Director at CONCORD Europe
As the coronavirus spreads across our globalised world — and governments are duly reacting by closing schools, emptying offices and suspending cultural and sports events — a clear picture emerges: quality healthcare and social rights may not stop a pandemic, but they are key to addressing one and can prevent the poor and marginalised from being hit the hardest. To deal more effectively with such a serious, sudden and widespread threat to public health and our society, we are going to have to rebuild our social systems.
Just a few weeks ago, it was only the stuff of nightmares or sci-fi films that a single virus could expose so many vulnerabilities in public systems around the world. Now, it is a reality. Healthcare systems, even in wealthy countries, are struggling to cope. Governments – the public sector – are slow to react and don’t appear to coordinate responses. Countries are unable to show solidarity between them as they have to hang on to the few provisions and little equipment they have. Why? Is it simply the suddenness? Or the scale?
No, it’s not as simple as that. After more than a decade of austerity and a continued emphasis on ‘small government’, Europe’s social model has taken a battering. Among the first sectors where cuts were made was the public welfare system: health, education, social protection. Despite warnings, leaders felt that fiscal discipline came before investments in human capital and in our future well-being. We are, in many countries in Europe, now paying the price. Speculation about the possible reasons why the outbreak is hitting Europe, the US and some parts of Asia so hard has put at least some of the blame on globalisation and the globe-trotting habits of businesspeople and the well-off.
So far, African countries have avoided a major outbreak, but the number of cases is on the rise there too. Experts warn that crowded cities with poor sanitation could make such outbreaks hard to control, while infectious diseases are already a problem in underserved rural areas. Public healthcare in Africa is particularly fragile and under-resourced as a result of World Bank and IMF practices of making loans conditional on governments cutting funding for their public services in favour of privatisation.
Just like Ebola before it, COVID-19 is a reminder that sustainable development must include massive investments in public services, including quality healthcare which is accessible and affordable for all. Similarly, universal coverage and access to social protection is key to providing a safety net, especially for the poor and marginalised. Unfortunately, the Commission’s recent draft proposal for a strategy with Africa said rather little about social protection and not that much more about healthcare: they certainly didn’t merit being seen as priorities in their own right. But it wasn’t even clear how the EU envisages working in partnership with Africa to address such (global) pandemics.
If COVID-19 does take a hold in Africa, it will only serve to reinforce the staggering inequalities between people and between countries. Who can regularly wash their hands? Not people without access to running water or soap. Who can practice social distancing? Not communities living in crowded informal settlements. Who can stay at home and still receive a wage? Not workers in the informal economy. Who can stock up on food and medicine? Not people living in or at risk of poverty with little to no disposable income and certainly no savings. Who has a computer and access to the internet at home to continue working or studying? Not people living in remote areas and/or with poor connectivity.
Out of interest, what would Europe do to support Africa and show partnership and solidarity, if the coronavirus spreads there as it has in Europe?
It’s impossible to estimate the havoc and disruption that COVID-19 will bring on a global scale, but what is clear is that a disease like COVID-19 thoroughly challenges the notion that the invisible hand of the market will meet our needs and provide answers in times of uncertainty.
It is also clear that being a rich nation, with a high GDP, doesn’t mean one can escape these kinds of situations. And it shows starkly who suffers most. In the coming months, many people will struggle to survive, whether psychologically or physically, while the world’s ultra-rich shelter themselves from the virus by jet-setting off to their private islands or hunkering down in their disaster bunkers with their personal doctors.
So we should learn our lesson from today’s situation. Economists are already warning of a possible global recession as a result of the new coronavirus. Let’s hope that this time around there will be no recourse to so-called austerity measures and cutbacks in spending on public welfare systems!
Let’s also remember that a country can only invest in key sectors such as education, healthcare and social protection if it can raise enough money – through taxes and other means. That makes it doubly important that we combat illicit financial flows, so that all companies pay their fair share of taxes in the country of operation and wealthy individuals stop evading tax.
Now, where do we go from here? I think the only viable – and hopeful – path forward is the path towards more solidarity. This is not only a wake-up call to invest far more in quality, public healthcare and social protection systems that benefit everyone, it’s also a chance to establish reliable political institutions. To rebuild trust between citizen and state. In short, to change the system so that it favours solidarity and sustainability, not individualism and short-term thinking.
Comforting stories of people helping each other cope with isolation, loneliness and anxiety are reassuring in these uncertain times. While volunteers are delivering food and medicine to those in need, people are taking to balconies to clap and sing together in a show of solidarity. From online open mics to thank you notes for garbage collectors, this renewed sense of community has been heartwarming to see. As many of us are confining ourselves to our homes to flatten the curve, I can’t help but think about how now, more than ever, we need to foster a sense of community, togetherness and mutual support, despite the necessary physical distance between us.
I wish you all well!