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The start of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign and the end of the winter season give us reason to hope that we will finally manage to master the virus and reopen our societies. Nevertheless, it seems that the exit strategy out of this crisis will do nothing to alleviate existing inequalities and may in fact exacerbate them. This is most apparent in the unequal access to vaccines between countries. But it can also be seen in the varying levels of access to government support that different sorts of companies have and the varying possibilities for teleworking that exist in different sectors. This latter issue also feeds into the disparity between workers who have been able to protect themselves and their families by working from home and those who have had to continue going to the workplace, thus exposing themselves to infection. Another very significant consequence of this health crisis that we will have to deal with in the long term is the inequality in learning caused by the closing of schools and higher education establishments. Some students will not be able to recuperate their lost hours of school and university education, irreversibly damaging their educational development and serving to further widen existing socio-economic cleavages. When we add to this challenge the issue of income inequality, which has taken on enormous proportions during the lockdown, as well as the growing tax disparities, it becomes clear that the Covid-19 crisis has morphed into a genuine social crisis.

The many growing social divisions that we can observe today are here to stay and will become even more urgent when we finally emerge from this health crisis. In fact, the current situation recalls the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis which hit the world economy in 2008. Our Benchmarking Working Europe 2012 report found that ‘growing inequalities lead to growing feelings of injustice and lack of social cohesion both within and across countries, and at the same time, to a loss of human potential in its broadest sense.’ It seems that the same warning is applicable to the times we are living in. However, there is an important difference: back in 2011-2012 the remedies prescribed by the EU for ‘exiting the crisis’ contributed, in most cases, to weakening national social models and aggravating inequalities, whereas this time it seems that policymakers, at both national and European levels, are taking a different stance, departing from the austerity-driven measures deployed a decade ago (see Benchmarking 2020).

At the ETUI we recently held an internal ‘foresight’ exercise which led us to identify two main challenges that we need to address as an institute if we want to remain relevant in the future. The first is climate change and the second is inequality. How we handle these two challenges – both in our work here at the ETUI and in society as a whole – will be crucial in the years to come. The ETUI is already involved in multiple research projects on climate change and the just transition, and you will soon be informed about the first results and publications from these. And on the other great challenge of inequality, we can already inform you that we will be devoting the next Benchmarking report to this topic. We sincerely hope that by then the prospects will look better than they did back in 2012.

Photo credits: ptrabattoni

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