Lessons from the pandemic

How can we transform the calamity that has befallen us and create healing? Vanessa Baird on the change we can be.

All masked up and ready to stay safe, a Havana resident walks by a vehicle of Covid-19 health workers.
Foresight, planning and a strong public-health system have saved Cuba from the worst of the pandemic. Ernesto Mastrascusa/Efe/Alamy

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc across the world, it seems crass and insensitive to speak of any good that can come out of this pandemic.

For those who have died or lost loved ones or been left with lasting ill health, there is likely no good.

All of us have had to learn to be afraid – of the virus, of each other and of ourselves. Of the new and dreadful capacity of our own bodies to cause death to those we come into contact with.

Like the anguished ambulance driver in Iraq who told a BBC World Service reporter that he had unwittingly infected and ‘killed’ three members of his immediate family.

This collective trauma has cracked open reality and changed it. The world pre-Covid and post-Covid will not be the same, whatever your measure: emotional, medical, economic, social, political.

Across the world lives and livelihoods continue to be lost and the scale of the global catastrophe is only beginning to unfold. Aid agencies are warning that the number of people facing acute hunger could double to a quarter of a billion in 2020 because of the multiple impacts. Economists talk of the largest economic shock in decades and a contraction of global GDP of between 5.2 and 8 per cent.

And we do not know how long this will go on. But we know from history that great ructions – the Black Death, the two World Wars, for example – can catalyse great transformation. The choices we make now and in the near future have the potential to change the world for the better or make it worse. What we do next will determine whether we create a healthier, more sustainable, more equitable world or sink further into the mire.

We cannot sit back and wait for change to happen, hoping for the best. We can be sure that those with power and privilege are busy devising ways of maximizing their advantage – be they corporations, speculators, or political operators who have sniffed the authoritarian elixir of new powers and corrupt deals under the cover of Covid-19.

The disease of inequality

‘We are all in this together,’ they say, and in a simple way it’s true. We are all affected, but differently. ‘Covid is not an equal opportunities virus,’ as Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it. It’s unequal in terms of who gets ill, who dies and who can survive the policy responses to it.

This pandemic has exposed existing inequalities – some of them hitherto hidden – and created new ones. At first it seemed older people were most at risk. Then those with pre-existing health conditions or ‘co-morbidities’. Then frontline service workers. Then, in the UK and US at least, we noticed that people from ethnic minorities featured disproportionately in the death tolls. Each day brought new evidence of how social and economic disadvantage was affecting who should live and who should die.

How were people living in crowded or multi-generational households to protect themselves by socially distancing; how could the millions on this planet who still lack sanitation follow the ‘wash your hands often’ rule? Low-income workers in the informal, gig or service economies could not work from home. Home-schooling does not work for children from poor households without digital access.

As the disease spread, the pattern of disadvantage could be seen across the world – with local characteristics. In India, when Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown with just a few hours’ warning, 80 million migrant workers lost their jobs overnight. Their only option was to walk back to their villages, often hundreds of miles away.

There were reports of hungry children eating grass en route. Millions of migrant workers around the world remain stranded, some at sea, unable to work or send back the remittances on which their families rely. In the Amazon, where incursions by loggers and miners are intensifying, indigenous people are especially vulnerable to the virus.

Gender has a part to play, too. In Italy men were almost twice as likely to die as women, but not so in India where more women are losing their lives.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), worldwide women are feeling the social and economic impacts more keenly.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the world’s first trillionaire, has seen his fortune swell by $24 billion during the pandemic.

António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, pithily observed in a tweet: ‘Covid-19 has exposed the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all, the fiction that unpaid care work isn’t work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world. We are all floating on the same sea, but some are in super-yachts and others clinging to drifting debris.’

Covid-19 has provided a powerful lens through which inequality, in its many forms, can be seen. What’s equally obvious is that we cannot beat this virus if we do not also tackle the disease of inequality.

The global economic system is key and in the next few months millions of lives and livelihoods will depend on the success of campaigns to cancel the debts of the poorest countries, a concerted action on tax avoidance and how the International Monetary Fund chooses to use its resources.

