No going back: Rebuilding a post-coronavirus world

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hold the globe in its grip, people are beginning to look ahead to the world that awaits us once the crisis is over. The task of rebuilding will be monumental. While some advocate a return to ‘business as usual’ based on the ailing neoliberal consensus, others point to the failing structures exposed by the coronavirus, and hope for something better. Green World speaks to four commentators on why there can be no going back.

Waiting in line social distancing
Waiting in line social distancing

Image: Luis Arroyo

Green World

Perhaps the well-known novelist Philip Pullman put it best:

It’s all got to change. If we come out of this crisis with all the rickety, fly-blown, worm-eaten old structures still intact, the same vain and indolent public schoolboys in charge, the same hedge fund managers stuffing their overloaded pockets with greasy fingers, our descendants will not forgive us. Nor should they. We must burn out the old corruption and establish a better way of living together.

Pullman’s view mirrors the stark conclusion that “the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the sharpest and deepest economic contraction in the history of capitalism”, according to one economist. Moreover, as of Friday morning (24 April), deaths worldwide totalled 191,087 and many parts of the global South – already burdened by appalling public health facilities – have yet to feel the pandemic’s full tidal wave. Under a “best-case” model developed for Africa by Imperial College London, 300,000 people on this continent could die, and 3.3 million in a “worst-case” scenario. 

Of course, not everyone agrees that once we get past this current “global cardiac arrest”, as one commentator has called it, we really do need “change” or to “establish a better way of living.”

The only solution, say some here in the UK and elsewhere, is to get “back to normal”, and today is not soon enough. 

While Donald Trump and the “let’s liberate Kentucky” crowd are the clearest reflection of this view, relative moderates here have few alternatives to offer. Former UK Conservative leader William Hague welcomed “the massive incentive this crisis provides for innovation”, while former Chancellor George Osborne says another bout of austerity and “retrenchment” is the economic heart surgery we need for the months and years ahead (Been there, done that, George). Certainly, a market economy offers us no solutions to this crisis.

Coronavirus benches taped off
Image: Luis Arroyo

Meanwhile, the threat of conflict in the Gulf continues to loom large, while the World Food Programme is warning us of a “biblical famine” in the global South. Covid-19 is but one part of incomparable turmoil across the globe.

So it is hardly a surprise to learn that a UK poll this week found ‘Just nine per cent want things to ‘go back to normal’ after coronavirus lockdown’. Nor do we.

This week Green World invited four commentators and activists from the UK and abroad to tell us why, post the Covid-19 pandemic, they think there can be “no going back”. Two are members of the Green Party of England and Wales, one is a farmer from the Philippines, and the fourth heads up an Asian activist think-tank. They have tried to learn from the past and the horrendous present and to sketch out a few parameters for the future.

If we must not go back, Larry Saunders poses the question of the hour: “Do we have the determination to go forward?”  

  

Chris Jarvis 

Chris Jarvis
Chris Jarvis

When can things go back to normal? That’s undoubtedly the question on many people’s lips as we go through week after week of lockdown. It is, however, the wrong question.

The status quo shouldn’t be perceived as “normal”. There’s nothing “normal” about 320,000 people being homeless in the UK, and growing numbers of people sleeping rough. There’s nothing “normal” about one in five people living in poverty in this country. And there’s nothing “normal” about 3.7 million people being trapped in precarious employment.

The reality is that the coronavirus crisis hasn’t pushed our society and economy into a uniquely vulnerable position. Rather, it has exposed the cracks in our failing system. A society built to prioritise private profit and individualism over public good and communal need wouldn’t and couldn’t be resilient, of course, to crises like that which we’re currently in.

After decades of privatisation, cuts and underfunding, of course our NHS and social care system wouldn’t be ready to respond to a global pandemic. With the systematic demolition of the welfare state, of course people are thrown into a position of precarity when faced with job losses and a major economic downturn. And with the hollowing out of local government and the centralisation of power in Westminster, of course our councils have been trying to provide vital services with one hand tied behind their backs.

When we’re out of lockdown, those problems aren’t going to go away. They’ve been locked into our economy for at least the last forty years, since Thatcher sought to smash the post-war social democratic settlement. We’ll still have overpriced, underfunded, privatised public services, with shareholders pocketing billions. 

We’ll still have a housing sector which prioritises the rights of wealthy landlords over people who need roofs over their heads. And we’ll still have a welfare system which punishes, rather than helping those in need.

We can’t go back to this. It would only continue to put profit over people. It would only be propping an economy which has exploitation and inequality hardwired into its DNA.

And crucially, it won’t build the resilience, sustainability and people-orientated economy that will ensure we’re ready for the other crisis that’s already at our door – the climate crisis.

Chris Jarvis is a writer and activist based in Oxford. He is currently the editor of Bright Green and has been a Green Party member since 2010.

 

Shalmali Guttal

Shalmali Guttal
Shalmali Guttal

Covid-19 has changed the world we inhabit in very significant ways. It has brought to the fore the savagery of social, economic and political inequality. Class and social privilege, race, ethnicity, gender and occupation determine who are most vulnerable to the disease, and who suffer the worst impacts of the pandemic, including those of measures that governments are taking to contain it. 

The pandemic has revealed the frailty of our public health, welfare and social protection systems that have been diminished by several decades of structural adjustment and neoliberal policies. It has pointed to the complex impacts of human footprints on ecosystems, habitats, environments and climate through indiscriminate urban and industrial expansion, industrial agriculture, extractive industry and environmental pollution in creating the conditions for epidemics and pandemics.

