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Only a fifth of countries provide sick pay — the big challenges for work in a pandemic
From a personal point of view and from an economic point of view, this is nothing short of potentially disastrous for people's livelihoods.
Making sure that sick people get the care they need and don't infect others is one of the key planks of containing COVID-19 - but the majority of the world's workers have little choice about putting in a shift, even if they feel unwell.
This is one of the worrying findings of a survey released by the International Trade Union Congress, which surveyed its members in 86 countries around the world to monitor government and employer responses to the pandemic.
According to the study, only 21% of countries are providing sick leave for all or some workers. The countries polled represent a swathe of the world's most powerful economies, including 28 out of 36 OECD countries and fifteen G20 countries.
Reflecting the severity of the situation, over half of all countries surveyed (53%) were containing the spread of the coronavirus with national lock-down measures such as the closure of schools and non-essential businesses.
This unprecedented situation is sending shockwaves through the world of work. To soften the blow, governments were most likely to opt for the five policies below, according to the ITUC:
- Provision of free health care - 50% of countries
- Employment protection for those self-isolating - 34% of countries
- Tax relief for businesses - 31% of countries
- Paid sick leave for a period of self-isolation - 29% of countries
- Bailout funds for business or sectors - 29% of countries
To find out more about the exceptional challenges facing workers, and how both businesses and governments can best safeguard livelihoods, I spoke to Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, which you can listen to in full here. Subscribe to World Economic Forum's COVID podcast here.
Where are you, and what is daily working life like for you right now?
I'm now working from home in Brussels. All our staff are working remotely except those of our security team and the occasional IT role. It's a challenge now to manage, a global office of people in their own homes. The technology we have now really does play up the opportunities, but it also highlights the costs and potential risks of people being atomized from their place of work.
What have you found to be the single toughest nut to crack in this situation?
The mental health cost of this crisis will play out in the months to come - so I think just making sure people are connected and stay in touch is critical. And those human interactions we take for granted on a daily basis - passing someone in the coffee corner, having a quick briefing, whatever the daily rhythm might be - you don't realize how efficient those interactions can be until you're trying to manage that remotely.
And for people with young children, this is an incredibly difficult time. Balancing work and family is a whole new realm of challenges. So from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view, this is nothing short of potentially disastrous for people's livelihoods and indeed for stable economies.
What can workplaces do to better support parents during this time?
We have to think about how to provide a mix of work and parenting that works, because children matter as well. Their mental health matters, and their need for support and activity, scheduling and even just attention is very important for their own health and development.
You have to be conscious that parents can't be online and available to work 24/7. People must feel able to say, I can't work for these hours but I'm available at these times.
What impact do you expect this crisis to have on the global jobs market?
The imbalance of the global economy is now being felt. First of all, we should say thank you to those businesses who have kept their staff on, who have made sure that they have income security and a sense of job security in the medium to longer term. But there are many businesses who have simply taken an opportunity to lay off staff. In some cases, they are taking government support and still laying off staff.
So there is a divide in the business community. There is one set of businesses who say, we need to look after our workers, and we need to work with the unions to make sure that the humane aspects of this crisis are dealt with as positively as possible. There have been joint calls to government to support people - first and foremost, workers on the frontlines. Our health workers, transport workers, workers in supermarkets and related services, care facilities, schools where they're still operating; there are high-risk safety issues for workers in those situations, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
But beyond that, where the factories and retail outlets and services are shutting down, people often have far too little sick pay, if any at all. Wage and job guarantees are lacking. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says we could lose up to 25 million jobs worldwide – and depending on the timeframe, it could be worse than that.
Major job losses are expected in travel and tourism. Image: Statista
So we have to do everything to minimize the fallout. First of all, only 50% of countries are providing free public healthcare – that is a glaring gap. And if that's the case in the richer world, then in developing economies where the virus is only just starting to spread, the health fallout could be disastrous. So if it's a mix of public and private testing and care, it has to be run on public health principles, it has to be available to everybody and it must be a partnership.
And where businesses have been forced to close their doors, of course not everybody can work from home. In fact, 50% of the world's population aren't connected to the internet. Looking at the responses to-date, mostly from Europe, the US, Australia and a few other countries, we have seen quite a lot of initiatives to support small businesses in particular.
But when you then consider that only 21% of countries in the richer world provide paid sick leave for workers, then that's a disaster of humanitarian crisis levels. That is unconscionable.
Beyond paid sick leave, people need income security. If you're not a direct employee, you're still going to need income, whether you're self-employed or working in the informal economy. We certainly need to see income support. The guaranteed packages to date have to be expanded.
