The Pandemic Risk Shift

The Pandemic Risk Shift

In the face of COVID-19, the political response has been at best temporary relief and at worst indifference. What we need going forward is not just better public health measures, but a response to the economic insecurities and policy failures that it laid bare.

A waiter carries a tray through a snowstorm in New York City in February 2021. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

In modern liberal democracies, social policies reflect a moral commitment to the dignity and well-being of those residing within their borders; a promise of mutual aid against threats to our security and from forces or risks that are beyond our control. Social policies, in turn, are shaped by how we conceive of those risks, and by how we respond to them. Policymakers assess the character of the risk, who might be exposed to it, who bears responsibility for creating and mitigating it, and who is deserving (or undeserving) of protection. They decide not just who gets protected but how—rewarding some claimants, while disciplining or excluding others.

In turn, policymakers must be responsive to changes in the underlying conditions—to the wax and wane of existing risks, and to the emergence of new ones. These “risk shifts” expose the poverty of existing policies and demand new political solutions. They may occur slowly, as with subtle changes in patterns of work or family or social organization; they may occur abruptly, as with a market crash or an outbreak of war. They may happen to us, as with a drought or hurricane; they may be done to us, as with choices made by policymakers or employers. By any measure, the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying recession is just such a moment—demonstrating an urgent need to recalibrate our social policies for both the new world of risk represented by the coronavirus, and an older world of risk that we have too long neglected.

Social policies offer protection whenever other means of support or sustenance—family, community, market—prove insufficient. But such policies do not just insulate citizens from the cruelty or vagaries of the market. They also challenge its primacy in ordering social relations and rewards. The point is not just the right to “a modicum of welfare and security,” as T.H. Marshall argued, but “the right to share to the full in the social heritage and live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.” Social services, social supports, and public goods should “uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation,” as the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen puts it. Social policies, in short, are not just insurance against hard times or bad luck; they are an expression of social solidarity and collective responsibility.

We sustain these policies because the risks posed by modern society are social risks: they flow from the ordering of that society and not from the personal capacities or failings of its members. “When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed,” as C. Wright Mills famously observed, “that is his personal trouble. . . . But when in a nation of 50 million empl...