Addressing the equity, freedom and sustainability deficits to maintain social progress despite COVID-19

Olivier Bouin, Marie-Laure Djelic, Marc Fleurbaey, Ravi Kanbur and Elisa Reis explore the issues around "The Pandemic in the Age of Anxiety".

The Pandemic in the Age of Anxiety

Even before COVID-19, there was a growing feeling that the trajectory of global social progress was under threat.

This sense of foreboding was paradoxical. The previous seven decades since the second world war had seen unprecedented progress across the globe in key economic and social indicators—per capita income, income poverty, life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, school enrolment, girls’ school enrolment, end of colonial rule, fall of non-democratic regimes, and so on. Of course, there were regional variations, and there had been setbacks, but the overall story was surely one of global social progress.

Yet the anxiety was palpable. It was as though massive canyons had opened up ahead of us as we marched up the social progress mountain and keeping the same trajectory would lead us not to the summit but to a catastrophic collapse. What we had built over the past seven decades, and which had served us well, was now shaking at the foundations.

In 2018 a group of over 300 social scientists formed the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) to analyse and assess the challenges of not only maintaining but furthering social progress. Their report addressed a full range of issues related to social progress. In conjunction with the report, a small team from the group also produced a manuscript entitled A Manifesto for Social Progress. Ideas for a Better Society which presented analysis and prescription in equal measure to address the anxieties of our age.

Dissemination of the IPSP report began in 2018 and intensified in 2019. The objective was to reach out from the community of social scientists to civil society, policy makers and the broader public to begin a dialogue on how to tackle the structural impediments and question the ideological blindspots that now stand in the way of social progress. Then, COVID-19 struck. Now, something that the IPSP community had seen as urgent was becoming a dramatic necessity: and for that, strengthening the collaboration between social and natural sciences became imperative. Magnifying the threats to progress, the ongoing health crisis makes particularly noticeable the critical intersection between life science and social science issues. It is urgent to discredit the false debate between saving either lives or the economy. It is also critical to focus on the observed shortcomings of global social progress in order to maximize the contribution of sciences to the construction of a post Covid-19 world.

Three Deficits on the Road to Social Progress

Thus, COVID-19 came at a time when the model of post war growth, social welfare and democratic governance was already under question, despite the benefits it had delivered in its time. What are the implications of the pandemic for this questioning? How exactly does it set back the path to long-term social progress? How does it interact with the structural shortcomings already identified? What are the new and unanticipated questions?

A Manifesto for Social Progress identified three deficits in the post war trajectory, the gaping canyons on the path to social progress. These were deficits of Equity, Freedom and Sustainability:

“The challenge for our time is to find ways to simultaneously achieve equity (leaving no one behind, both inter and intra-nationally, creating an inclusive society), freedom (economic and political, including the rule of law, human rights and extensive democratic rights), and environmental sustainability (preserving the ecosystem not only for the future generations of human beings but also for its own sake, if we want to respect all forms of life).” (p. 6)

Equity, Freedom and Sustainability in the Shadow of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these deficits. On equity, it could be argued that the virus itself is no respecter of economic and social status. Indeed, this has been said of all infectious diseases throughout history, and it has been said to be the impetus behind the support by the rich for public initiatives on health and sanitation. However, it should be clear that unequal possibilities of effective isolation structure the unequal chances of being infected, as well as the capacity to sustain the strain and psychological impact of isolation or even escape the violence generated by family lockdowns. Differential access to health facilities, on the other hand, conditions the consequences of infection. The economic consequences of the virus will also flow along already consolidated paths. Globally poorer countries will be less able to cope with the economic meltdown. Within richer countries, while the stock market collapse appears to spread the pain across to wealthier groups, this is not an immediate impact on their purchasing power, and the market will recover eventually. However, in wealthy and poor countries alike, the slowdown of economic growth, the rise in precarious employment, the stress on public finances will affect the less affluent and the more precarious more.

