Can Covid-19 become a game-changer?

One hopes that important lessons will be learnt from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis

Syed Mohammad Ali April 10, 2020
A doctor wearing a protective gear prepares to take a swab from a girl to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a residential area in Ahmedabad, India, April 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

The chaos unleased by Covid-19 has made apparent the foolhardy pursuit of neo-liberal policies around the world, which had been steadily undermining the vital public health and social infrastructure needed to combat challenges like a health pandemic.

For the past several decades, at the behest of international lenders, many developing countries around the world have also been pursuing austerity in the attempt to curb their fiscal deficits. This austerity has, however, not translated into curbing defence budgets, nor has it made taxation regimes more effective. Instead, we have seen a steady decline in public spending on health, education and other basic social services.

The assault on social services has not been confined to the developing world alone. Even rich countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have also witnessed a steady erosion of vital public sector institutions, including the health sector. Since 2015, the UK, for instance, has cut public health budgets by around $1.2 billion. The US, which spends trillions of dollars on its military, does not adequately fund public health, leaving over 20 million people in the country without medical insurance. The Trump administration has been trying its utmost to undo the attempts by Obama to address America’s healthcare challenges. President Trump was persistently trying to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Now, with America in the grip of Covid-19, the current administration has been compelled to set aside a staggering $2 trillion to combat the virus, yet the problem is still escalating.

In developing countries, Covid-19 related casualties have not yet spiked. Maybe the BCG vaccine to combat TB will prove to be a windfall for countries like our own where BCG vaccinations were widely administered. However, precautionary measures to implement social distancing in countries where millions of people depend on daily-waged labour to make ends meet have been haphazard and challenging. Consider, how Prime Minister Modi’s sudden announcement to implement a 21-day lockdown led millions of hapless migrant workers to flee the cities, often with no other choice but to walk back home.

Pakistan too has been caught unprepared. One hopes that the current situation will pass without inflicting too heavy a toll on the lives and livelihoods of already struggling people. Yet, the Covid-19 threat is by no means over, and even if a vaccine for it can be found, administering this vaccine in countries like our own will remain a challenge, where even polio is not eradicated, and hardly anyone gets the flu shot.

Covid-19 is an unpreceded catastrophic event that has exposed the lack of preparedness and resilience of an increasingly interconnected yet glaringly inequitable global economy. But it certainly won’t be the last. Yet, most governments, in rich and poor countries alike, are clearly not equipped to deal with global health pandemics, nor with the impending climate threats, which also have the potential to be similarly devastating.

One hopes that important lessons will be learnt from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Instead of propagating elitist economic policies, our governments need to pay more attention to the creation of adequate safety nets not only for the most vulnerable segments of society, but also for multitudes of working people now employed by the gig economy in richer countries, or in the informal sector within countries like our own. Social sector spending can no longer be conveniently scarified anytime that a country feels it needs to fiscally discipline itself. Ensuring human security is a much more pressing need than focusing on conventional security and defense capabilities.

One hopes that Covid-19 will compel governments around the world to take the threat of climate change and future global health threats more seriously, and that ordinary people will also begin to demand such changes, rather than being beguiled again by the populist agendas of opportunistic leaders.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2020.

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