Now isn’t the time to talk about inequality. That was the message the British government sent out when it suspended companies’ annual legal duty to publish their gender pay gap—a week before the deadline. Soon after, the political adviser turned journalist Sonia Sodha received fierce backlash for noting that a disproportionate number of the British doctors dying from the coronavirus come from ethnic minorities. This isn’t the time to talk about race, she was told, because brave health-care workers of every ethnicity are losing their lives.
The collection of data on race and gender is an easy target for those who style themselves as champions of small government or cutting red tape and easing “burdensome” regulation. But without it, policy makers are unable to see the full impact of their decisions—and the media and the opposition are less equipped to hold them to account.
That matters because this will be the second successive decade in which the aftermath of a major economic shock shapes government decisions. In Britain, the 2010s were the austerity decade, as the fallout from the financial crisis led to successive Conservative governments cutting public spending, freezing benefits, and blaming any unpopular decisions on the fact that there was “no money left.” The next 10 years—the coronavirus decade—will be even more shaped by the global pandemic than the past were by the financial crash. After weeks of lockdown, the global economy is in free fall. Oil prices have plummeted. Air travel has slowed to a trickle. Seven out of 10 British companies have applied to have the government pay at least some of their employees’ wages. Britain’s bailout package alone runs to £330 billion, or $410 billion.