Evaluating government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a point of reflection on the irrationality of populism as well as on dangers of neoliberal policies.
The COVID-19 crisis presents an unparalleled opportunity to expose the irrationality underlying the narratives of populist politicians.
Populists play on the lowest of human instincts, primarily the need for belonging, but first and foremost, fear. Such primitive tactics may help to win elections, but they prove useless, even dangerous, in the face of a public health crisis.
Shifting the blame onto the Chinese, as US President Donald Trump has done, is not going to stop the virus from spreading. Neither will his “predictions” that the virus will “miraculously disappear.” Letting the economy run as if nothing were happening is directly responsible for steep infection curves both in Turkey and Brazil. Besides, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the biggest advocate of the “herd immunity” strategy, has just finished working on his immunity in an intensive care unit.
Neoliberalism endangers public health systems
The danger of populist politicians lies in the divergence between the narrative those politicians create and the actions they take behind closed doors.
Britain’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, America’s Donald Trump, and France’s Marine Le Pen all claim to be working in the interest of “the people.” They back up their claim with aggressive cultural nationalism, while simultaneously selling their countries out to multinational corporations. The market, however, is unable to provide for the citizens, not only in times of a crisis.
The survival of ordinary citizens has been sacrificed to the market long before COVID-19 emerged—the privatization of healthcare has been taking a toll on lives and livelihoods. When the most vulnerable in the US fall ill, they face a dilemma: Homelessness or recovery. Sierra Leone has 0.2 doctors per 1,000 people, compared to 42 in Germany, as a result of a “structural adjustment” policy imposed on the country by the IMF in the mid-1990s.
That the economy needs to prevail at all costs is so crucial to populist politicians that they deny any scientific evidence that may harm their neoliberal policies.
In the case of climate change, an imminent yet long-term existential threat, it is enough to fund some “scientific” denial research. COVID-19, however, is lurking at everybody’s door at this very second, and this time, hushing up scientists as “undermining the president’s pronouncements” is immediately visible to the public and, as a result, renounced. The public demands to be taken care of in a timely, responsible manner.
Dealing with COVID-19 brings about significant changes in the perception of responsible governance. Governments are now torn between the need to ensure their citizens’ safety and continuous economic growth. Both the governors and the governed start to realize that a responsible government must focus on people, not on profit-making. The connectivity of a globalized world is also finally noticed as an integral part of contemporary supply chains.
Social inequalities threaten public security
Social inequalities have always existed but it is now that the mainstream public realizes they pose a danger to public security. On some level, society is as safe as its most vulnerable members.
Areas that receive less governmental attention are faced with little to no healthcare and as a result, they act as infection hubs. In these areas—neighborhoods inhabited by the poor, the ethnic minorities, the precariously employed—disproportionate numbers will die. Underprivileged areas will help to spread the virus since the more people get infected, the higher chance that the virus will be contracted.
Meanwhile, workers that go unnoticed in “normal” times are now praised worldwide. “Essential workers,” cashiers, crop harvesters, first responders, janitors, food suppliers, and medical staff, are at the core of keeping the world population healthy and nourished.
“Essential workers” usually exist in a precarious economic situation that would not allow them to stop working—they are cogs in the wheel of systemic oppression.
Today, the dangerous absurdity of their precarious employment is denounced. Essential as they are, the workers are at an enormous risk of catching and contracting the virus. The reward for their services is meager: Their livelihoods remain precarious due to the lack of a safety net enjoyed by the less “essential” yet more influential, wealthier workers.
Similarly, the migrant workers that are usually the scapegoat of the ultra-nationalist paradigm of populist politicians are now gaining recognition. From Moroccans and Tunisians in Spain and France to Eastern Europeans in the UK, seasonal workers are crucial for the global food supply chain.
This year, the worldwide agriculture industry faces an unprecedented challenge: There is nobody to harvest the crops since the borders are shut. The populist order is turning upside down with Mexican border protests against American entries and British firms flying in Eastern European workers on charter planes.
The market will not provide, the government will
COVID-19 makes global communities realize that the neoliberal mantra of “the market will provide for the citizens” is nothing more than a dangerous myth. Market deregulation means that governments effectively sell out big chunks of their power to multinational corporations. In times of a crisis, however, multinational corporations crumble just like any other market-driven force.
A worldwide network of multinational companies’ owners, the ultra-rich, is precisely “the establishment” that populist politicians appear to be so strongly against. Yet, it is their interests that they primarily serve, not those of “the people.”
Lowering corporate tax does not “bring investment” to the country, it strips the country of the revenues it could be spending on public services. Similarly, lowering social or environmental regulations does not “attract foreign investment” but allows corporations to destroy the fragile systems and exploit people in the name of the ever-growing economic growth.
Governments have the upper hand in dictating the terms of market agreements and they should not hesitate in using it. Essential services, such as healthcare, should always remain public. Essential workers should not face precarious employment since it is their job to keep the crucial global supplies flowing, not that of CEOs or Wall Street traders.
There seems to be a common notion in the “West” that governments claiming their responsibilities are “socialist.” The words seem to have an almost-equal negative connotation. It needs not to be forgotten that the public relations sector has been yet another evil-genius neoliberal invention, and that it extends beyond advertising what we should eat for breakfast—to shaping our political perceptions.
Towards a more empathetic world
Since the beginning of the crisis, there have been various signs of solidarity among nations and individuals alike, signs that indicate that the world can turn in a more empathetic direction. The challenge will be to maintain these developments after COVID-19 has joined the ranks of known, curable diseases.
Populist politicians faced enormous backlash both at home and internationally due to their ineffective tackling of COVID-19. Their irrationality has been exposed and hopefully, COVID-19 will lead to their popularity rates entering a freefall.
What a contrast it is to hear Angela Merkel admitting that 70% of the German population is likely to catch the virus against Donald Trump playing down the risk as “very, very low” in the same period. A month later, Germany has flattened its curve and is dealing with the crisis, the US has the highest—and growing—number of infections and deaths worldwide.
The global geopolitical order is experiencing monumental changes catalyzed by the outbreak of the pandemic. While China has been sending medical equipment all over the globe—admittedly sparking a number of controversies—the US administration is busy securing its supplies, not always in a clean-handed way. The EU’s inability to come up with a unified response to the pandemic has sealed its fate as a crumbling union.
The precariously employed, the lower part of the 99%, are recognized as the workers whose input secures the survival of the global population. The wave of individual support for “essential workers”, especially for medical staff, has been tremendous.
Restaurants and hotels provide free meals and accommodation to hospital personnel, groups of students organize to care for the children of medical staff, and citizens trapped in their houses applaud healthcare workers. Such recognition should be followed up with appropriate policies ensuring that the precariously employed are included in the welfare systems on an at least equal footing as the “non-essential” workers.
The lesson learned about listening closely to scientists should be thought about and applied to other pressing issues, such as the climate crisis. The “denialists” of COVID-19 have been quickly denounced because their claims can be debunked immediately.
It is time that the signs spread out all over the world—wildfires, heat waves, smog, melting ice caps, biodiversity loss—are given as much weight as the growing number of COVID-19 infections. The signs of climate change, too, signify a global health crisis that will get out of control if scientific advice is not followed.
The signs for an empathetic change are already here. We now need to grasp and hold on to them firmly in order to build a post-COVID-19 world where people profit off policies, not where policies make a profit off people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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