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The “Invisibles” in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis leaves some people more vulnerable than others to the economic and social fallout. The G20 should create initiatives that reflect the inclusive foundations of the Marshall Plan rather than the inadequate bailouts of the Great Recession.

LONDON/PARIS – The COVID-19 pandemic began with trust in institutions at an all-time low. Politics was polarized and social cohesion stretched thin. That is why as governments scramble to direct massive resources to households and businesses, they must not neglect those local communities where the health crisis and the economic fallout will most visibly intersect.

As G20 leaders convene online this week to coordinate a response to COVID-19, the drop in global GDP expected in the coming months seems likely to exceed the contraction during the post-2008 Great Recession. Unlike the global financial crisis that triggered that downturn, the pandemic threatens to shutter entire sectors of economies across the world. We simply have no precedent for so much of so many economies suddenly halting simultaneously.

The domestic responses to the Great Recession were inadequate. Bailouts stabilized financial institutions and urban centers while leaving millions behind in rural and semi-rural regions. As austerity and automation eroded prospects for better lives in non-urban communities, a sense of injustice took root. Populists exploited these grievances, turning citizens against migrants, refugees, the media, the “establishment,” and experts of all types.

To avoid repeating those errors, we need to address both the economic and social capital in these stranded communities. The COVID-19 outbreak has spurred thousands of community-based efforts around the world – in streets, apartment blocks, and in neighborhood WhatsApp and Facebook groups. These initiatives offer practical support to those isolated and most at risk from the virus. Balcony-singing Italians and other examples of generosity and community spirit provide bright moments in these dark times.

But community networks are much weaker in places where they will soon be most needed. For the past three years, More in Common, an NGO which we lead, has been reporting on social fractures in Western democracies. Our studies have found in each country a segment of “invisibles,” who feel society ignores them. These “invisibles” are distinguished not by a specific income group, age, race, gender, or political belief, but by their disengagement from society.

Compared to others, invisibles are far more likely to distrust people and institutions of all kinds. More than any demographic group, they are vulnerable to polarizing “us-versus-them” narratives that fuel social conflict. This is profoundly dangerous in times of crisis. And the invisibles are not a small group. The invisibles comprise around one-third of the total population in France, Germany, and the United States.

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To be sure, economic change has hit these people hard, and declining job prospects have caused many to fear that they can’t compete with immigrants who will work for less. But these individuals feel excluded socially as well. They are more likely to feel lonely, disrespected, and that they do not belong. And by exploiting their anger, frustration, and sense of powerlessness, populists have seized power in many countries, or are close to it.

What is needed to make trillion-dollar rescue packages effective and to avoid the grave mistakes of the Great Recession is a matching effort to strengthen social cohesion in developed and developing countries alike. The G20 countries could start with a commitment to match every dollar invested in shoring up economies with a cent for community funds targeting areas with depleted social capital.

Such funds could provide resources on a micro-scale to strengthen and rebuild community life and connection, with a special focus on the “invisibles” who will bear the brunt of the economic shutdown and social distancing measures. Crises on the scale we are now facing can leave communities more deeply divided, but they also provide the opportunity to bring people together.

The total value of the G20 COVID-19 interventions already exceeds that of the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Seventy-five years ago, economies were shattered, millions had been turned into refugees, and despair abounded. General George C. Marshall’s plan to rebuild societies and economies was a remarkable feat of cooperation between the US and Europe.

Marshall’s clarion call at the launch of the Plan in 1947 was for “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” Marshall had learned from the mistakes of the 1920s and 1930s that vulnerable societies, when left divided, succumb to the lure of authoritarianism.

In preparing for a post-pandemic future, G20 leaders should heed this lesson. The prosperity that became possible for the children of the Marshall Plan – now in their 70s and 80s, and thus the most threatened by coronavirus – was built on inclusive economic and social foundations. To survive this pandemic with hope intact, we need to rebuild not just for some but for all.