Covid-19 is unequal in terms of who gets ill, who dies and who can survive the policy responses to it

Care matters

For many years, in countries following neoliberal policies, public health has been underfunded and most care work poorly paid or not at all. Then, suddenly, Covid-19 came and carers, health workers, cleaners and refuse collectors were re-classified as ‘key’ or ‘essential workers’. Far more important than bankers and lawyers. Politicians who had backed austerity cuts on public services, while bailing out the banks, and championed privatization were suddenly full of praise for ‘our carers’.

The rich Italian state of Lombardy, overwhelmed by a surge of infection in March, had the most privatized health system in the country – and its private hospitals turned away sick and dying patients. Calls for support to other wealthy European neighbours fell on deaf ears. Help did come – from communist Cuba, which sent aid in the form of doctors and nurses. There is a campaign to nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize.

If carers are more essential than bankers, why not reflect this in their pay packets?

In Kibera, Nairobi, Martha Apisa and Stacy Ayuma use their braids
to raise awareness of the virus by imitating its shape. Community health efforts are intense
as social distancing is impossible and sanitation is poor in Kenya’s largest slum. 
Donwilson Odhiambo/Sopa/Zuma/Alamy 

The market is not wise and globalization does not deliver

The virus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, spread rapidly around the world thanks to economic globalization and frequent flying. But that same globalization failed to produce the essential items people needed to combat it. The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits took weeks to resolve. The famous ‘just in time’ supply chains of globalization turned out to be fragile, corruption ridden and creakingly slow.

In the US, free-market competition between federal states ratcheted up the price of vital items. The fragility of globalization’s supply lines was further exposed when clothing outlets in the West cancelled orders at the last minute, throwing under the bus producers in countries like Bangladesh. Those who have spent years arguing for greater self-sufficiency in the Global South and reduced reliance on export markets are vindicated.

The big state

In several countries the state intervened in the market on an unprecedented scale. As shut-down businesses laid off staff, a collapsing private sector was threatening to trigger major social unrest. Even vehemently neoliberal governments, like those of Chile and the UK, conjured up schemes to support workers’ pay to avoid a tsunami of unemployment. In Argentina direct payments were made to one fifth of the population, including informal workers.

Social and welfare payments were ramped up, even in the US. Water supplies in South Africa were taken back under state control. In England street homelessness was ended virtually overnight, with councils offering 90 per cent of rough sleepers accommodation in vacant hotel rooms.

All this intervention will cost billions to the public purse. In return the private sector should be required, at least, to cap fat-cat executive pay, clamp down on tax evasion and move faster to become fossil-fuel free. Those $32 trillion currently squirrelled away in illegal tax havens can be put to better use.

Meanwhile the expansion of social-welfare payments to avoid mass destitution has brought the idealistic notion of a Universal Basic Income closer to being a realistic proposition.

Focus on food

In rich countries shops did not run out of food as initially feared and mutual aid groups, local councils and charities got essentials to many vulnerable and isolated individuals. In the Global South the situation is far more precarious, with growing numbers facing acute shortage. Oxfam warns that by the end of the year pandemic-related hunger could be killing 12,000 people a day, more than the virus’s death rate of 10,000 a day in April 2020.

Yemen, Venezuela, Brazil, India, Syria, South Sudan and South Africa are especially at risk. The loss of remittances income is a major cause of growing poverty and food insecurity as well as ongoing conflict. In remittance-reliant countries like the Philippines, the pandemic has drawn attention to the need to build local resilience, including food sovereignty.

Reset our relationship with nature

Under lockdown many of us mused that we felt closer to nature. If you shut down the machine noise of anthropocentric domination you can hear the birds singing. Wildlife becomes more assertive and evident. Deer appear in city streets; fish in the hitherto toxic canals of Venice. Skies are unusually blue; the air is clean. Home-working means less commuting, less traffic, fewer fumes. More people walk and cycle. You can breathe freely in the heart of the world’s most toxic cities.