Then, of course, in terms of job or employment protection, only around 15 of the G20 countries have given guarantees about supporting jobs. This has to be in the next wave of measures under consideration by all governments. We've asked the G20 governments to look at measures that support workers and small businesses in partnership, because you can't just give money to businesses if it then doesn't flow to their workers. There has got to be some sort of criteria, some conditionality, and some direct investment in working families themselves. That's the best guarantee for the real economy. We need to look at the economy as a whole, taking it from the perspective of working people and their families, which wasn't done in the 2008/2009 process.
Are there any countries that you feel are really getting this right?
Yes - those countries who have looked at the key elements of paid sick leave and income guarantees for all workers, and what the mix of that should be. The best of those packages have been negotiated with unions in Europe and the UK. Outside of Europe, places like New Zealand, Singapore and Argentina have done a very good job of making critical economic decisions, and they have looked to be inclusive of all people. In some Latin American countries we've also seen some measures to include the informal sector - particularly those who work in farming communities. That's a very good thing.
Our message is very simple: you have to look at guaranteed paid sick leave. This is a health crisis. It's different to the crisis of 2008/9; this one started with a human dimension, in the real economy, and is now spreading to the financial sector. In 2008/9 we saw the speculative economy simply spiral out of control, and that caused a crisis in the real economy. We took huge hits - there was high unemployment, and inequality escalated - but our economies didn't shut down. This is a very different environment and we need to think about the short-term timeframe.
What are the package deals? We know what they should involve; support workers with income support and job protection. We can support small businesses and make sure that we're able to pick up an economic base in the medium term. But then from the medium to long term, we're going to be looking at post-reconstruction policy frameworks. We haven't really had to deal with that since big shocks like the Great Depression or World War II, which was followed by the Marshall Plan and debt swaps. Now, of course, we need to design policies to align with investment in people and the environment.
But above all, the longer-term perspective is about rebalancing economies. What we don't want is an unbalanced economy where you can't get essentials like healthcare products and food because they're produced in one group of countries and not in a balanced fashion around the world. We have to look at how to build a better economy alongside the convergent crisis of the environment – which is not going to go away.
COVID-19 intersects with the underlying inequality crisis that was already fragmenting our societies and creating an age of anger along with the challenges posed by technology. In some ways, this experience will tell us what we need to do to get it right – so that people are connected and we're not abusing technology at the cost of both people's physical and mental health.
These are big challenges. But going forward from the medium to the longer term, we need more social dialogue in order to design a better and more balanced economy.
Of course, right now we're all focused on the short term, because dealing with all the areas of crisis that are converging is critical at the moment. Most importantly, we must keep the central supply chains — for healthcare products and food, for example — open. Mindless border closures, without thinking about the consequences, have made this more difficult than it should have been.
The second area of challenge is the supply chains for non-essential items. With sectors such as retail electronics, for example, closing down in the short term, we risk even greater devastation than is caused by the current dehumanizing exploitation of supply chains. If you're talking about a million people in Bangladesh in the textile sector alone, and multiply that across all the Asian, African and Latin American supply chains in those sectors, then you get a picture of the potential human cost. There is also a risk that much of that business won't come back quickly. So it is a time for social dialogue, and for rapid response from governments. The multilateral environment has been found wanting; we've all been saying it's in crisis, but now it's hardly there at all. So the G20 meeting will tell us who's going to act and who's not, and what we can do with businesses and workers' organizations to support those governments who want to act in the interests of their own countries, but also vitally in partnership with the developing world, which will be devastated.
Has your organization heard stories of people who have no choice but to turn up to work sick, and who then presumably spread the pandemic even further?
Oh, it's everywhere. If people work in the informal sector, if they're day workers, if they're in factories that are still open and there's no paid sick leave, no income guarantee, then they have no choice. You have to feed your family, so you're going to go to work. And that is a recipe for extending the reach of the virus beyond the containment period that we're all working towards right now.
What is your message to G20 leaders as they meet virtually to discuss the crisis?
It's very simple. The emergency plan should be to share our wealth and to re-establish a social contract that includes paid sick leave and income guarantees. And that means, of course, wages - but it also means those who are in self-employment, freelancers, platform business workers and the informal sector. This is a time for social protection generally and for investment in vital public services, beginning with health. The G20 countries are providing free public healthcare, and we have seen the stresses and strains on countries like Italy and Spain and others. Imagine what it's like when people simply can't afford to go to the doctor – even in countries like the US. So social protection, public services, health, education, care - these are the issues of design for the future that we need to get right.
If we're not to see this level of devastation with the continued inequality that we were already facing and, of course, if we are to do something about the climate emergency, which won't go away, then we have to marry the design of better economies with action on both the climate and COVID-19, along with those vital areas of employment protection. We need a new social contract. This crisis is showing the cracks in our world; if people are vulnerable, then the economy is vulnerable.
