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The impact of COVID-19 is all down to inequality

Coronavirus must change the neoliberal rationale, and rescue the social contract between the welfare state and the market economy that can plan to prevent the crises to come.

Mariano Aguirre
7 April 2020
A street vendor's cart in lower Manhattan, March 18, 2020.
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Albin Lohr-Jones/PA. All rights reserved.

First it was a suggestion and then it became an order: wash your hands and keep your distance. Those two seemingly simple actions represent the world we live in today. A world in which millions of people lack the water necessary for the first order and the space for the second. Later we were told to confine ourselves, something also out of the reach of many. Covid-19, or Coronavirus, is highlighting the profound inequality that exists in our global society and between our states.

As the pandemic spreads, healthcare systems are finding that they lack the resources necessary to cope with the crisis. It seems that no country had prepared for such a scenario, despite the warnings issued by scientific and economic sectors. Among others, six years ago professor Ian Goldin of Oxford University predicted that the next global crisis would be brought on by a pandemic. Today the world faces dangerous paradoxes.

When various governments asked their citizens to keep their distance from each other, thousands of prisoners cramped into various overcrowded prisons in Lebanon, Colombia and Italy rioted demanding to be released. In many countries jails are worse than hell. While the State tells people to lock themselves in behind closed doors, prisoners yearn to be let out onto the streets for fear of being infected with the virus.

Water

The order to wash our hands must have triggered reactions of disbelief amongst the millions of people living in the shantytowns, shacks, favelas and the outskirts of cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Mexico DF or São Paulo. If there is one thing lacking in these places it is sanitary facilities and water. In some places, such as South Africa, access to drinking water is privatized. It is estimated that 1 billion people make up these ranks of the urban poor surrounding big cities, 80% of which are located in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Water is also increasingly scarce in many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, mainly due to climate change.

For over a century we have known that cleanliness and health go hand in hand. Consequently, poverty and illnesses do too. Numerous studies show the connection between low incomes and a high incidence of a series of different diseases.

Immigration gets no sick leave

Up until recently these things (Ebola) happened in far-off countries of the Global South or were events (plagues) of the past. But just like climate change, their impacts are now being felt closer to home: heat waves in Europe, cities that sink a few centimeters every year in the United States, fires that rage for months in Australia.

In the past decade, the harsh realities that usually affect others have become familiar to us through immigration. Poverty and war push millions of people to leave Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Central America, Haiti, Venezuela, Myanmar and a number of African countries. Border closures, walls, electronic barriers, deportations, pressures and payments to other countries to not allow the immigrants through do not solve the root problem.

Neither Covid-19 nor Donald Trump's wall will stop people from moving. According to the United Nations, 272 million people migrated in 2019 in the world. In Libya, for example, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers are trapped between armed groups and traffickers who exploit them sexually and through intensive labour before crossing the Mediterranean. Have the traffickers stopped working these days? Will they maintain a safe distance from their prisoners?

Few weeks ago police forces and the local population of Lesbos, a Greek island, were turning away asylum seekers and immigrants arriving from Turkey. The scenes that take place in the improvised refugee camps set up for those fleeing from Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan or Venezuela can now be seen in Italian and Spanish hospitals: sick people lying on the floors of hospitals that do not have the resources to treat them. Before the spread of Coronavirus, it was known that the majority of deaths in refugee camps are brought on by malnourishment, diarrheal diseases, measles and malaria.

The similarities between these two worlds will grow as most donors cut back on their development and humanitarian aid programs in the near future with the aim of redirecting this aid to their own needs.

The similarities between these two worlds will grow as most donors cut back on their development and humanitarian aid programs in the near future with the aim of redirecting this aid to their own needs. In fact, humanitarian aid 'offered by the European Union's governments and institutions has kept increasing over the past five years, although the growth rate has decreased with each passing year, falling from a 10% increase in 2015 to a 3% increase in 2018'. Meanwhile, in February the Trump administration suggested cutting international development aid, particularly the funding for refugees and victims of conflict, by 22%.

Wars do not cease

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has sensibly requested that a ceasefire be declared in the approximately 30 ongoing armed conflicts around the world for the duration of the Coronavirus crisis. It is quite unlikely that this will happen. Will the militias, the government of Damascus and the Russian and Turkish forces coordinate an orderly retreat from the northeast of Syria until the crisis is over? Will Saudi Arabia stop bombing Yemen?

In many ongoing wars economic interests overpower political interests. When little value is attached to life nobody will stop fighting for humanitarian reasons, not even to protect their own health.

Over twenty criminal armed groups are currently active in Colombia; some of them are present in Venezuela and have international connections with networks that traffic with drugs, humans, weapons, minerals, natural resources and wildlife. None of that is going to stop.

Organized crime coopts and coerces communities to work in their illicit production operations, as happens in Mexico and Afghanistan. Maybe the lawyers and politicians who collaborate with organized crime can work from home, but there will be no sick leave or unemployment benefits for those who must produce, transport and illicitly sell goods in order to feed their families.

Meanwhile, looting has begun in the supermarkets and trucks that transport food in countries as different from each other as Colombia, Iceland and the United States.

