Since COVID-19 struck Ireland, 584,000 more people are out of work. Many are receiving financial and other economic assistance from publicly-funded support schemes, notably the pandemic unemployment payments.
The unemployment rate, including those on COVID-19 supports, was more than 28% last month. Tens of thousands more are having their wages supported by the State as they remain in employment.
In the short term, the introduction of these supports was a necessary measure to keep people on their feet during a time of great pressure and stress. In the long term, however, this is unsustainable; there is a limit to how much money we can borrow, and it is better that as many people as possible go back to work soon. We need to get all in our country to work again as soon as possible, for there is much work to be done.
Ideally, each of us who is fit and able could work to contribute to the betterment of our community and country. Each of us can benefit, not just economically, but from the personal growth, social interaction and enjoyment that comes from working together with others.
For a start, we need to safeguard essential parts of the economy, such as telecoms, electricity, water, distribution networks, government services, among many others, from further outbreaks of COVID-19 disease. Businesses in these sectors will require up to 20% extra staff to cope with a potential future COVID-19 disease in workers, so that there are people nominated, trained and experienced in each essential role to stand in at short notice for those who might need to take sick leave or self-isolate.
For many businesses and organisations to operate reliably in this ‘new normal’, they are going to have to make significant changes. Nominated designates, contingency plans, business continuity plans, staff training in physical distancing, cleaning rotas of hard surfaces, tissues and bins, soap and water, training and support to stay at home when sick, working from home and client screening will become our new normal.
Each business needs to understand their supply chains back to the fourth or fifth link, to identify the dependencies and risks, and then to come up with and implement a plan to mitigate against the potential risks to supply. Whole business models and the financing plans will need to be reconsidered afresh and, in some cases, totally reinvented, to account for the new costs and the increased uncertainties of the future.
The pandemic has identified some potential growth areas that we can consider and examine. The disruption of global supply chains has meant that people have leaned heavily on local suppliers. What we make at home, and our ability to continue making it, will become increasingly important. Could we in Ireland make all of our own alcohol gel? Aprons? Gloves? Reusable goggles? Face coverings, surgical masks?
The digital economy has proved a life-saving sales channel for many businesses during COVID-19. In the new era of social distancing it is likely to become more important, so what can we do to develop and grow this in the future? The Irish-based innovators in the technology sector may do well; the whole world is learning how to Zoom, and to use Teams, Moodle and Blackboard for education and video conferencing. Much of what we took for granted in the real world will move into the digital world, and that will require creating new platforms and services.
Ireland’s pharmaceutical and medical device sectors may benefit from increased exports of drugs and medical devices.
Ireland should consider publicly-funded infrastructure projects that will pay back to us an economic and social dividend for 50 years or more. Could we re-map digitally the land registry into one single national system? Could we develop a national dispute-resolution system of mediation and justice based on digitally transmitted remote video or audio and written evidence? Could we develop a fast train from Limerick to Cork, Rosslare, Dublin to Belfast? Could we heat-insulate our public buildings and hospitals?
Ireland’s post-COVID-19 economy presents new opportunities for innovation. Many of these will stretch our limits of human creativity and ingenuity. I hope these will be humane and life-enhancing in a sustainable way for all involved in them.
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on 23 May 2020.
Prof. Samuel McConkey is Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at RCSI and President of the Infectious Disease Society of Ireland.