After the pandemic: the “what”, the “how” and the “who”

03.04.2020 - Buenos Aires, Argentina - Guillermo Sullings

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After the pandemic: the “what”, the “how” and the “who”

There is much debate about what the world will be like after the pandemic, and we really don’t even know when that will be. It may be that in some countries contagion will peak in a few weeks and then decline, but simultaneously contagion may advance in other nations. We also don’t know if there will be new outbreaks where everything was supposed to be under control. This is a phenomenon that is still developing, and the consequences in the economic and political aspect, which to date are already more serious than those of the 2008 crisis, will ultimately depend on the length of time and the location of the greatest havoc.  But if we insist on thinking about what the day after will be like, we will be able to observe some indicators of cracks in the system, which if they go deeper will lead to some winds of change.

From the political point of view, we must distinguish between the crisis of the system and the crisis of leadership. The late or non-existent reaction of a number of leaders to prevent contagion does not seem to be exclusive to right-wing politicians such as Trump (USA), Johnson (UK) and Bolsonaro (Brazil), because Lopez Obrador (Mexico) has also minimized the issue, even if reality then forces them all to deal with it. It would be a mistake then to focus criticism on individuals because in an emergency situation, characters from all sides can be hero or villain. Suffice is to say that in the Second World War, the emergence of the fight against Nazism made heroes of three leaders as diverse as the communist Stalin, the ultra-conservative Churchill and the Keynesian democrat Roosevelt.

We must focus on the crisis of the system and not on the contradictions of circumstantial leaders; and in that sense it is very evident that the neoliberal policies of the last decades have significantly deteriorated healthcare systems, abandoning them to the logic of the market. In this logic, healthcare for the majority is not profitable, prevention is not profitable, and healthcare infrastructure designed for exceptional occasions such as this would not be profitable either. Consequently, all politicians who have promoted or upheld neoliberalism are responsible for the collapse of healthcare, regardless of the level of response they can now provide in the face of the emergency. Looking for analogies, let us say that, if a child’s parents were so unsympathetic and violent as to hurt them and risk their lives, but then alarmed, reacted by taking them to a hospital where they would save their lives, would these parents deserve our applause for that last action or our condemnation for their previous behaviour? Would we assume that after such an eventuality they would change their attitude? Or, would we assume that sooner or later they would repeat their behaviour?

Comparisons are often made between the current pandemic and previous ones suffered by humanity. Surely the mortality rates will be lower now, but the world has reacted in a way that was never seen before. Activities have been paralysed and the media is talking about nothing else. This is not only because interconnectivity globalizes panic, but also because advances in medicine allow us to position ourselves differently in the face of disease.  In other times, pandemics were assumed to be fatal, as far away from human will as an earthquake or a hurricane, and only death or a miracle could be expected; whereas now we expect and demand the healthcare system to protect us. That is why when some leaders have suggested that the economy should not be stopped by quarantines, and that the virus should be accepted as a natural force, public opinion has rejected them and pressured them to take charge.

Well, this public opinion should also demand that from now on, once the emergency is over, nation states really take care of the population’s health, for which it will be necessary to abandon neoliberal policies. The ground seems to be fertile for such changes, because many of those who previously shared the neoliberal discourse now value state intervention in healthcare and the economy.

However, this is not the first time that majorities have questioned neoliberal policies. The permanent concentration of wealth and the recurrent financial collapses caused by speculators have already given rise to widespread questioning. Global warming and ecological disaster have already unleashed criticism of predatory and consumerist capitalism. Today there are renewed voices of rejection of the system and hope that everything will change; some are looking for similarities with the Black Death of the 14th century, when a third of the European population died which marked the end of feudalism and the beginning of the Renaissance. There is now talk of the end of capitalism; but in truth, the end of capitalism has been predicted for more than a century, and it has overcome all its crises, while other alternative systems were collapsing.  We will have to understand very well what is being proposed as its replacement, how it will be implemented, and who will be capable of carrying it out, if we hope that this moment will be a turning point in history, because it will not happen mechanically.

In terms of the “what” and the “how”, as far as the action of governments is concerned, we have already developed it extensively in other writings: Mixed Economics[1], in which the State has a fundamental coordinating role, forcing the productive reinvestment of profits, taking charge of the financial system, and fundamentally guaranteeing a basic income, healthcare and education. Let us then analyse the concept of “who”.

It should be clear to people that we cannot continue to support those who maintained neoliberal policies before the pandemic, because when the pandemic has passed, they will propose that we return to “normality”; the normality of the dictatorship of the market, of debt and the concentration of wealth. Possibly they will deliver some investments in the area of health, so that we believe that they have learned their lessons, but everything will continue as before and even worse, because surely the financial power will have used the crisis to take possession of devalued companies at a despicable price, it will have indebted even more governments and people and the enchainment with those bloodsuckers will be total. We saw this already in the financial crisis of 2008, when governments went into debt in order to rescue the banks while people lost their homes, accelerating the global debt that today represents three times global GDP.

Nor can we lose our way by allowing nationalism to continue to advance. This risk will grow as long as the closure of borders is prolonged over time and the limitations on movement for preventive health reasons favour the increase of xenophobia and authoritarianism of those who aspire to a controlling state.  But just as extreme crises can be exploited by disastrous leaders, there are also opportunities for the emergence of better models, the general intentions and objectives of which people will resonate with and should support, while avoiding becoming entangled in disintegrating perfectionism.

In any case, either to change governments, or to demand a substantial change of course from them, it will be necessary for people to carry out their own cultural transformation.  Because the culture of individualism and consumerism has been a necessary condition in order for savage capitalism to organize society according to its interests. But today the pettiness of that individualistic culture is more evident when contrasted with the greatness of other behaviours that have emerged in the midst of crisis: the revaluation of life and health over the economy; the multiple manifestations of collective solidarity; the recognition of healthcare professionals who take risks on everyone’s behalf; the collective feeling of a common cause. These are all experiences that connect us to a new sensibility, and when shared by people all over the planet, it becomes a very powerful phenomenon. Of course, this new sensitivity of solidarity is not something new, but has been growing gradually for some time, especially among the younger generations, in women’s collectives and numerous movements that fight for their rights; but now this crisis can act as a catalyst so that the social balance finally leans towards solidarity, leaving individualism in the minority until one day it will be only the bad memory of a society that was mentally ill.

We could ask ourselves whether we ordinary people can do more to contribute to that change, in addition to demonstrating signs of the above mentioned sensibility. In this sense, and returning to the “what” and the “how”, but at a grassroots level, anything we can do to disseminate these experiences, which bring out the best in human beings in various corners of the world, will contribute to collective cohesion. Everything we can do to spread ideas and organizational tools will help to consolidate networks in the social fabric.  Everything we can do to help others on a psychological and spiritual level, to overcome fear, isolation, depression, emptiness, and other collateral consequences of the pandemic, will contribute to solving personal problems from a non-individualistic perspective.

But in addition to contributing to the emergence of a new Collective Consciousness based on shared experiences, it will be important to complete it with images of the future, so that this human convergence does not fade after the pandemic and becomes meaningful in the construction of a new world, with real democracy, with an equitable and sustainable economy, with a new international order of solidarity, and without violence or discrimination.

Nothing better than a dream to get out of the nightmare.

[1] Sullings, G (2015) Economia Mixta: Más allá del capitalism (Mixed economics: Beyond Capitalism), 2nd edition. Santiago: Virtual Ediciones

Categories: Economics, Health, International, Opinions
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