This, maybe short-lived, upside of lockdown gave us a taste of a fossil-free future and it was sweet. It offered a break from addictive consumerism. In the words of George Monbiot: ‘This horrendous pandemic has to be a tipping point. This has to be a point of transformation where we move from one system, an exploitative political and economic system, to a completely different one: private sufficiency and public luxury.’

But the global Green New Deal that is now firmly back on the media agenda will need to have justice built into it. 

Young Rio favela residents, part of the grassroots Marcha das Favelas group,
organize mutual aid to make up for the absence of the Brazilian state in tackling the crisis. Ellan Lustosa/Zuma/Alamy
If governments and the big multilateral institutions have been tardy and wanting in their responses to the crisis, the opposite can be said of non-state actors, of civil society

Put people first

Covid-19 put governments to the test – and some failed dismally. ‘Ostrich leaders’ like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were the worst. In denying or lying about the dangers posed, they failed to act upon clear urgent medical advice coming from the World Health Organization (WHO). They betrayed the basic trust that has to exist between elected rulers and the ruled, that the former will not kill the latter. Their outrageous, often ludicrous, blunders have been widely reported, and do not need repeating here. The result is written in blood: the highest death tolls in the world, at the time of writing, are in the US and Brazil.

So, let’s focus on the countries that have quietly, intelligently, got on with protecting their citizens. Of the 12 most successful countries, seven – Aotearoa/New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark – are led by women. The new generation of women leaders are, one explanation goes, more likely to listen to experts. They do not waste time. Taiwan moved so fast and in such a technologically savvy way, it contained the spread without needing to put the country into lockdown. President Tsai Ing-wen and her digital minister (former hacker) Audrey Tang, helped by an epidemiologist for vice-president, made quite a team.

Greece is not led by a woman, but the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis recognized that years of austerity had so hollowed out the public-health service, it would be swiftly overwhelmed if the virus was allowed to get a hold. There was no flirting with ideas of ‘herd immunity’ or ‘behavioural fatigue’. Led by epidemiology rather than ideology, a conservative leadership managed to keep the country’s death toll in the low hundreds, while in Italy and Spain it hit tens of thousands.

Communist Cuba showed the value of planning and forethought. Weeks before the first case was detected on the island, doctors were sent for specialist WHO training and visited China to study how to fight the disease. In June, president Miguel Díaz-Canal was able to present a 122-page plan (yes, Boris, a plan!) for relaxing quarantine measures. In all, Cuba sent 30 medical brigades to help fight the pandemic in 28 countries and kept its own deaths down to 87. Not one of them was a health worker.6

Vietnam is perhaps the most remarkable case, with 10 deaths in a population of 97 million and close trade ties to China. Researcher Jenny Nguyen puts it down to a very fast lockdown (‘draconian’ in the words of the foreign media), previous experience of the SARS and MERS epidemics (like Taiwan and Singapore), and a big public buy-in with mobilization across society from the military to grassroots organizations. Most crucial though was that ‘the government was willing to put health over the economy from the beginning,’ says Nguyen.

That is something that all who have handled the emergency well share, whatever their political stripe. They put people first.

Where is the UN?

The virus respects no borders; this pandemic clearly requires a co-ordinated international response. At the forefront of this has been the WHO, the target of Trumpian accusations that it, not the US administration, is to blame for the deaths of US citizens from coronavirus. Trump’s war with the WHO, and its Ethiopian chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is irrational and complex, connected with his trade war with China, and his hostility towards the entire multilateral system.

The president’s decision to withdraw US funding has been likened to cutting off a firehose during a massive blaze. An investigation into the WHO’s handling of the pandemic is due to report next year.

A far more culpable body of the system is the 15-member Security Council, the most powerful arm of the UN and the most useless, paralysed by intractable conflict on almost all issues between its five permanent members: the US, Russia, China, France and the UK.

‘It’s hard to recall a more lamentable response to a global emergency,’ fumed Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, as the world hit the milestone of 10 million cases and 500,000 deaths from Covid-19 in early July.

