Vijay Prashad and Manuel Bertoldi discuss the pressing need for states to take humanitarian measures in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic and crisisMarch 22, 2020 by Vijay Prashad, Manuel Bertoldi
Firefighters disinfect a street in Tehran, Iran, on March 13. The Trump administration has tightened pressure on the country with economic sanctions despite the coronavirus outbreak which has weakened its capacity to respond effectively. Photo: Associated Press/Vahid Salemi
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has spread to almost every country on the planet earth. The virus will take many lives, disrupt communities and institutions, and leave behind trauma and a devastated world economy. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that by the end of 2020, global income will collapse by between $1 trillion and $2 trillion; the latter figure is a worst-case scenario, with falling oil prices making the problem even more acute for oil-exporting countries.
Tumble of Finance
Already over-inflated stock markets are now seeing deep drops. Central banks are using all their monetary resources to shore up the financial markets and to try to bail out as many sectors of the economy as possible. Even the generally stable central bank in Norway, advantaged by its massive energy sector, has cut its interest rate and has promised to intervene to prevent a wholesale collapse of its economy.
There is no easy way to measure the eventual outcome of this crisis. But if we look at the example of previous crises—such as the Financial Crisis of 2008-09—then we know that the costs of these crises are rarely borne by the very rich; it is those who have little power in the system, the majority of the people, who end up with the bill for a crisis that they did not provoke. It was the very rich, with disproportionate power over politics and policies, who imposed upon states austerity regimens that sliced away public health systems and allowed deregulation to run rampant through the financial markets. When a public health crisis arrives, these states are not prepared, and their lack of preparation is what sets off the financial market—now deregulated—into chaos. Those who destroyed the public health system and who deregulated the financial system should be the ones who pay the price for the disaster; but this is not how power works.
One of the key achievements of the very rich was to delegitimize the idea of state institutions. In the West, the typical attitude has been to attack the government as an enemy of progress; to shrink government institutions—except the military—has been the goal. Any country with a robust government and state structure has been characterized as “authoritarian.” But this crisis has shaken that view. Countries with intact state institutions that have been able to handle the pandemic—such as China—cannot be easily dismissed as authoritarian; a general understanding has come that these governments and their state institutions are instead efficient.
Meanwhile, the states of the West that have been eaten into by austerity policies are now fumbling to deal with the crisis. Most of them privatized substantial parts of health care and of education, closing down precious public health institutions and dismantling the surge capacity of their hospitals in case of an emergency. Just-in-time medicine for private gain became the formula. The failure of the austerity health care system is now clearly visible. It is impossible to make the case any longer that this is more efficient than a system of state institutions that are made efficient by the process of trial and error.
A Socialist Plan
As part of the ongoing global debate over how to understand this crisis and how to move forward, the International Peoples Assembly and Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research have developed a 16-point plan: “In Light of the Global Pandemic, Focus Attention on the People.” This plan emerges out of a discussion with political movements in every continent of the planet. This is a living document, one that encourages dialogue, and that should be advanced further as we learn more about how to move forward. Please read the points below:
1. Immediate suspension of all work, except essential medical and logistical personnel and those required to produce and distribute food and necessities, without any loss of wages. The state must assume the cost of the wages for the period of the quarantine.
2. Health, food supply, and public safety must be maintained in an organized manner. Emergency grain stocks must be immediately released for distribution amongst the poor.
3. Schools must all be suspended.
4. Immediate socialization of hospitals and medical centers so that they do not worry about the profit motive as the crisis unfolds. These medical centers must be under the control of the government’s health campaign.
5. Immediate nationalization of pharmaceutical companies, and immediate international cooperation amongst them to find a vaccine and easier testing devices. Abolishment of intellectual property in the medical field.
6. Immediate testing of all people. Immediate mobilization of tests and support for medical personnel who are at the front-lines of this pandemic.
7. Immediate speed-up of production for materials necessary to deal with the crisis (testing kits, masks, respirators).
8. Immediate closure of global financial markets.
9. Immediate gathering of the finances to prevent the bankruptcy of governments.
10. Immediate cancellation of all non-corporate debts.
11. Immediate end to all rent and mortgage payments, as well as an end to evictions; this includes the immediate provision of adequate housing as a basic human right. Decent housing must be a right for all citizens guaranteed by the state.
12. Immediate absorption of all utility payments by the state—water, electricity, and internet provided as part of a human right; where these utilities are not universally accessible, we call for them to be provided with immediate effect.
13. Immediate end to the unilateral, criminal sanctions regimes and economic blockades that impact countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela and prevent them from importing necessary medical supplies.
14. Urgent support for the peasantry to increase the production of healthy food and supply it to the government for direct distribution.
15. Suspension of the dollar as an international currency and request that the United Nations urgently call a new international conference to propose a common international currency.
16. Ensure a universal minimum income in every country. This makes it possible to guarantee support from the state for millions of families who are out of work, working in extremely precarious conditions or self-employed. The current capitalist system excludes millions of people from formal jobs. The state should provide employment and a dignified life for the population. The cost of the Universal Basic Income can be covered by defense budgets, in particular the expense of arms and ammunition.
The crisis has truly shaken the system. There is no doubt about that. A consequence of the failure of the austerity politics is that ideas that had been unthinkable just a few months ago—such as nationalization of hospitals and provision of substantial income support to unemployed workers—is on the agenda. We hope that this conversation develops into a popular global movement for a total reconstruction of the system. It is easier to imagine socialism in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, than it is to continue to live under the heartless regime of capitalism.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017)
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.