Times of crisis have historically also been opportunities for change. Are you optimistic that as we emerge from this, it could be a chance to create a better economy?
I can see how we could use this opportunity to design a better world, but we need both national and multilateral institutions to make it work. I was at the table in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when the G20 governments - along with the International Monetary Fund and other institutions - took decisions that were about people, about employment and about maintaining jobs, as well as, of course, stabilizing the economy.
Now - we didn't get it right. We certainly didn't get the rules of the financial sector right. We were worried about the too-big-to-touch banks, and we didn't solve that. Now we've got the too-big-to-touch monopolies in the global tech sector, and we haven't begun to solve that. And everything in between is also a replication, therefore, of the human cost involved when governments have failed to regulate the labour market. So we have now 60% of the global workforce actively working informally. And that means, of course, those working in platform businesses as well as those informal jobs with no rights, no minimum wage and no social protection that are emerging in our supply chains. That has to change.
It can change if people can sit at the table. But going back to the financial crisis, many of the key G20 leaders at that time - people like Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - these people have disappeared from our ranks, along with their experience. They acted together. What we're seeing now is a kind of retreat, which might be understandable emotionally, but it's not going to help us. Solidarity and sharing and deciding on how you protect people – both within nations and globally - is absolutely critical at the moment. We are trying desperately with some of the business community to rebuild that social dialogue with labour organizations, businesses and governments. But while it works tremendously well in some democratic countries, by and large it's not working in the majority of the world's countries and it's not working globally. And we have to come back from that.
People are aware of the extraordinary work going on in the healthcare sector right now. But what about the forgotten heroes - people who might be exposing themselves to risk to keep the wheels of our societies turning? Who are the vulnerable workers, and what can be done to protect them?
Healthcare workers are very vulnerable, because the lack of personal protective equipment has really caused much more infection amongst some of those frontline workers than should have been the case. Hopefully that's turning around, but I know from our unions in many countries that it's still at critical levels.
But then we also need transport and supermarket workers, for example, to keep the show going. People should thank these workers because if you can't buy food, then you can't keep your family sustained and healthy. There's an extraordinary set of challenges for them. And of course, there are essential services, but there are also people running homeless shelters, and shelters for victims of domestic violence, which, sadly, is on the increase. We need more safe havens for women and children. There are people working in aged care facilities looking after the most vulnerable group of people. And of course, there are all of the services that surround each of those sectors, because you can't run these operations without supplies and service support. These people are all heroes.
The terrible irony is often that those sectors, particularly on the frontlines of care, are dominated by women who are among the lowest paid workers in our communities. So when we come out of this there are questions to ask about who we value and who we are prepared to pay decent wages for the dignity of decent work, too. It's been an unresolved issue for a long time. It's about feminized industries and unequal pay and a lack of recognition. But I think there's a chance in the medium to long-term to say we must stop this, we must value those workers and we must pay them appropriately - with notable exceptions.
There is still a lack of women sitting around the table at leadership meetings like the G20. Do you think that is playing a role in some of the things that are just not being spotted in the response to this crisis?
Oh, without question. I think there's a lack of tables right now. There's no question that women's leadership is critical, because it will bring to the forefront the areas where women hold together the fabric not just of our societies and our communities, but also our economies.
There are, of course, the immediate packages [from governments] to give people security by protecting their jobs and incomes. But there is also, as I have indicated, medium to longer-term planning to undertake. The challenge there is to ask: how do we build better economies? How do we learn to balance sustainability, inclusiveness and decent working conditions, where people don't walk away from the human and labour rights of workers and instead build a future where the world is more equal but also much more stable?
Let's fast forward to an optimistic scenario. It's March 2021. The economy has recovered. What do you hope will have changed to make it a better economy for workers?
I hope that we can get beyond the dominant politics of leaders not putting people first. Of course, we want economic stability. We are working very closely with those voices in business who are dignified and responsible, despite their own challenges, in their concerns for their workers, and for government policies that are balanced and justified in these times. But we want an end to the profit-at-all-costs mentality, because if we don't build an economic future within a sustainable framework in which we are respectful of our planetary boundaries and the need to change our energy and technology systems, then we will not have a living planet for human beings.
And we must ensure that this design is inclusive of universal social protection. The world could fund it right now - and yet 70% of the world's population has no social protection. It must be respectful of public services rather than simply trying to profit from them. So public support for people and of course, of the social dialog that makes it possible for us to get the balance right, are crucial. If you've got workers, employers and civil society at the table with governments at all levels, then you can design the kind of future that takes into account the right priorities for people, for the planet and of course, for stable economies.
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.