ourEconomy: Opinion

Can internationalism survive Covid?

Why the pandemic should prompt governments to make a new commitment to economic and social solidarity.

Kellea Miller
7 December 2020
Image: Jason Hargrove, CC by 2.0

For most of this year, we have watched walls spring up around our nations, our cities, and our homes. In our halting attempts to keep the coronavirus at bay we isolate, close borders, and trace contacts. Like concrete and steel, these walls block out the light, defining who is in and who is out; who will be cared for and who won’t.

But our lives are not so neatly bordered, and now is the time to recognise our interconnectedness and to rethink international cooperation – both economic and political.

From California, I dream of sitting with my best friend in New York, who herself longs to be with ailing family in Bolivia. To visit my mom in Oregon, one large state away, my kids don masks, and we drive a full day with few stops. As I write, my partner is in Australia grieving his father’s sudden death. At a time when family should gather, we cannot be together. It took two weeks of quarantine before he could hold his mother.

Just as our hearts defy simple boundaries, so money snakes, leaps, and pushes through the artifice of separation. The largest economies on this planet became so not on their own merits, but with resources pilfered and prodded from countries across oceans and continents. These flows continue, even if it takes place in the shadows.

Who pays?

While the image of the Global North providing aid to the South paints a nice picture, research shows that “the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.” Africa, the largest ‘recipient’ region for foreign assistance, is actually a net financial creditor to the rest of the world. Relying on tax evasion, corruption, and illicit transfers of goods, foreign companies (and countries) move African resources off African soil. The cost: an outflow of nearly a trillion and a half dollars over the last thirty years. Development aid money to the continent pales in comparison.

Yet in this moment of quarantine and containment, national governments – especially those in the Global North – are turning inward, reinforcing their economic border walls, and pulling back from global compacts.

In July, the European Union struck a historic budget deal that added $860 billion in a pandemic recovery package, but cut foreign aid. Meanwhile, European countries continue to rely on migrant labor to carry their economies through the pandemic. As Simon Maxwell, the former chair of the European Think Tanks Group, describes: “In this moment of supposed progress for the EU as a whole, its global arm emerges weakened.” Emily Wigens, EU director at the ONE Campaign, called it “a worrying sign for global solidarity in the face of the pandemic.”

Other countries have quietly discussed the likelihood of similar cutbacks in international spending, and some have already taken action. The UK government recently approved a £2.9 billion reduction in international aid, citing the economic fallout of the pandemic, while its Department for International Development – since merged into the Foreign Office – announced in June that it would cut up to 30% of funding on its aid projects.

In rhetoric and reality, we are seeing financial stimulus packages that reassert nationalism, obfuscate global economic impacts and interdependence, and give traditional growth models priority once more over social good.

In some ways, domestic-focused approaches to the pandemic make sense. Covid’s ravages look different based on national government responses and healthcare infrastructure, and infections reflect distinct – and shameful – legacies of inequality. But supporting people and providing the resources they need to live with dignity is more complicated. The walls around who we are and how money flows are too porous.

In this moment (and long before), retreating to economic nationalism both shirks responsibility and ignores reality. Recessions are global. Economies are interdependent. And the ability to pull back, to ‘take care of our own’, is available only where countries can afford to ignore that their economic ‘growth’ has never been theirs alone. Even then, the production of food, care for the sick or the young and the elderly, the construction of homes, and many other aspects of daily life will continue to depend on the cheap and often invisible labor and resources of people that nationalists portray as ‘outsiders’ in the populist narrative of ‘us versus them’.

Rejecting isolation

In the face of a global pandemic, what would it mean to move toward internationalism rather than isolation? What would it take to both care for a country’s residents (all of them) and acknowledge the interconnection of our people, economies, and planet? As we brace for an impending food crisis, poverty on a massive scale, and the worst recession since the Second World War, these questions are not only a matter of morality. They are a matter of survival.

As the pandemic illustrates all-too clearly, it is farcical to pretend that we live in isolation, either economically or socially.

The eradication of smallpox took over a decade of monumental global coordination. We will not survive Covid-19 and future pandemics without international cooperation in medical research and development, rather than corporate monopoly and draconian intellectual property laws that turn life-saving medicine and vaccines into commodities.

Equally, we will not make it without the people’s movements, or feminist and other social justice groups, that have already showed their power as ‘first responders’ in many marginalized communities around the world. Looking forward, it is not only their services that we will need; it is their wisdom, experience, and their transformative ideas. This will help us act beyond borders and pursue systemic change.

Policymakers must restructure international cooperation based on the recognition that the survival and wellbeing of countries and social groups are interconnected and interdependent. That requires a move away from ‘trickle-down economics’ and the continuation of policies that benefit the wealthy while claiming to benefit everyone.

It means, for example, that international labor markets must no longer rely on millions of precarious jobs in outrageous and exploitative conditions. States must take action to address inequality and ensure that their citizens are not pushed by despair and lack of other opportunities to take those jobs. To bring wall after wall down, now is the time to renew an internationalism based in solidarity and cooperation the world over.

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