Every day I wake up incredulous, asking myself if all this is really happening. The world is upside down. The forms of economic and social organization that have marked the last decades seem to have been canceled in only a few weeks; the dogmas that hegemonized discourse, widely refuted. No one dares to say anymore that salvation lies in the markets. On the contrary: Even the editorial team of the Financial Times calls to strengthen public services, fight inequality with redistribution, collect wealth taxes and introduce a universal basic income.
COVID-19, a tiny zoonotic product of aggressive jungle penetration promoted by industrial agriculture and extractivism, has largely halted neoliberal globalization. Large sectors of the capitalist economy are out of use or unemployed, - hotels, airplanes, cinemas and casinos, automobile production. The extreme fragility of sophisticated global production chains, which optimized costs by sacrificing labor and nature rights, lies open.
The Ecuadorian economy, an economy based on the export of large quantities of raw materials, the so-called extractivism, went into free fall: Oil prices went even negative; the floricultural, banana, and cocoa export sectors find no demand in international markets, tens of thousands of workers have been dismissed in a question of weeks. In COVID-19 times, even the historical relationship of plunder between the peripheries and the centers of the capitalist world-system seems to be suspended.
However, the coloniality that structures this world-system persists in the enormous asymmetry of the room for maneuver that countries have to face the crisis, according to their geopolitical and geoeconomic position; in the liquidity of States to put together rescue packages for their economies, in the capacities for medical supplies production, in access to technology. While the United States Federal Reserve simply prints trillions of dollars, and the German government disburses a first package of 500 billion dollars to compensate for the losses of companies, including small and medium-sized companies and self-employed workers, a country like Ecuador bears the weight of a debt of more than 50% of its GDP. But there are those who are even worse off. In Nigeria, for example, there is no civil registry to even account for the impact of the virus. In the suburbs of Lagos, the great West African oil and financial metropolis, people have an average of one square meter at their disposal for housing – difficult conditions for physical distancing.
The effects - direct and indirect - of COVID-19 have a strong class, race, and gender bias, as well as a geopolitical one. In the drama of the pandemic, also, some lives are worth more than others.
In many places in the global North, the collective illusion of always being on the bright side of events happening in the world, and being somehow entitled to it, might actually be crumbling. Even New York, one of the richest cities in the world, has become one of the worst places to be with respect to COVID-19.
However, of course it is not true that we are all in this alike. Even getting sick in a country like Germany remains a privilege, if we look at the percentage of casualties. We are not all equal to the virus. The incidence of mortality from the virus or its side effects are proportional to the inequalities that human societies have allowed to grow in the past.
The effects - direct and indirect - of COVID-19 have a strong class, race, and gender bias, as well as a geopolitical one. In the drama of the pandemic, also, some lives are worth more than others. Europe was shaken by the selection made in Italian hospitals: who would be saved, and who would be left to die. But in the world we have built, age is only one among the many factors that lead certain human lives to be considered expendable.
A simulation of control
The moment we live in is marked by extreme uncertainty and dynamism. Every attempt to analyze it, to fix some of its learning in writing, inevitably runs the risk that what seems important today will have been displaced tomorrow.
The figures that are provided to us on a daily basis are only a simulation of information, they generate the illusion that something is under control, either on the global or on the national scale: the nice world maps of contagion, the diagrams of contagion curves that compare countries, necessarily equate very different ways of testing, measuring and counting that are applied by governments - according to political decisions, but also according to their financial and technological possibilities.
In some countries, many tests are carried out, reaching a more realistic approach to what happens, while in others, the test-kits are almost non-existent and only people with strong symptoms are accounted for, while the vast majority of infections, which do not present symptoms or have only mild symptoms, go unnoticed.
However, in the absence of alternatives, it is these highly distorted representations of the COVID-19 reality inform political decisions. Decisions made with a high degree of experimentality, sometimes with catastrophic results, as in the cases of New York or Guayaquil. In countries like Ecuador, the political use and bad management of data is very evident, leading to grotesque contradictions between the figures of extraordinary total deaths in Guayas and the figures of officially declared victims of COVID-19, for example.
Others are more successful in hiding the enormous challenge that this invisible virus, which spreads clandestinely, poses even to our most common ways of knowing. In the words of feminist anthropologist Rita Segato: “The virus attests to the vitality and constant transformation of life, its irrepressible character. It demonstrates the vitality of nature, with us inside it,” thus challenging the Eurocentric historical project of dominating, reifying and controlling life. Nothing is under control.
On the other hand, precisely for this reason, it seems necessary in the current situation to collaborate globally in the search for cures or vaccines, share what is learned, make the research that is being carried out publicly available, as China does for example.