Coronavirus is like a blackout that has caught half the world off guard in the elevator of inequality and the myth of a globalization that is supposed to benefit us all.

Precariousness as the norm

Coronavirus is like a blackout that has caught half the world off guard in the elevator of inequality and the myth of a globalization that is supposed to benefit us all. It is true that the virus has no regard for class and may attack the respiratory tracts of the 9.5% of the world's population that controls 85% of the planet's wealth. But whereas for some, isolation just means keeping a safe distance from the domestic staff and making use of the various home delivery private healthcare services more frequently, for billions of others it implies a series of exponentially growing dramatic dilemmas.

Falling ill is always complicated for those who live off precarious jobs. The problem is aggravated when the company closes for an undetermined amount of time. Precariousness generates social insecurity, and this is precisely how neoliberalism governs once the social welfare system deteriorates or is destroyed, explains German political scientist Isabell Lorey.

Furthermore, according to the International Labour Organization, over 60% of the workers on the planet hold informal jobs. This means that 2 billion people, most of them in the Global South (although it is a growing tendency in the North) 'lack social protections, workers' rights and decent working conditions.’

2 billion people, most of them in the Global South (although it is a growing tendency in the North) 'lack social protections, workers' rights and decent working conditions.’

Odisha in lockdown: homeless people and fruit vendors in deserted streets, March 31, 2020.  STR/PA. All rights reserved.
Odisha in lockdown: homeless people and fruit vendors in deserted streets, March 31, 2020. STR/PA. All rights reserved. | STR/PA. All rights reserved.

A group of Mexican street vendors interviewed by Televisión Española, the Spanish national television channel, explained this in a resigned tone: 'we can't stop going out to work, God willing we won't get sick'. The subtext of that sentence is that life is entrusted to something other than a healthcare system that does not exist for the poor.

In India millions of domestic migrant workers found themselves trapped under the Governmental order to stop working and go home to lockout. With no transport available, masses of packed people are walking long distances with high risk of infections among them. One temporary worker told BBC: “I have no options. Either I starve because I don't have a job, or I catch the virus.”

People who live from one day to the next, who can only eat or feed their family if they sell or traffic something, cannot keep a safe distance. Likewise, they can find no value in tax or mortgage payments being postponed: they are not part of the tax system nor can they afford to buy themselves a house. All they want is to go to work.

Working on the margin of society can have strange implications nowadays when so much importance is given to cleanliness: 15 million people live and work in big landfills in Ethiopia, India and the Philippines, amongst other countries.

Moving forward fast

Mobility is not easy either. In Europe, bus passengers can be seated at a distance of one or two meters from each other. In a private vehicle loaded with people, like the Kenyan matatus or the Colombian minibuses, the possibility of contagion is huge.

As we rush towards the era of the driverless car, about 47% of the world's citizens have no access to formal or informal public transport. This does not only happen in southern countries: in the United States 45% of citizens have no access to public transport. At the same time, 20% of families who live outside the country's cities do not have the means to buy a car.

Since the 1980s the predominant economic and political ideology advocates limiting the State and the social welfare system, promoting the private sector and encouraging people to fight each other for their individual interests, abandoning unions and other organized movements. The social contract between the State, the private sector and society has been seriously modified. The financial economy generates more profits than the productive economy. Wage gaps grew exponentially, and sophisticated forms of tax evasion have evolved alongside tax exemptions for big capital.

The 2008 financial crisis led to harsh cutbacks on states' healthcare, education and other public services, as well as on environmental research, science and technology. Huge financing was directed to rescuing the banks and preserving the financial system that was largely responsible for the crisis. Cutbacks in social funding weakened healthcare and prevention systems in countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.

Having efficient universal healthcare systems in place is part of a preventive policy that would allow us more means to face a crisis such as the one we face today. Instead, almost every country in the world has decided, to a certain extent, to promote a system in which citizens buy private health insurance while funding for public health is reduced. In 2019, Martin Rees, former director of the Astronomy Institute of Oxford University, wrote about possible pandemics originating in Asia: 'it is an institutional failure not to have a long term, global plan'.

In 2019, Martin Rees, former director of the Astronomy Institute of Oxford University, wrote about possible pandemics originating in Asia: 'it is an institutional failure not to have a long term, global plan'.

Since 2008 inequality has continued to increase worldwide. Fewer people accumulate and reproduce their wealth while millions of people are left behind with less access to well-paid jobs, public services and no possibilities for social advancement for themselves and their descendants. The richest and the rings of operators serving the richest ones live further and further apart from the rest of the population. Isolated in their neighborhoods, in their skyscrapers, moving with ease between residences located in different countries, they even dream of attaining immortality, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus.

Coronavirus should serve to change the neoliberal rationale, to rescue the social contract between the welfare state and the market economy and to plan to prevent the following crises. When this crisis ends, “markets” should not be allowed to impose austerity measures, including cuts to spending on healthcare, as the only path to recover from the recession and the losses.

Translated from Spanish by Róisín Allen Meade.

A previous version in Spanish is published by esglobal.org here.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

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