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Universal basic income is the only fair option in COVID-19 crisis

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Spain's Socialist Government, led by Pedro Sanchez, has introduced a universal basic income in recent days (image by Marta Jara via Wikimedia Commons).

Have we all of a sudden forgotten that the global system in the current pandemic crisis was itself a system in crisis?

To respond to these unprecedented levels of social uncertainty, psychological anxiety and material insecurity, we cannot apply usual thinking, half-measures and old solutions.

To propose a wage guarantee along the lines of the post-World War II, corporatist welfare system is a faulty line. These are not the times for business as usual, nor the times to advocate for categorical and differential forms of assistance. A wage guarantee privileges labour market insiders, maintains the status quo and fails to recognise how equally exposed people are to forces beyond the individual 'facing hardship at no fault of their own'. 

How equally we pay the price of systems’ collapse be it financial, climatic or health-related.

What we should be asking ourselves right now is not how to put patches in a system that has long been on the brink of collapse; efforts should not be directed at protecting the status quo. We should not try to direct our collective effort, intellectual and physical energy to keep a faulty system on life support. We have to use this tragic opportunity to collectively redesign socially just and ecologically sustainable complex systems.

And we have to start by unconditionally guaranteeing a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Now that the world is in a limbo of utter confusion, we all feel somehow floating in an interregnum. "Whatever it takes", patchy and rushed measures are being taken in a panic-led global response, which aims at "saving the savable", in the delusional belief that everything will return to “normal”. But what was the “normal” state?  And should things be ever completely fixed?

Let’s recap the “normal” state of the world, where the world’s richest one per cent have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people; in 2017 more than one in ten people globally was diagnosed with a mental health disorder; and the planet has entered a stage of irreversible ecological collapse.

Have we already forgotten the Amazon fires, the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires, the Great Barrier Reef bleaching? The communities and wildlife destroyed by drought? Have we forgotten that more than 1.1 million children live in poverty in Australia? Have we forgotten the punitive system of the cashless debit card, the recent Royal Commission into the financial sector, a system where bailing out banks has been deemed more important than bailing out people? 

It is in this unapologetic view of the world that we live in, that a doomed-to-fail approach to limit the disruptions to that faulty system seems utterly sclerotic. It is from this perspective that wage guarantee measures – among others – not only make little or no sense from a budget perspective.

They are reinforcing same old categorical divisions of society in a time that couldn’t remind us about our common humanity more starkly. A UBI recognises this common humanity by guaranteeing financial security to all, without categories, without conditions, without obligations.

This is a time where we are finally waking up to the fact that health is a public issue, not an individual matter that can be managed in an insurance risk assessment fashion. It's a time where the partial to full closure of all "non-essential" services is forcing us to notice what is truly essential and a time where we are realising just how much our individual and collective survival depends on the "care economy". 

This crisis is exposing how narrow our definition of "work" is, as well as exposing what work can really be considered essential and socially valuable. It is showing us that not only what produces market value should be considered valuable, a realisation well-known to feminists, carers, artists, volunteers, parents, Indigenous people and more. A UBI recognises these forms of absolutely essential human labour that are keeping us safe and alive.

In other words, in a time of deep assessment, of acknowledgement, why can't we see and equitably deal with the reality that the suffering, need and anxiety felt by the "formal labour market" outsiders is the same as that felt by labour market insiders? Unions are backing a model of workers’ first, of job protection first to follow on the steps of countries such as the UK, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and more.

The Australian Government's response, highlights two principles worth taking into consideration, which deal with the means to materially survive and to feel psychologically safe.

Firstly, it is not time nor money efficient to build a whole new payment system. In fact we should probably aim at simplifying Centrelink by streamlining and removing conditionalities of access. This includes removing mutual obligations made temporarily by the Government. As proposed in the Conversation, a UBI could even be administered by the Australian Tax Office.

All in all, these are steps to simplify administration, remove bureaucratic and expensive oversight that UBI advocates for.

Secondly, the PM has correctly pointed out that a wage subsidy would lead to inequalities in Government assistance, with higher income earners receiving more.

We should not push for differential treatment in a time that couldn’t lay barer how equally exposed and equally fragile we all are.

The language is changing around the world. Leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, are talking about legacy, care, compassion and respect. In a time of fear, anxiety and insecurity only hope can gather the necessary social energies to rebuild nations.

We have a once in a lifetime chance to rebuild differently, rebuild sustainably, rebuild a society who needed a health crisis to be reminded how interdependent we are. Let us not waste this opportunity to learn. A UBI is the first step to freeing and bringing together the collective energies that we are going to need so much.

Loriana Luccioni is a PhD student at The University of Queensland with degrees in psychology and sociology.

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Universal basic income is the only fair option in COVID-19 crisis

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