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Spanish Flu and COVID-19 – are there lessons for the world of work?

Dorothea Hoehtker

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many look to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19, which killed an estimated 50 million people, or 2,5 per cent of the global population. Are there lessons to be learned from the world of work perspective?

The Spanish flu did not start in Spain but was called that because Spanish newspapers were the first to report about it. From its presumed origins in a World War I military camp in the state of Kansas, United States, it washed over the world in three waves. The first, mild one in spring 1918, was followed by a second, more deadly outbreak between September and December 1918 and a third one at the beginning of 1919.

All countries were hit, although unequally. Samoa lost 22 per cent of its population, Spain 12,3 per cent and the US 6,5 per cent. In colonial India, the flu killed 6 per cent of the population, amounting to 18 million, roughly the number of victims of the First World War.

Similar patterns, similar measures

COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu both have struck a highly globalized and interconnected world where viruses easily travel on ships, carriers and trains, or – today – on airplanes. As 1918 was the last year of the First World War, the movement of troops and refugees was a significant factor in spreading the virus. In 2019/20, business and leisure travellers have been the main carriers.

The only measures to control the spread of the disease back in 1918 just as in 2020 were better hygiene, quarantine of the infected, “social distancing” and shutting down much of public life. This implied massive restrictions of civil liberties and paralysis and disruption of the economy.

In 1918/19 as well as today, the poorest and most vulnerable, who often lived in crowded conditions, with low paid work and little or no access to health care, were much more exposed to infection. They also suffered most immediately from drastic lock down measures, and were at a particularly high risk of losing their lives and their livelihoods.

Different impacts

The Spanish Flu happened at the tail end of the First World War, in a context of widespread chaos. The response to the crisis was uncoordinated, mostly local, with a high mobilization of civil society groups.

In industrialized nations, the economic impact was rather short lived. Eventually, the economic boom of the “Roaring Twenties” got many people back to work.

In other parts of the world, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa, the consequences were deeper and longer lasting. A shortfall in labour affected harvest and sowing. Food prices spiked, causing widespread famine and an increased flow of migrants into urban centres. This led to social unrest, strikes and rebellion against colonial powers.

What we can learn

Although the world is very different today, we can learn from the events in 1918/19 that a pandemic increases poverty and inequalities; this carries a social and human cost, which can have long term destabilizing effects.

Today, states have more possibilities to react, including through fiscal and labour market policies and tools, and the opportunity for international cooperation through the United Nations and their international partners.

Policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis need to address inequalities and ensure that poor, rural and marginalized communities are not forgotten. ILO’s labour standards such as Recommendation No. 205, on employment and decent work for peace and resilience, provide the necessary framework.

The global economic and labour market problems arising out of the COVID-19 crisis suggest looking also at the economic crisis of the 1930s and reconstruction policies after World War II.

As a response to massive unemployment and destruction, the ILO promoted comprehensive social protection, including health care, and a variety of employment promotion policies based on the conviction that poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.

These past responses can be an inspiration for recovery policies which have to be fair and – compared to the past – much more sustainable.

ILO

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New Social Compact

Classroom crisis: Avert a ‘generational catastrophe’

Newsroom

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Teachers and students wear face masks and maintain physical distance at a school in Cambodia. © UNICEF/Chansereypich Seng

The world is at risk of suffering “a generational catastrophe” as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the education of students globally, the UN chief said on Thursday. 

In a video message to the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Global Education Meeting (GEM), Secretary-General António Guterres reminded delegates that the pandemic had had a “disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth”.

“The progress we have made, especially for girls and young women, is under threat”, he said. “We now need to support the learning recovery in low and middle income countries – and to factor education into every stimulus package”.

Tackling the situation

To successfully avert the crisis, Mr. Guterres upheld the importance of recognizing education as “a common global good”, with teachers, safe schools, digital technologies and those at greatest risk, in need of far greater investment. 

“Financing and political will are critical”, he stressed. 

‘Vital linkages’ of education

Deputy UN chief Amina Mohammed observed that the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly highlighted “the vital linkages between education, nutrition, gender equality, health and social protection”.