The UN’s humanitarian agencies continue their efforts, notwithstanding. In mid-July a major co-ordinated funding appeal was launched to aid 63 of the poorest, most-at-risk countries. Part of the Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, the appeal is the largest in the UN’s history. By the end of July, however, only $1.64 billion of the $10.3 billion required had been received.

The grassroots are singing

If governments and the big multilateral institutions have been tardy and wanting in their responses to the crisis, the opposite can be said of non-state actors, of civil society.

Ordinary citizens and their social movements have been agile, swift – and effective.

In mid-March, as lockdown loomed in the UK, more than 200 mutual aid groups sprang up within hours. Set up online, volunteers co-ordinated via WhatsApp and Facebook groups, offering help to people in self-isolation with shopping, dog walking and picking up prescriptions. By June there were 4,225 groups in both urban and rural areas.

Citizens have leapt into action across the world. Thousands of roadside food kitchens sprang up in India.

In Brazil, citizens’ movements have stepped in to fill the void left by a murderously negligent government.

The grassroots group G10 Favelas is active in the 100,000-strong neighbourhood of Paraisópolis, in southern São Paulo. Volunteer leaders, each responsible for 50 houses, distribute food baskets and information on the importance of social isolation. Infected people are monitored. Four ambulances have been sourced and two vans for distributing food and cleaning products. A crowdfunding campaign was started to fund two houses for hosting infected people who cannot isolate at home, the 510 beds all complying with recommended social isolation guidelines, report Renata Boulos and Patricia Laczynski.

Also in Brazil, the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) has mobilized across the country to create mutual aid brigades. By late June they had delivered 150 tons of food, 15,000 sanitizers and cleaning kits and 49,830 masks, benefiting 18,500 families. They also provide health guidance (via Whatsapp) and psychological, social and legal information and protection to families facing eviction.

There have been similar initiatives in many African countries that are part of the Slum/Shack Dwellers International Network, led by women, often with lasting benefits apart from saving lives. In Francistown, Botswana, volunteers went door to door to identify houses without running water and toilets and helped them to install facilities.

Rethinking democracies

Restriction. Curfews. Social isolation. More power for the state. Less accountability.

This is a bad time for democracy, especially for politics that is made on the streets, in communities, in the shared workplace.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has used the crisis to imprison more of his political opponents; the same is happening to artists and journalists in Bangladesh. In Bolivia the coup administration of Jeanine Áñez Chávez is using the pandemic to defer promised elections.

And yet... Under the most unpropitious of circumstances we have also seen an eruption of political activism, most visibly in the Black Lives Matter (BLM)protests that have kicked off across a world in lockdown.

The people have not been silenced. Indeed, lockdown might even have amplified their voices, concentrating attention on institutional racism that has been going on for decades, centuries.

Mutual-support coronavirus groups have provided channels for communication about BLM actions. Given the disproportionally high death rate among black and ethnic minority health workers, the issues of BLM and coronavirus overlap, with racism at the centre. As calls to ‘defund the police’ mount, the challenge to failing states is taken to another level.

Two things are happening at once, which may seem contradictory but are actually complementary. On the one hand, we are seeing the possibility of a bigger, more interventionist, more economically Keynesian state that actually looks after its citizens.

On the other, people who may never have experienced it before have been getting a taste of mutual aid, both as givers and receivers. In the fire of the pandemic an anarchist concept has become a solid reality.

These two possibilities, a bigger, more caring state and a flowering of social movements, can work together to transform and heal. Our collective vulnerability could, should, must unite us.

Numbers of cases and fatalities were correct at the time of writing.

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Tax Justice Network: campaigns against tax havens and financial secrecy
Global Justice Now: for fairness in international relations
Health Action Interaction: advancing access to medicines for everyone
Knowledge Ecology International: intellectual property as public good
Global Green New Deal: from crisis to justice
Corporate Europe Observatory: exposes corporate lobbying
People’s Bailout: recovery by and for the people
Access Now: defends users’ digital rights
ETC Group: monitors corporations’ impact on biodiversity and agriculture
Via Campesina: international movement of peasant farmers
GRAIN: research and analysis for land justice