‘Place, the economy and COVID-19’

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

As we head towards week three of ‘lock-down’, my thoughts are foremost with those people suffering from COVID-19 and on the front line in the fight against the disease. Whatever our challenges have been in adjusting to the new norm of homeworking, nothing compares to the immediate personal risks facing many in the UK and across the world.

The demonstration of public support for our health and social care sector – signalled by #ClapForNHS on 26 March – was remarkable. In my own street, I’ve never seen as many people – albeit at a safe distance – show visibly how much they care about a particular issue. My neighbour has been a paramedic for 30 years and each day he heads out to our local hospital, I am full of gratitude to him and to the many hundreds of thousands of staff in the NHS.

Similarly, key workers in logistics and food industries are doing an unbelievable job. Like most people, I’m venturing out only for brief exercise or to buy essential items. When I do leave home, I see my local supermarket and other food retailers in the vanguard of keeping us fed and nourished.

This week, I received an email from Ron Martin, Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Cambridge and President of the Regional Studies Association (RSA), sent to all RSA members wishing us and our families well. One paragraph in the message struck a particular chord with me, and I thought it was worth setting out the text of the paragraph in full:

“The Coronavirus pandemic is spiralling the world into multiple and related crises: health, social and economic; while at the same time the threat of increasing climate change continues to mount. It is very unlikely, when the pandemic is over that social and economic life will simply return to its pre-pandemic state – nor should it: how we organise our lives and our social and economic systems will need to be rethought. The importance of properly funding health and social services, of reducing social and spatial inequalities in incomes and welfare, of reorganising supply chains and productions systems to make them less geographically fragmented and less fragile, of making future economic growth both more inclusive and sustainable, these all, it is to be hoped, will become key imperatives of policy innovation. What is certainly clear is that the impacts and consequences of the current crises will vary not only between countries, but also within them, between regions, cities and localities, thereby elevating the need for policies that incorporate explicit initiatives that are sensitive and specific to individual places.” 

For academics, policymakers and institutions working on place-based development or the ‘levelling up’ agenda, Ron Martin’s analysis provides a useful framework in which new interventions could be designed to support the recovery and rebuilding that will be needed once we emerge from the current crisis. At this stage, those of us fortunate enough to be able to still work (especially at home) could think carefully about how the economy, society and environment should learn the lessons of COVID-19; and how new forms of value should underpin our future and that of subsequent generations. This could be a small, but significant, contribution at this unprecedented time.

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