She noted education systems had managed to undergo “rapid transformation” and pointed to the work of Governments in minimizing the educational impact on students, the flexibility and creativity of teachers and how caregivers have taken on “frontline roles” to support children’s education.

“Learners persevered and adapted to new realities”, continued Ms. Mohammed, as UN agencies have worked together with external partners, including through the Global Education Coalition, to deploy support and guidance to Governments.

However, these efforts have not been enough.

Since the pandemic hit, at least one-third of the world’s students have been deprived of any form of learning; close to half a billion pupils are still affected by school closures; and the most marginalized, including at least 11 million girls, are at high risk of never returning to school, according to the deputy UN chief.

Putting words into actions

Leading up to the meeting, UNESCO undertook a series of consultations for a draft GEM Declaration, which was informed, among other things, by the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief and the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of education.

Central to transforming words into action, Ms. Mohammed highlighted the priority areas of financing, inclusion, teachers, safe school reopening, connectivity and coordination. 

“Over the coming year, political leaders in national and local governments, donor agencies and financial institutions must ensure that the resolve to support education is backed up with resources”, she asserted. 

She also called for innovation, attesting that going back to “normality” was neither possible nor desirable as it would mean ignoring the “profound changes” in technology and labour markets across the world.

“And it would mean accepting the unacceptable fact that even before COVID-19, some 250 million children were out of school and more than half of primary school age children worldwide lacked basic reading skills”, she stated.

Finally, the UN official underscored that “effective multilateral collaboration” and “greater solidarity with the most vulnerable countries” were needed to coordinate education among actors. 

“Implementation of this Declaration, therefore, requires a reimagining of education; a dramatic push to train millions of teachers…scaling up of partnerships to connect every school, teacher and learner to the internet; and…equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing world”, spelled out the Deputy Secretary-General.

Fourth Global Goal

Turning to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Ms. Mohammed called education the “docking station” for the SDGs, from achieving gender equality to learning about human rights and acquiring new skills for a digital green economy, to developing tools for boosting tolerance and peace efforts.

“Delivering SDG 4 is a great responsibility on us all — led by the education community”, she concluded.

Other voices

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay paid tribute to Samuel Paty, the teacher who was decapitated close to his school near Paris, last week, after showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to his pupils, “and to all the teachers in the world who take risks to educate our children”. 

Meanwhile, Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, a co-sponsor of the event, said that “as countries start to reopen in the era of COVID-19, education must come first”. 

And Baroness Sugg, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Development, another co-sponsor, said “we know just how critically important it is to place education at the heart of our global COVID response”. 

From Ghana, the third co-sponsor, Education Minister Matthew Opoku Prempeh flagged on behalf of President Nana Akufo-Addo that the digital divide in developing have left many children “deprived” of online teaching and learning tools. 

In her remarks, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie emphasized that the biggest problem in this education crisis is not a lack of awareness or ideas, but instead a lack of will, saying “we know what should be done and we know the consequences if we do not act”.

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Women ‘far from having an equal voice to men’- UN Study

MD Staff

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Women in Pakistan learn computing skills © World Bank/Visual News Associate

The COVID-19 pandemic is “interrupting efforts” to achieve gender equality and threatening to “reverse hard-won gains” over the past decades, a senior UN official said on Tuesday.

Introducing the 2020 edition of The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics, Liu Zhenmin, chief of the UN’s economic and social affairs department (DESA), said that over the last two decades, “attitudes of discrimination are slowly changing” and women’s lives have improved with regard to education, early marriage, childbearing and maternal mortality, all while progress has stagnated in other areas.

“Women are far from having an equal voice to men”, spelled out the DESA chief. “And, in every region of the world, women are still subjected to various forms of violence and harmful practices”. 

Beijing still pending 

Overall, progress continues to fall far short of what Member States committed themselves to, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

“Twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres
“No country has achieved gender equality”.

To effectively measure progress in that regard, reliable, timely and disaggregated, data are critically needed and closing data gaps requires regular collection and use of gender statistics. 

Pushing a boulder uphill

Mr. Liu pointed out that while the coronavirus pandemic is having “devastating social and economic impacts” across the world, women are fighting “on the front lines…in healthcare settings, in home care, in the family and in the public sphere”.