There is no back to normal
While many act as if this crisis was temporary, as if it would last a few weeks or months, and try to prepare for the post-pandemic, there is no certainty that such an era will exist. The WHO warns that it is not yet known whether having passed through the coronavirus infection really guarantees immunity.
Those who seek an early 'return to normality' overlook that the world we live in today is already no longer the same as it was at the beginning of the year 2020. That there is no back to normal.
Others warn that as long as wildlife markets in China are not closed and their habitats continue to be invaded, other equally or even more dangerous viruses will inevitably follow COVID-19, in the same way that SARS, MERS, Ebola or AIDS preceded it.
Those who seek an early 'return to normality' overlook that the world we live in today is already no longer the same as it was at the beginning of the year 2020. That there is no back to normal. And that everything indicates that it was precisely what we considered normal that caused this multidimensional systemic crisis.
A civilization that has established competitive individualism, appropriation, exploitation, domination and control as its guiding principles. That has despised the peoples concerned with reciprocity, collaboration, redistribution and interdependence as primitive, backward, or underdeveloped. That has chosen to put the ‘right to private property’ above all other rights. Which has allowed these guiding principles to also shape its societal relations with nature, a nature conceived as an infinite store of ‘resources’, instead of recognizing it as a complex life system of which we are part.
The elites that this model has engendered have serious difficulties in interpreting the moment. Their proposals belong, without any disguise, to the field of necropolitics. They press impatiently to resume business, albeit by sacrificing the vulnerable population, as in the United States. In Ecuador, the only response they find to the collapse of the extractivist model is more of the same: the intensification and expansion of extraction, further devastating the territories that sustain life by providing food, water and biodiversity, and incurring into even more foreign debt.
They remain trapped in the neoliberal mantra of ‘there is no alternative’, which reduces their imagination to the three dogmatic recipes of neoclassical economy that the tiny coronavirus has deactivated: economic growth, exports and foreign investment. They insist on confusing the well-being of ‘the (capitalist) economy ’, which is expressed in abstract and simplifying macroeconomic figures, with the well-being of people and communities.
We are, as economists say, in the face of an economic recession of historical dimensions, greater than that of 1929. While millions of people are losing their formal jobs, 60% of the economically active population who, according to the ILO, work in the informal economy mainly without any rights or guarantees, are exposed to the virus and to hunger at the same time. In Latin America, it turns out that 60% of this group are women.
Since the declaration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, global institutions have been trying to build a narrative of a constantly diminishing global poverty, in an effort to sustain the illusion that the model of infinite economic growth leads to the well-being of all, in a history of linear progress. Simultaneously, not only the inequality in the world increased in a scandalous way, through all kinds of expropriation processes that constantly produce poverty. At the same time, the environmental disaster caused by overuse and devastation of ecosystems was also unfolding.
Multi-millionaires like Bill Gates gladly reinforce this narrative as it legitimizes the concentration of wealth in their hands, disseminating graphics on their networks of how capitalism, since 1820, has continuously contributed to reducing world poverty. Graphs that, according to critical voices such as that of economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, in addition to not having a serious data basis, rather tell the story of how a large part of the world's population, which until the second post-war period still lived fundamentally off their fertile land, auto-production and reciprocity with their environment, have been forcibly expropriated from those livelihoods to be ‘included’ into the capitalist markets.
Of course, if poverty is measured in terms of money or consumption, and not (also) in terms of access to fertile land, forests, biodiversity, or free seeds, a very peculiar perspective on well-being, one that suits big capital, is easily imposed.
Hickel also demonstrates how, from the Millennium Development Goals declaration onward, the United Nation’s methods to represent world poverty statistically have been adjusted several times until they showed the desired result. The great illusion of development and the constant improvement of the state of the world, which in some way constitutes the raison d'être of the United Nations System itself, could simply not be betrayed.
Now, the forecasts are the other way around. According to Oxfam, if no drastic measures are taken, after the pandemic more than half of the world population could live in conditions of monetary poverty. According to ECLAC estimates, in Latin America and the Caribbean alone there would be 30 million more people who would live without a minimum monetary income. And nowadays, they would actually do so without having access to a plot of land, a vegetable garden, a farm or a forest to hold on to. Being poor indeed.
Capitalism suddenly spits out again all these populations that it insisted on ingesting over decades; the people who were ‘included’ in the markets, who were forcibly taken out of their ‘underdeveloped’ peasant and subsistence economies to transform them into urban consumers, dependent on an income, able to get into debt and to be squeezed for the benefit of others, even if only a little.
“There must be commensurate action for the 6 billion people living outside the core G20 economies.”
