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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the toxic effects of a system that has for far too long dominated every aspect of our societies. Neoliberalism, as an economic ideology of capitalism, has depleted our public services, turned our education and healthcare into profit-driven businesses, hoarded profits at the expense of undervalued and underpaid workers, favoured profitability of a militarised world over human security and well-being, and aggravated inequalities between people and countries.
In the midst of the pandemic, the full scope of the effects of neoliberalism is being revealed. Not all countries and regions will be affected the same. Not all people will be affected the same. The ability to isolate, work from home, homeschool your children, stockpile your shelves, access healthcare, and financially (and psychologically) put your life back together after the pandemic is class, gender, race, age, and geography dependent.
We are at a cross-road
But even though the scales will be different, the problems will be similar. There will be an impact on employment, and in fact corporations are already asking for bail-outs; the care burden on women is already massive; the state of emergencies proclaimed around the world will have an effect on our freedoms and human rights; our mobility will be different. But while we cannot (for the time being) do anything about how the virus operates, we can use this momentum to start transforming how our societies operate. The choice we face—locally, regionally, nationally and globally—is whether we are going to succumb to disaster capitalism and the neoliberal mantra of each person/country for itself, or are we going to use this opportunity (as unwanted and dangerous as it is) to build societies that encourage solidarity, equality, and caring for the environment and our fellow human beings. We can start transforming how we interact with each other and with the environment and how we respond to crisis so that we don’t only ‘flatten the curve’ with respect to the spread of COVID-19 but flatten the consequences of the pandemic.
Public interest should always be above private interest
Profit and private interest drive capitalism and the neoliberal system. For decades we have been fed with a narrative of inefficiency of public institutions and their supposed inability to deliver services in an efficient, rational, and profitable way. International financial institutions have been asking the governments to step back and create space for private businesses to create wealth, supposedly because private profit is good for everybody. The governments were to intervene only to manage problems when they arise, which created an asymmetric relationship between public and private that can only be described as private profits – public risks.
That narrative never posed a question of what profits have to do with people’s and communities’ wellbeing. Governments all around the world—from Sweden, United Kingdom, USA, Lebanon, Chile, South Africa, to Australia—have surrendered to the idea of deregulations, fiscal contractions, and privatisation of public resources. A recently published report “Austerity: The New Normal. A Renewed Washington Consensus 2010-24”show how some of the most commonly considered measures have been pension and social security reforms, flexibilisation of labour rights, and cutting of the wage bill, reduction or elimination of subsidies, strengthening of the public-private partnership, and healthcare reforms. What these measures are really about is a reduction in the amount of money spent on the public sector and expansion of private actors’ involvement in what is considered public domain. In a capitalist world, private investments in public services can only make sense if there is a profit to harvest. Everything else counters the logic of capitalism. Which is also why in a capitalist world it makes perfect sense to continue to invest in non-renewable natural resources despite the overwhelming evidence of the destruction it brings with it. The mantra of capitalism is that freedom always comes from individual’s personal responsibility, capacity, and hard work. Inequalities are seen as a necessary part of any society and competitiveness is encouraged at every point. Which is why, in a neoliberal world, it is ok that the richest 1% in the world own twice as much as 6.9 billion people.
COVID-19 exposes the significance of public sector for our well-being
COVID-19 is a story about what that approach has done to the ability of our public institutions to respond to the challenges we face today and the challenges we will face ahead. The negative effects of a depleted public sector were previously mostly visible to those that needed support the most: the underpaid workers who needed to supplement their income with social benefits that were constantly being rationalised and reduced; women whose ability to work and earn money were dependent on accessibility and affordability of daycare centers but whose numbers constantly kept shrinking; those that could not afford private healthcare insurance but saw the availability of public healthcare disappearing; and so forth. It was also very visible for the underpaid medical workers, who, even during the period before the virus, struggled with a depleted healthcare system. Today, people in different countries are organising collective applauses for the medical staff, wanting to show their gratitude for the tireless efforts of the medical staff. That is great for morale, but medical staff would not need our applause if they were sufficiently staffed and properly equipped to begin with.
The depletion of the public health has a differentiated effect on women. Women who provide most of the informal care within families experienced their care burden increase simultaneously with the shrinking of the public sector. And now, with most of the formal and informal care for the many, many thousands of hospitalised and those that are confined to their homes being provided by women, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are huge gendered aspects to the ability of our healthcare systems to respond to this challenge.
But today it must be evident for everybody that a depleted public sector cannot properly respond to the challenges ahead. The private actors—private clinics, industries that could produce the much-needed technical and other equipment, pharmaceuticals etc.—while they were earning enormous profits before, do not recognise their obligations towards the public interest today, nor are they being called upon by the governments. While the neoliberal ideology has instilled in our public conscious that public institutions are inefficient, we now see very little of that private efficiency we’ve been told we would get.
Things can be done differently
However, there are examples that show that it is possible to reverse the process. Spain has temporarily nationalised all private hospitals and healthcare providers, something that was impossible to discuss prior to the outbreak. But it makes sense. Public interest must come before private interest—always—but in particular during crises like this. So why only understand healthcare as a public right and public interest in times of crisis? Why not always remove the profit out of the equation?
Global solidarity matters
There is also correlation between depletion of the healthcare sector and rising debts. Countries that are heavily indebted are often faced with conditionalities from international financial institutions that basically use loans as trojan horses. Through conditionalities that accompany the loans, austerity measures are institutionalised, and the privatisation of public services is asserted to be an ideologically neutral, objective, and inevitable way out for governments to meet the conditionalities. The privatisation of services plays a hugely important role in minimising states’ abilities to interfere as the central point of neoliberalism is private actors first. Privatisation also serves to cut public spending in half so that the debt can be served.
International financial institutions, in particular the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), play a key role in propagation of neoliberalism. The ability of disaster capitalism to capitalise on COVID-19 will greatly depend on the position these institutions take. The outlook is not encouraging. In one recent development, the IMF rejected Venezuela’s request for USD 5 billion to help strengthen the response capacities of the country’s health system in relation to this pandemic. Venezuela was rejected because the IMF could not decide who the legitimate leader of Venezuela is. The inability of the global regime to see beyond ideological differences and political competitiveness can be directly deadly in a country that is already on its knees. In a recent press release, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the UN Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights, said such a decision may amount to gross violation of human rights and would require accountability from the institution and its deciders. In our quest to transform the political and economic system that has claimed a right to decide who gets to live and who should die, we must transform how the international financial institutions are allowed to do business. We must introduce global solidarity as its core principle.
Alternatives beyond neoliberalism do exist
As the pandemic progresses, we are seeing different acts of solidarity. Young people forming groups to deliver food for the elderly or walk their dogs, or people sharing their books and recipes, how to do gardening, and other ordinary things that in times of crises become a testimony of our humanity, a testimony to the importance of the collective. Other extraordinary things are happening. Things that before came with a price, such as theatre visits or yoga classes are now being broadcasted for free on different online platforms; educational tools are made available to everybody; even the environment seems to be doing better. Labour rights seem to be returning and paid sick leave, paid vacation, and other measures are being granted.
All of this testifies to the vast possibilities and alternatives beyond neoliberalism and exploitation. But in order for this amazing demonstration of solidarity to continue, we need to create systems that can foster that solidarity beyond this crisis and place it at the very centre of our economy, our political system, and our interaction with each other.