tourism will also reshape cities. It’s already happening in Venice. We’re entering the age of rail again. More holidays will be via trains to Cornwall not planes to Malaga.

Are we at risk of becoming a medicalised society?

Coronavirus has two good consequences: first, we’ve focused more on our personal health; second, we’ve finally recognised the value of NHS workers. However, we need to beware this doesn’t tip over into extremes. After the First World War, veterans were put on a pedestal – no wrong could be said of them. We don’t want that for doctors and nurses.

First, they’re ordinary people, and we know that before coronavirus medics made mistakes just like other professionals. If we describe people only as "heroes" we cannot objectively value their contribution to society – and NHS workers contribute vastly.

Second, if we call people "heroes" we tend not to ask if those heroes need pay rises. Nurses need recompense, but so far we’ve only "clapped for carers", not demanded decent salaries.

Finally, we’re at risk of elevating health into a cult. In a post-coronavirus world, will smokers, the over-weight, someone who drinks or those who aren’t fit enough, be penalised for their lifestyles in a society which has become too health conscious? We know such thinking has been around for years.

Coronavirus must leave a legacy, but not one were the simplest joys are frowned upon.

Should social media be regulated like the BBC?

One of the most disturbing aspects of the pandemic has been the spread of conspiracy theories online. From 5G links to claims of Chinese labs releasing the virus, lies have multiplied throughout lockdown.

Until Wednesday – when Twitter tried to rein in Donald Trump – social media did nothing to stem the tide of dangerous disinformation. However, as Twitter faced threats of retribution from Trump, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg attacked the rival company saying it wasn’t the place of social media to interfere with free speech.

Social media is a publisher – just like the owners of this newspaper. Facebook disseminates information just like the BBC. As such, Facebook and Twitter should be subject to the same laws as newspapers at the very minimum. Some would argue social media should be restricted as severely as broadcasters.

This newspaper cannot publish a letter calling for murder or rape, nor can it publish deliberate lies. Laws hold the old media to account. New media must play by the same rules.

Is it time to end charity?

Charity is the mark of a person’s humanity. When practised properly there’s no higher moral action. But we live in a society were charity fills in for government failure. It was ordinary people who raised millions for protective hospital gear.

There’s a simple fix for this – proper taxation. Are you happy to pay a few more pennies in tax so no child goes hungry, or do you prefer Children in Need taking on the role of the treasury?

Equally fraught is the question of foreign aid. Covid is reordering priorities. Should aid go to nations like India, with its own space programme? Or to nations that seemingly need it more. At the very least, an intelligent national debate is required, free from racism and concepts like "deserving poor".

Do we need a wealth revolution?

Inequality has advanced steadily since the 1970s – and yet we know that societies with greater income equality are happier and healthier.

It’s not utopian to stop offshore tax avoidance, to make multinationals pay their fair share. It’s not revolutionary to say that a billionaire could pay 1960s levels of tax and still have more money than they’d ever spend in ten lifetimes. It’s not radical to inflict heavier waste taxes on polluting corporations, or limit corporate political donations.

Throughout coronavirus we’ve seen large companies prioritise money over people. Worker participation in companies would end that. If every board had half of its membership elected from the workforce, shareholder greed would be curbed, unnecessary lay-offs prevented, pay fairly apportioned, rights protected, staff respected.

The workplace must be reimagined. A four-day week – as long as it doesn’t lower worker wages – might be one way to improve quality of life for the majority. The debate about a universal basic income, however, too often misses the fact that it could institutionalise poverty.

Coronavirus has shown us the brutality of inequality. The poor are dying faster than the rich. There’s a growing groundswell of intellectual opinion that a society which judges itself purely by GDP – by wealth – is a failed society. Why not judge ourselves by higher standards like a GDP in happiness, health, wellbeing, freedom, education.

Our societies are too stratified. The rich live here, the poor there, the middle class somewhere in between. Top-quality social housing would even out disparities. A good society would see a plumber living beside a doctor, and a teacher beside a shop worker – not in class-based enclaves.

The biggest change of all would be learning how others live, not just those in the same bubble as ourselves.

What questions would you ask of the post-Covid world? Send your questions ... and your answers ... to sunday-letters@theherald.co.uk