With less internet access, particularly in developing regions, women also face difficulties maintaining valuable personal connections and carrying on day-to-day activities during lockdowns. 

“Many may also have been trapped in unsafe environments…and at risk of experiencing intimate partner violence”, Mr. Liu stated.

Moreover, he pointed out that women face reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services; and need more time to care for the elderly, sick and children, including home-based education; adding that they are also at higher risk of infection than men in the workplace.

Glass ceiling intact

In terms of power and decision making, World’s Women 2020 revealed that last year, women held only 28 per cent of managerial positions globally – almost the same proportion as in 1995.

And only 18 per cent of enterprises surveyed had a female Chief Executive Officer in 2020. 

Among Fortune 500 corporate rankings, only 7.4 per cent, or 37 CEOs, were women.

In political life, while women’s representation in parliaments worldwide has more than doubled globally, it has yet to cross the 25 per cent barrier of seats and although representation among cabinet ministers has quadrupled over the last 25 years, it remains at 22 per cent, well below parity.

Call to action

Mr. Liu called on all countries to “accelerate efforts” in empowering women and girls, towards improving data gaps in covering key gender topics. 

“Timeliness and comparability of data over time and across countries, need to be improved, and data disaggregation and dissemination by age, sex, location and other key variables, need to become a priority in order to fully measure and address intersecting inequalities, respond to crises, and ensure gender equality by 2030”, he upheld. 

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Of Here and Now: Pandemic and Society in 2020

Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg

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Photo by E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg : Labirinto de David, Búzios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

After a century, the world population faced a new pandemic that fast spread globally, affecting individuals both physically and mentally. Covid-19 started in late 2019 in Asia, spreading so fast that despite the global connectivity and highly sophisticated information technology and communication systems, the interconnected society of the 21st century was incapable to fast react in order to avoid contagion and prevent the worst. Gradually, the pandemic is making a tour around the globe contaminating citizens even in rural communities from all continents. Worldwide, there have been 32 million confirmed cases with over 1 million deaths during the first 9 months of this year[1].

From this universal pandemic we learned that the interdependent globalized world of 2020 is connected but not synchronized – or as earlier in crisis, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic well-noted ‘world on autopilot’[2]. All scientific, technological and digital knowledge accumulated over centuries remains inept to protect our civilization from an invisible virus that, ironically, can be eliminated with just soap and water. Obviously, the magnitude and the economic, social and cultural impact of this pandemic took humanity by surprise.

Society was already undergoing a deep process of transformation on all fronts. Debates were focused on the fragility of democracy, climate change and sustainability, inequality and inclusion, gender and race, social media and fake news, virtual payments and crypto currencies, artificial intelligence and blockchain. Science, knowledge and technology were advancing at a fast rate in all fieldsincluding genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology. Nevertheless, health-care was not a top priority for public investments or national budgets. Yet, with the eruption of the pandemic, priorities had to be immediately revisited.  A human-centred and inclusive approach became imperative in every corner of the planet. Incontestably, the 2020s is bringing irreversible disruptions.

Lockdown measures and social isolation deprived individuals of free movements, restricting social gatherings and citizen’s mobility. The home-office dismantled solid organizational structures of daily work conviviality. Closure of schools prevented children from accessing formal in-person education, creating a childcare crisis for working parents.  Crowded metropolis became empty urban centres, no shopping, no restaurants and no city life. Cultural festivities and spaces such as theatres, cinemas, and museums had their activities suspended leaving artists, cultural and creative professionals as well as street-vendors out of jobs. Parks and sportive centres became inactive and international tourism ceased.

Conversely, family life became the heart of social order. Parents that were extremely busy with their jobshad to juggle between work and the education of their children. People became less egocentric and started showing more empathy with the needed ones. Solidarity has been manifested in donations and collective assistance by civil society. Companies engaged with social responsibility.  Artists, cultural and creative workers were defied to work even harder at home to find new niches in the virtual domain. The confined society had to rediscover its ethical values, principles and priorities.

