THERE are almost no aspects of our lives that remain untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. In the space of a few short weeks the world as we knew it changed rapidly, and none of us are sure when things will return to the way they were.

In times of crisis we learn much about ourselves, both individually and as a society. It is heartening that acts of kindness, compassion and solidarity are to be found throughout our communities. But equally, the cracks in a fundamentally unjust and unsustainable economic system have once again been exposed.

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These injustices aren’t new, many in the country have been living at the sharp end of austerity for a long time now. However, the ongoing crisis has tipped many who existed on the precipice off the edge, and brought many of the more brutal aspects of capitalism into sharp focus for those who had previously been fortunate enough to be shielded.

The Overton window has been thrown wide open.

In the midst of this, both the Scottish and UK Governments have made notable attempts to address what was becoming a desperate situation. The Department of Work and Pensions has made significant changes to Universal Credit, many of which third sector organisations have been advocating for some time. The Scottish Government has significantly increased the amount of money in the Scottish Welfare Fund.

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All these necessary steps beg the question, do we really want things to return to exactly the way they were? Of course, we all look forward keenly to the day when the restrictions on our movement are lifted and we can once again socialise with our friends as we wish, or safely enjoy the luxury of a second walk in the park on a sunny day. But the rest?

Why would we want to return, for example, Universal Credit to its cruel and broken form? The DWP has increased the basic allowance for Universal Credit and suspended its much-criticised assessments for disability-related benefits.

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Why not build on the progress we’ve made and take this opportunity to take the radical steps needed to strike a meaningful blow against poverty.

In political science the concept of the Overton window is used to describe the range of policies and ideas which are politically acceptable at any given time. Only weeks ago so many of the policies implemented by our Tory Government would have seemed inconceivable. But since the onset of the crisis in the UK, the fragility of our system has been exposed.

The Overton window has been thrown wide open.

A universal basic income was one of those ideas dismissed by many as fantastical and unworkable until recently. But now it’s emerging as a serious and elegant solution to the enormous economic strain placed on workers by Covid-19.

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The value of such a scheme in these circumstances became quickly apparent, as more and more gaps appeared in the Treasury’s response. The job retention scheme was widely welcomed, but quickly it became apparent that support would be needed for the self-employed.

That support was finally announced, but it came with caveats and delays that will see too many people lose out.

Once things return to some level of normality there will still be those in our society who continue to find their pockets picked by the invisible hand of the market

In making his announcement about support for the self-employed, the Chancellor (below) seemed to suggest that somewhere in the region of £200,000 per year would be a realistic salary for your average freelance journalist. This suggestion would be almost laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that it betrayed a serious disconnect from the reality of the situation.

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The support offered ignored the fact that many self-employed people in this country are employed in professions like gardening, manual labour and construction. These are not jobs that generally attract a high salary, and the sluggish response from the Treasury means that too many of them are out working now, endangering themselves and others, simply because if they don’t carry on they will inevitably fall into poverty.

Allowing people to endure that kind of precarious existence simply isn’t good enough. It’s never been good enough, but the scale of the injustice must surely be clear to all of us now. Not only would a universal basic income have been the simplest and speediest way to cover all sections of society in this difficult time, it would also lay the groundwork for a system which would be resilient against future crises, big or small.

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How much less daunting would the prospect of this crisis have been for so many if they were liberated from the whims of the market, or didn’t have to rely on the goodwill of their boss or landlord simply to avoid destitution? The principle that people are going to need support during this crisis has been accepted, to a greater or lesser extent, at all levels of government in Scotland and the UK. But if its good enough for a crisis, why is not appropriate for the new era after the virus subsides.

While it’s unlikely that we’ll face a crisis on this scale again in the very short term, it’s worth remembering that many have been living in a perpetual state of crisis since the onset of austerity. Once things return to some level of normality there will still be those in our society who continue to find their pockets picked by the invisible hand of the market. We owe it to ourselves and our neighbours to ensure the pervasive spirit of compassion which has emerged in our communities persists long after the virus is gone.

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