To alleviate the consequences that such a wave of poverty could bring, more and more voices, including French President Emmanuel Macron or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), speak of the need for a great redistribution from North to South, for massive debt cancellation, the need for a new Marshall Plan like the one that allowed to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
In the words of Richard Kozul-Wright, UNCTAD Director of Globalization and Development Strategies, "advanced economies have promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop their firms and households from taking a heavy loss of income. But if G20 leaders are to stick to their commitment of ‘a global response in the spirit of solidarity’, there must be commensurate action for the 6 billion people living outside the core G20 economies.”
An opportunity for historical reparation
Hopefully these proposals will prevail, hopefully at least a slice of historical reparation for colonialism and the uninterrupted drain of resources of the South toward the geopolitical North will be achieved. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that this historical debt of the centers with the peripheries, of the world elites with the peoples, has many more dimensions than only wealth in terms of money:
Today more than ever, the required redistribution includes a redistribution of fertile land, of water rights, of access to seeds and all the means that guarantee the material reproduction of life.
Much is being said about the re-localization of food production chains. Food sovereignty becomes, in COVID-19 times, a matter of common sense and in countries like Ecuador, a question of survival for many. The hegemonic imaginary is being reversed: Big cities are no longer the shiny place of success, of unbridled consumption in bombastic shopping malls. Rather, they have become dangerous traps, places where proximity to other humans is a deadly threat. Now, it’s the peasants and the indigenous communities that come down from the highlands with truckloads of potatoes, beans, plantains and rice to cities like Riobamba or Guayaquil, to help feed their urban brothers and sisters.
The countryside has become a place of refuge to which those who can return, fleeing from the urban alternative of confinement or contagion. Family gardens, organic and peasant agriculture, barter between neighbors and community members are revalued and reactivated. But for food sovereignty to prosper, it is essential to restructure land ownership and rebuild territorial sovereignties, including, as has been done successfully in various parts of Europe for some years, the introduction of local currencies to stimulate proximity production and consumption.
Crises, Argentinian sociologist Maristella Svampa reminds us, generate movements of cognitive liberation, that is, they make "what was until now unimaginable" viable and possible. The possibility of thinking beyond neoliberal doctrine has been opened. In Europe, parliaments approve measures that were previously demonized as 'socialist'. Conservative governments and finance experts advocate the nationalizing of strategic companies to protect them from hostile acquisitions. Finance ministers simply override the austerity doctrine. The International Monetary Fund calls on governments to introduce wealth taxes. Everything, absolutely everything seems possible. From the scariest scenario to the most motivating. And as always, the result will depend on all of us.
The patterns of production and consumption, the imaginary of desire and the shared routines that are at the root of this catastrophe, since its inception, have never been so deeply shaken as today.
It depends on that we don’t wait for life to "normalize" to rebuild our ways of participation, to actively get involved into the transformations that are already taking place. On that we innovate our ways of building collective will, public debate and political pressure, even though we are subject to physical distancing and hyper-virtualization. On that we do not allow this crisis to become a new scenario for the shock doctrine, or that nationalisms are exacerbated, or that medical experiments for cures or vaccines are carried out on humans in Africa or Haiti, or that environmental regulations necessary to guarantee our future are made more permissive.
It depends on that we do not leave the field of solidarity to the large retail corporations, which not only in Ecuador, seek to monopolize even the food packages for the most vulnerable.
It depends on that we do not allow that measures such as a universal basic income, so necessary in a world that irrationally insists on linking social security to formal employment while this has been constantly shrinking, are only discussed in Northern countries. This time, social justice and environmental justice must be for everyone, on a planetary scale.
The coronavirus crisis reveals the serious weaknesses and perversities of the status quo ante. It invites a paradigm shift, a systemic transformation. It places the public and the common above the private and for-profit. Finally, it places care activities where they should never have been displaced from: at the center of social and economic life. How can we make these priorities last?
How do we manage to extend the new common sense, - that we must profoundly change our habits to prevent COVID-19, which is a deadly threat -, to the prevention of other ‘pandemics’ that threaten life all alike? Pandemics that we have not been able to face effectively in decades due to a ‘lack of political will’ or simply persisting power relations, and due to social inertia?
Currently, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change causes 150,000 deaths annually. As of 2030, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 people will die worldwide each year from global warming. At the same time, according to the same WHO, each year an average of 1 million and 350,000 people die in traffic accidents caused by the irrational mobility model based on individual cars, which at the same time, strongly contributes to climate change.
The patterns of production and consumption, the imaginary of desire and the shared routines that are at the root of this catastrophe, since its inception, have never been so deeply shaken as today. The time has come to undertake audacious changes, collectively, amid grief, uncertainty and fear.