Free-time and leisure at present

Paradoxically, this shift in human behaviour brought us back to a theory of economics that emerged a century ago (Ruskin, 1900) “There is no wealth but life”. In this new-old context, free-time, leisure, well-being and culture are closely associated. Usually, we use our free-time to carry out activities that are not directly related to work, duties or domestic occupations. May be free-time is an illusion because only in exceptional occasions our time is completely free. Leisure, however, is a subjective concept which varies depending on the society which we belong. It is connected with our participation in cultural life, reflecting the values and characteristics of a nation. Thus, it can be considered a human right according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in particular the International Convention on the Economic, Social and Cultural rights (1967).

Despite some divergent definitions of leisure there is convergence around three distinctions: (i) leisure as time; (ii) leisure as activity; and (iii) leisure as a state of mind. Firstly, it is defined as the constructive use of available time. Leisure as a variety of activities includes the practice of sports or actions related to intellectual and human development like reading, painting, gardening etc. and those can be leisure for ones and work for others. Understanding leisure as a state of mind is complex since it depends on individual perceptions about concepts such as freedom, motivation, competency etc. Certain skills can be considered leisure depending on the degree of satisfaction, emotion or happiness it causes. Yet, the most important is the possibility of free will.

Time available for leisure also varies according to cultural, social and even climate considerations. The notion of time can be different in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. Usually people who live in areas of hot climate enjoy outdoor activities and sports while Nordic people whose habitat is in cold weather prefer indoors socialization and hobbies like playing chess, classic music etc. Social leisure embraces communitarian happenings such as going to the beach, practicing sports in a club etc. Behavioural studies indicate the benefits of social leisure for the well-being of individuals, self-esteem and cultural identity[3].

Moments of leisure are essential in all phases of our life. During childhood and adolescence most of our time is devoted to study and sports while at adulthood our time is mostly consumed with work and family. Indeed, it is at senior age that retired people generally have extra free-time to enjoy cultural events, leisure and tourism.  Globally people are living longer and a newage structure is taking shape: the young senior (65-74 years), the middle senior (75-84 years) and the older senior as from 85 years old. According to the United Nations,[4] in 2018 for the first time in history, persons aged 65 years or over outnumbered children under age five. This partially explains the vast number of people in the group of risk requiring quarantine protection throughout the pandemic period.

Well-being and spirituality in pandemic times

During the pandemic, reflections about well-being and spirituality gained space in our minds. It is undeniable that the constraints brought about by lock-down measures and social distancing, offered us more free-time but very limited leisure options. We gained additional time to be closer to loved ones and to do things we like most at home. Enjoying family life, including eating and even cooking together became a shared pleasure and a new leisure style. Individuals had to optimize the quality of their temporarily sedentary lives.  

Global pandemics affect our collective mental health. Given the prevailing health and economic insecurity, the focus of our attention has been on well-being, strengthening friendships, expanding social network, practicing solidarity, improving self-esteem as well as reflecting on spirituality and religion. Suddenly the exuberant society of 2020 is afraid of the unknown virus and its long-term harmful consequences on day-to-day life. Well-being and happiness became the essence of achievable goals.

People are emotionally fragile in this moment of anxiety. Individuals are suffering losses that will persist long after the pandemic will be over.  Some feel stressed or depressed while others react by searching for relief in exercising, relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness training. Individuals are finding new ways to overcome solitude and boost mental resilience. Current philosophical thinking (Harari, 2018) is reminding us that homo sapiens have bodies but technology is distancing us from our bodies[5].

Inspirational talks in likeminded groups have been helpful for reconnecting people dealing with an uncertain future. Social engagement and advocacy for health causes are used for promoting social change. Thus, besides upgrading healthcare systems and putting in place special measures for accelerating economic and cultural recovery, targeted governmental support will be needed to improve mental well-being and raise the overall level of satisfaction and happiness of citizens in the post-crisis.

Culture and e-learning nowadays

In a short period of time, many went from an exciting social and cultural lifestyle to a simple life. People had to assume the role of protagonists of their actions. Due to open-air limitations, free-time activities had to be less physically-intensive (no bike, tennis, jogging etc.), and more creative-oriented such as designing, playing music, writing. Much time has also been spent watching TV series, surfing the internet, viewing live music concerts, video-gaming, attending video-conferences as well as socializing in virtual chats. Equally, there are growing concerns about the ethics of consumer technology and internet addiction “time well spent” (Tristan, 2015)[6].