On freedom and democracy, the pandemic has highlighted and magnified the key role of the state in managing the public health emergency, contradicting the neoliberal presumptions of the previous three decades. The same is true of the gigantic economic stimulus packages that have been enacted in many rich countries and in some poor countries as well. However, the massive need for state intervention has also strengthened nationalist populism in many countries, building on the anti-democratic wave that was intensified by the inadequate and inappropriate responses to the financial crisis of a decade ago. Some of the technological projects now deployed or explored by a number of states, such as contact tracing software, also increase authoritarian and even totalitarian risks and tendencies. The surveillance and control they could allow are likely to be much more acceptable in the context of a sanitary crisis that conjures up fear in many of us than would have been the case a few months ago. Still, the burgeoning of civil society, grassroots social engagement and of progressive local responses has been the other side of the story. It remains to be seen which of the two tendencies, authoritarian or participative democracy, will win the day on the freedom front after the pandemic.

The satellite images of vast reductions in emissions as result of the halting of economic activity during the COVID-19 crisis bring into sharp relief the third element of anxiety in our age. Climate change is an existential threat to the planet and the economic growth which has underpinned the social progress of the post-Second World War era is the main causal factor. Continued growth on the same pattern will lead to unsustainable increases in temperature and ever more volatile weather, flooding, sea level rise, affecting agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods more generally. It should not take the disaster of a pandemic to slow down emissions to levels that are manageable from the point of view of planetary survival. Reducing the overall level of economic growth while improving its distribution across rich and poor countries and across rich and poor income classes is central to filling the equity and sustainability deficits standing in the way of social progress. However, changing the pattern of economic activity to make it less carbon intensive and less destructive of the environment is also needed. Policy interventions such as a carbon tax can help to achieve this goal, but in doing so could hurt the most vulnerable. Appropriate compensation mechanisms are needed, emphasizing once again how the three deficits on equity, the state and sustainability are entwined, as are responses to them.

The Pandemic and International Cooperation

The IPSP report and A Manifesto for Social Progress emphasized the role of cooperation across national borders in addressing the three deficits. The cooperation needed is between states, but also between civil societies across borders. The role of international civil society in shining light on authoritarian power grabs and on corporate lobbies, using new technology and social media to do so, was already highlighted before the pandemic. The pandemic has sharpened the issue by providing concrete examples of such tendencies in accelerated real time.

International cooperation across states on equity (for example in cooperation on corporate tax avoidance and coordination to mitigate tax competition), on freedom (for example in holding authoritarians to account through international justice and in limiting the interference of wealth in democratic elections), and on sustainability (for example in implementing a global carbon tax and associated compensation transfers) is essential if social progress is not to fall into the canyons that lie ahead.

The pandemic has highlighted the tendency of nation states to retreat into their own self-interested objectives, for example in competing for vital medical equipment, while it has also brought into the spotlight the urgent necessity of global cooperation in sharing information on virus spread. Scientific collaboration is another front of much needed international cooperation so as to overcome the deficit of knowledge to combat the pandemic, accelerate the development of treatments and propose viable options for the post-COVID-19 world.

We were already living in an age of anxiety before COVID-19 spread. The anxiety could be boiled down to whether the social progress of the past several decades could be maintained in the face of three interconnected deficits—equity, freedom and sustainability—that had emerged and grown. The pandemic has had an immediate and devastating impact whose consequences are playing and will play through and deepen these structural deficits at both national and global levels.

Maintaining social progress in spite of and through the pandemic but also far beyond will continue to depend on our capacity to address these deficits, to bridge the looming canyons before us. This means steadfastly and more urgently than ever fighting against inequity, lack of freedom and democracy, and degradation of the planet. Social sciences are central in the knowledge production that will help meet the challenge of confronting the aforementioned deficits. Their contribution needs to be fully embedded in future interdisciplinary and international science collaborations to better our societies.

  • Olivier Bouin is the Director of the Foundation-Excellence Laboratory “Network of French Institutes for Advanced Study” and and President of the European Alliance for Social Sciences and the Humanities
  • Marie-Laure Djelic is the Dean of the Sciences Po School of Management and Innovation
  • Marc Fleurbaey is the Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies, Professor of Public Affairs at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University
  • Ravi Kanbur is the T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied Economics and Management, and Professor of Economics at Cornell University
  • Elisa Reis is the Professor of Political Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and chair of the Interdisciplinary Research Network for the Study of Social Inequality (NIED). Elisa is also the Vice President of the ISC.


IPSP: Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, Report of the International Panel on Social Progress, Vols. 1, 2 and 3. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Fleurbaey et al., A Manifesto for Social Progress, Ideas for a Better Society. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

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