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Society 2020: The Unravel review

A recollection of all things society on Unravel in the past year
A woman protester holding a yellow placard with the words 'The People Have Spoken'. One of many gathered near the White House protesting against President Trump's efforts on preventing vote count after the 2020 US elections

The ongoing pandemic has had a debilitating impact on businesses, economies and societies. Among other things, COVID-19 has cast the spotlight on the menace of inequality in society.

Across the world, the marginalised remain the worst affected by the pandemic. Low-skilled workers have borne the greatest brunt of the rise in income inequality due to higher losses of low-paid jobs. The economic shutdowns only worsened matters as many informal workers did not have the opportunity to work for months.  

In addition to the poor, it is women who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic and been at the receiving end of growing inequality. For example, pre-existing inequalities such as the gender pay gap and childcare burdens only widened further amid the pandemic. The pandemic has also worsened the discrimination faced by women in the workplace.

The gender gap is prominent among some countries than others, the socially conservative oil-rich Brunei one of them. However, some women are breaking gender barriers and destroying stereotypes around leadership roles and societal expectations. More needs to be done in this respect across Asia, as advancing gender parity will strongly support an economic recovery following the pandemic. According to McKinsey, the equal participation of women could add $4.5 trillion to Asia-Pacific GDP by 2025.

Our most widely read story on Unravel in 2020 was an interview on the role of civil society in a rapidly evolving socio-political landscape. In the past few years, societies have witnessed great political polarisation and this has resulted in growing mistrust and a lack of empathy and nuance. Much of the world is simply seen in black and white. All of this has resulted in the growing importance for civil society, but has also resulted in shrinking space for it. Ironically, the pandemic may change things for civil society, if governments come to acknowledge the positive role civil society organisations are playing in pandemic recovery.

The indispensable role of civil society is evident when considering how India’s southern state of Kerala dealt with the pandemic in its early days with a coherent strategy while other states were wondering what hit them. The presence of a robust civil society network in the state created strong demand for a quality public service delivery networks, including for healthcare services. Kerala was able to impressively control the number of positive cases vis-à-vis deaths with per capita healthcare spending of below $20.

Amid the pandemic, a quiet revolution was brewing in the UK – the appreciation of low-paid workers. Overnight, essential workers became darlings of the nation with initiatives such as ‘clap for carers’ and public expressions of support. But is all of that really enough? True appreciation would lie in valuing their work, and that in turn would require state intervention to increase wages and improve working conditions to improve the quality-of-life of workers.

Across the world, the pandemic has shown some of the least appreciated and underpaid workers are the ones keeping people alive. The pandemic ought to result in some kind of reassessment of pay for different kinds of work, especially given the swiftness with which relatively better-paid workers became non-essential and were furloughed at the pandemic’s onset.

On another note, this pandemic may change how we work, forever. The future of work will become increasingly remote, and will throw the spotlight on the tussle between human potential and technological innovation. There is no doubt remote work offers many advantages for workers and businesses alike, but its longer-term impacts on individuals’ health and wellbeing, and on communities and society at large, will only be felt in the years to come. At a somewhat more tangible level, the pandemic will result in changes in business travel. The next era of business travel will be driven by a more thoughtful approach, again with implications on work-life balance.

The pandemic has also resulted in a growing number of conversations around gig work and workers. COVID-19 has exposed gig workers to myriad insecurities. As the effects of the pandemic continue to overwhelm economies, the debate around the vulnerability of gig workers—who comprise an increasing share of the labour force—will increasingly come to the mainstream.

Another area of focus on Unravel last year was cities, which are lifeblood of the global economy and increasingly, society. A series of articles that looked at the challenge of urban mobility as cities continue to grow rapidly (with possible solutions from a town in Mexico); and at land pooling as a potential urban development solution (using the example of Thimphu in Bhutan).

Technology is transforming our cities, and especially so in the context of a COVID-19 era. Technology is making the lives of city-dwellers more convenient by providing for better health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities and governance. These factors were all taken into consideration in the 2020 Smart City Index, which saw six Asian cities in the global top 20, with Singapore topping the global ranking.

Another important aspect of all societies is the role of media. We spoke with the pioneer of online journalism about how online news has impacted journalism, the democratisation of information (and misinformation), self-regulation and the ethics of journalism.

While we often read about the political or economic implications of this pandemic, in reality what we’re really reading about is its impacts on people and more broadly, society. In the coming year, one of the great challenges for governments at all levels is to engage more deeply with society, and to address its concerns and challenges, particularly as the pandemic continues to have a debilitating impact on health and livelihoods.

What will 2021 hold for us?

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