 A recent study[7] carried out in the UK to track digital cultural consumption during the pandemic, indicates that the median time spent daily watching TV are 4 hours, while listening to music, watching films and playing video games each day are 3 hours respectively. Understanding human behaviour, in particular youth habits can help to indicate new cultural trends and consolidate social cohesion in post-pandemic times. Moreover, policy-makers could consider engaging cultural institutions and employing artists and creatives to help facilitate a collective healing process and kick-start recovery.

It is widely recognized that the arts, culture and creative sectors were hit hard by the pandemic. Whist digital cultural and creative products for home consumption were in high demand, others tangible creative goods like arts, crafts, fashion and design products sharply contracted. Many artists and creatives had no option than to experiment on work in digital spaces, since they had to go global from home.

Despite the fact that 4.5 billion people (60% the global population) use internet[8], the availability of affordable broadband access is a pre-condition to use and benefit from the opportunities provided by digital tools. This applies to both producers and consumers of cultural and creative digital content. Currently, videos account for 80-90% of global digital data circulation, but at the same time Latin America, the Middle East and Africa together represent only around 10% of world data traffic[9]. This evidence points to digital asymmetries that are being aggravated. Creativity only is not enough to transform ideas into marketable creative goods or services if digital tools and infrastructure will not be available.

The pandemic also had a strong impact on education and learning.  Re-thinking education was already a topic on the agenda of many countries in order to respond to the realities of the jobs market in the 2020s.  Besides the need to adapt methodology and pedagogical practices, many believe it is necessary to bring an interdisciplinary and applied approach to curricula with focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)[10], preferably also integrating arts (STEAM). In any case, the education system has been forced to quickly adjust to remote learning. Globally over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom in 186 countries[11]. In Latin America schools are closed and around 154 million children between the ages of 5 and 18 are at home instead of in class[12]. Furthermore, access to school-related inputs is distributed in an unbalanced manner; wealthier students have access to internet and home-schooling while the poorer have not. Young people are losing months of learning and this will have long-lasting effects. The loss for human capital is enormous.

On the positive side, continuous e-learning became a trend and a necessity.  Innovation and digital adaption gave rise to a wide-range of on-line courses. Millions of learners are upgrading their knowledge and skills in different domains through distance learning, whether through language and music apps, video conferences or software learning.  Some are free others have to be paid for, but what is absolutely transformative is that access to knowledge became more democratic.  Independently of age or field of interest, learners from different parts of the world can have access to prestigious universities or practical training.  E-learning, where teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms already existed, but demand has sharply increased during pandemic and this might be a point of no return.

Over these critical 9 months, there are growing signs that the 2020s will face a new set of challenges and life will not be back as usual. The future will be very different when compared to the recent past.  Hope and fear are likely to co-exist for a certain time. There are new values, new lifestyles, new social behaviour, new consumption standards, and new ways of working and studying.  The pandemic has imposed a deep ethical and moral re-assessment on society. This turning point is leading to a deep socio-economic renovation and hopefully to a more inclusive and sustainable society.


[1]https://covid19.who.int/

[2]https://www.diplomatic-press.net/ueber-uns/geschichte.html

[3]E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg (2013) – Tempo livre, lazer e economia criativa, Revista Inteligência Empresarial (37), Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazilhttp://www.epapers.com.br/produtos.asp?codigo_produto=2455

[4]https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-2019-highlights.html

[5]https://www.ynharari.com/book/21-lessons-book/

[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_for_Humane_Technology

[7]https://pec.ac.uk/policy-briefings/digital-culture-consumer-panel

[8]https://internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

[9]https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2466

[10]https://www.livescience.com/43296-what-is-stem-education.html

[11]https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-education-global-covid19-online-digital-learning/

[12]https://blogs.iadb.org/ideas-matter/en/pandemic-and-inequality-how-much-human-capital-is-lost-when-schools-close/

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