Need in the Time of Corona (with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez) by Hartley Dean

Hartley Dean

artistic interpretation of 4 human bodies in different poses
Image by Kellepics via Pixabay

Human need ought surely to be a central concept for Social Policy. And yet the meaning and value of the concept remain perennially contested. Lessons to be learned during the prevailing Coronavirus pandemic cast a particular perspective on human need. Biologically speaking, Covid-19 self-evidently represents an existential threat to the human species. But it is a threat that may also be interpreted through the lens of a hitherto largely neglected theory of human need that can be distilled from the early philosophical writings of Karl Marx. Marx’s argument – much paraphrased – was that human needs are constituted by the essential characteristics of the human species. These characteristics are closely interconnected, but may be characterised as consciousness, ‘work’, sociality and historical development. The threat posed by Covid-19 and the policy response have consequences for each of these essential characteristics.

A threat to human consciousness

Scientists and philosophers puzzle and disagree about the exact nature of human consciousness, but it may be essentially defined in terms of the uniquely dynamic relationship between thinking and being that has set homo sapiens apart from other species of animal, including earlier hominid species. Human history, as distinct from natural history, began with a cognitive revolution; with the emergence of self- and inter-subjective identity and awareness as a basis for knowledge, understanding, reasoning and communication. Learning and education (whether formal or informal) are the means by which to generate, sustain and develop such consciousness, and are therefore fundamentally constitutive human needs.

The necessary countermeasures against the Coronavirus pandemic have led, amongst other things to the short-term closure and disruption of schools and other educational institutions. At another level, like other pathogens, Covid-19 has also posed a challenge to human understanding of the world we inhabit. The novelty of the virus and the ease and rapidity of its transmission represent a particular challenge to human intelligence, ingenuity and moral reasoning. It has been a challenge to which scientists and policy makers will eventually no doubt rise, but not before damage is done – not merely in terms of the suffering the virus inflicts, but through the fear, panic and misinformation it has engendered, and the irrational, unthinking and divisive behaviour it has fuelled among some members of the species.

A threat to ‘work’

Consciousness is necessary to the distinctive form of human activity that is called ‘work’. Though the term has become largely synonymous with wage labour (which may be an exploitative or alienating form of work) it should rightly extend to all forms of socially meaningful activity; to learning, to caring, to creative endeavour, to purposeful social and political involvement. Work is a distinctively human need; it is the essence of the species’ metabolism with nature; it is what human beings do. It is a need that can be served not only through labour market policies and social security systems, but also through a spectrum of measures that foster, nurture and sustain everyday human activities.

The Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown measures taken to contain it have it have incidentally demonstrated the potential viability of alternative ways of working, by accelerating a trend towards working at home and eroding certain boundaries between ‘work’ and home-life. But at the same time, it has posed an obvious threat to many of the jobs in which people work, they have dramatically disrupted various other aspects of human activity and in the process exacerbated social and economic inequalities. The process has thrown into stark contrast the different kinds of value that may be attached to different kinds of work: to the social value of work performed by healthcare professionals and other essential service providers (both paid and unpaid), as opposed to the economic value of workers in the ‘productive’ economy.

A threat to sociality

The term ‘sociality’ captures the basis upon which human beings are, in a constitutive sense, social animals. Human sociality is distinctive since it extends beyond instinctive collaborative behaviours in small group situations and is rooted not only in practical interdependency between species’ members, but also in uniquely conscious processes of mutual recognition that extend from loving intimate relationships, to group solidarities, and to respect for the shared needs and rights of distant strangers. Caring between members of the human species is premised on moral reasoning and has ethical as much as practical significance, whether it is organised within families, communities, or through professional health and social care and state welfare provision.

The threat to sociality that stems from the Coronavirus has been on two fronts: first, the evident risks and burdens imposed upon professional and informal carers when caring for people infected by the virus; second, the effects of social distancing requirements and the enforced self-isolation measures introduced to limit its spread. The first have been extreme and have exposed the local and global limitations of public health planning. The second have had potentially insidious consequences with a distinctly bio-political dimension. The containment of infection through quarantine and social exclusion are historically established techniques, but the management of social conduct in public spaces and the isolation of persons and households in their own homes, appear to set a different precedent. Despite a perhaps temporary ‘post-emotional’ manifestation of community concern for vulnerable households, the measures are having dangerous consequences within more dysfunctional households and the subtler implications of the precedent for future methods of surveillance and social control could be disturbing.

A threat to historical development

To be human is to belong to an historically developing species; a species that is making its own history. Human needs are not given, but purposeful and dynamic. Needs in everyday life are continually adapting in response to scientific advances, cultural changes and economic forces. These historical effects have hitherto been ambiguously progressive, working to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of other species members: they can be more or less humanising or dehumanising. Human beings are defined for good or ill by the fulfilled and unfulfilled needs of the species, as these needs historically develop.

The human species is currently under threat from a climate emergency of its own making and, some would claim, the origins of the Covid-19 virus can similarly be attributed to the consequences of human activity, including factory farming, globalised industry and rapid urbanisation. The course of human history depends in the immediate term upon the development, production and effective distribution of a vaccine against the virus. In the longer term the occurrence of the current pandemic may act as a reminder of the human species’ need for resilience against further occurrences and as a spur to counter a range of human activities that may further damage or degrade the habitable environment, and – in the process – potentiate the emergence of new pathogens.


From a radical humanist perspective, Covid-19 violates the dynamic essence of our individual and collective species being, with implications relevant to every area of Social Policy.


Hartley Dean is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. A radically revised second edition of his book, Understanding Human Need, was published in April this year.

An earlier version of this article was posted on the LSE Social Policy Blog on 20 April 2020.