Although the extent and length of the pandemic are hard to predict, its economic, social and political impacts are already becoming evident: lockdowns imposed in most countries have halted economic activities; unemployment is soaring as never before; serious non-Covid health conditions are not being treated; a food crisis is looming; and emergency powers assumed by many governments to tackle Covid-19 are being used to shrink democratic space and advance environmentally destructive investments. Given what we know today, unless we take appropriate actions now, we will reproduce in a post-Covid future, conditions for far worse disasters and crises.

This is a time when we, as the public, can start to transform our societies and countries towards equality by building solidarity and economic systems from the ground up that are in balance with nature. We must push for rebuilding strong public health systems, infrastructure for public goods and services, and social protection and security, with special provisions for those who are most vulnerable: the precariat, workers, migrants, small-scale food producers, indigenous peoples, and among them, women, the primary care providers. 

Corporations and financial markets must not be bailed out and corporate power must be dismantled, especially in all sectors crucial for public interest. Trade and investment should be reoriented away from extractivism and towards meeting local and national needs, with binding social, environmental and financial regulations. We cannot continue with industrial agriculture: we must move to agro-ecological systems, and end the assault on environments and ecosystems from our wasteful lifestyles.

Finally, we have to reclaim participatory democracy and ensure rights for all people (citizens or not) and ending life-threatening occupations, economic sanctions, and resource wars.

Shalmali Guttal is the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, an Asian activist think-tank.

 

Larry Sanders 

Larry Sanders
Larry Sanders

Part of the reason we are losing so many lives in the pandemic is because of the condition of our health and social care services before the virus. The ‘status quo’ is an NHS with a shortage of over 100,000 staff, with inadequate equipment, and nearly the lowest proportion of hospital beds to population in the industrial world. It was, is, an NHS fragmented by outsourced services, private beds in hospitals within and outside the NHS, compounded by severe underfunding and drained by the PFI rip-off. 

Social care was, is, almost entirely privatised to over 20,000 companies, mostly profit-making. Already inadequate public funding had been drastically cut over the past 10 years. For the first time in over 100 years the increase in average longevity has ceased; in poor parts of the country it has declined. The gap in years of life between rich and poor averages about 10 years, the gap in healthy years is nearly 20.

We are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people, has an unknown trajectory and that is being thoroughly mismanaged. The even larger emergency of climate crisis remains.

For over 40 years, income and wealth have been shifted from the majority to the very rich. This has been underpinned by an ideology that says that governments are the problem, not the solution, that there isn’t enough money, that people are poorly paid because they are not worth much. We now see that those ‘unskilled’ workers are the cornerstone of our society, who are making terrible sacrifices for us. 

My brother, Bernie Sanders, made an impact by showing the huge improvements a government dedicated to the majority could make. The US could have a generous universal health service, an end to involuntary unemployment through a ‘job guarantee’, an end to poverty through a ‘living wage’, free access to higher education, decent housing for all, renewable energy delivered by well paid, unionised workers, etc.

Most of these policies are embraced by the Green Party of England and Wales. For various reasons, including the right-wing media, a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system and our own weakness, that is not clear to the public.

The idea that we can’t afford these public goods has been shattered by the hundreds of billions created to combat the pandemic. 

We must not go back. Do we have the determination to go forward?   

Larry Sanders is the spokesperson on Health and Social Care for the Green Party of England and Wales.

 

Fatima Lasay 

Fatima Lasay
Fatima Lasay

Let me tell you about Liza and Marcy from Bohol, the Philippines.

The other day I set out for a local fiesta. But the event was cancelled because of the pandemic and so I decided to visit Liza's little closed loop backyard farm. Here, taro, banana, and cassava are all growing wild, sparse under an extended dry season. These serve as food for the fatteners. In turn, the fatteners provide dense, nutritious meat for the village.

Everybody was wearing face masks and social distancing when I arrived in Liza’s backyard, but it was like a fiesta. We butchered and cooked the pig, people shared and ate it, and we then gave the rest away. Liza has five children and two families living in her tiny household. Surrounded by edible plants and animals, her supply chain remains strong.

Things are very different for Marcy. Two years ago, she left Bohol to seek employment in the city. For her and many on our island, this was the way forward: a distance of no less than 500 miles, as far away as possible from a backward island life. But since lockdown, Marcy's "non-essential" contract work remains suspended for what seems like forever. She is watching her meagre resources dwindle while awaiting relief goods to arrive. Before sundown, each week, tenement residents put out plastic chairs by their doorsteps. City council workers then arrive, lay small bags of rice and tinned foods on the chairs as residents look on in observance of social distancing rules.

A week into city lockdowns, boredom has upended the novelty of "save lives, stay home". People are quarrelling over money from the government. Suddenly "middle class", "tax payers" and "amelioration" are the buzzwords. People inspect income classifications to check if they qualified for support and why their neighbours should not be.

A wave of social awareness rooted in old colonial structures is emerging and it is now high season for anti-poor sentiments in the Philippines. As we begin the widest social protection program ever launched, the country is quickly going into billions of dollars of debt from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The thought of money is flowing as supply chains break. Cities are falling apart, not from the virus, but from the very same desires that built those forts of bankrupt capitalism. 

Many people in our village think moving to the city now seems a much less attractive option.

Fatima Lasay is a subsistence farmer living on Bohol Island, Philippines. She breeds ducks, native chickens and pigs on a half-acre food forest in a village destined for urbanisation. Her previous work involved socio-political dimensions of art and technology.

++++++++++++

This editorial feature was put together by regular Green World contributor Alan Story of Sheffield.