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Combatting COVID-19: A Social Democratic Response

Sunday, 14 June 2020

There is a scene in the novel The Plague by French author Albert Camus that would break even the stoutest of hearts.

For nearly six months, a bubonic outbreak had been ravaging the port city of Oran, off the Algerian coast. Though troubled by the death and suffering of the people around him, town physician Dr. Bernard Rieux decided to “steel himself against pity,” believing that it was the only way he could face the “almost unendurable burden of his days.”

But his own deep humanity began to show when a little boy named Philippe contracted the fatal disease. Desperate to save the child's life, Rieux had Philippe inoculated, injecting him with an untested serum that was meant to arrest the spread of the infection...but to no avail.

For an entire day, Rieux stood helplessly at the foot of Philippe's bed, watching in silence as the boy gritted his teeth and tossed his body in utter agony. With every convulsion, Rieux tightened his grip on the bed railing, hoping to stem the tide of grief and anger welling up inside him.

For a moment, the child seemed to grow calmer, even as his “clawlike fingers” continued to pluck at the sides of the bed. Then, without warning, the boy let out a long guttural scream, like a “fierce, indignant protest” that “has sounded through the ages of mankind.”

Horrified by what he was witnessing, Rieux closed his eyes and averted his face. But as he did so, the child suddenly fell silent, his now lifeless body half-buried beneath a pile of tumbled blankets that smelled of stale sweat and dank wool.

Defeated by the plague, Rieux turned to the door and walked out into the yard. Standing beneath the shade of a small tree, Rieux declared in a calm yet unwavering voice that, “until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

Though written nearly 80 years ago, Camus' novel has gained renewed urgency and significance because of the viral pandemic that is now threatening the lives of millions of people, including children. Dubbed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as COVID-19, this deadly disease was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 and has since spread to 215 countries. WHO estimates that as of  June 1 of this  year, the virus has already infected over six million people and has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 individuals. 

Further data reveal that children, between 0 to 17 years old, comprise about 2% of all positive cases. While this number may seem negligible, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns that 1.2 million children below 5 years old could still die within the first 6 months of the pandemic — not from COVID-19, but from other communicable diseases that are no longer given adequate attention by public health officials.

Measles, the UN agency claims, is one stark example. Because of the disruption in routine healthcare delivery, UNICEF believes that 117 children could miss out on their anti-measles vaccine in at least 37 countries. Unfortunately, halting this trend is nearly impossible in the immediate future.

But apart from the health danger that it brings, COVID-19 also has painful economic repercussions that will surely affect working class families in every part of the globe. For Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO), this means the loss of livelihood for 1.6 billion people in the informal sector, while another 305 million regular employees are forced out of work. And as the global economy slows down, experts foresee that between 40 to 60 million people will be added to the 734 million who are already living in extreme poverty.

Without doubt, the pandemic is affecting people from all walks of life. But it has not, in any way, erased the social divisions and economic injustice that are encoded within the very marrow of capitalism. In fact, even as COVID-19 continues to devastate the lives and livelihood of ordinary folks, the wealthiest 1% still retain control of 50.1% of global wealth. And while authorities constantly remind the public to perform regular handwashing, there are still 2 billion people worldwide who have no access to service facilities, forcing them to use feces-contaminated water.

Catrina Schläger of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), also pointed out that “this virus is not gender neutral” since women remain largely invisible despite the additional burden that they must now carry, both at work and in the home.

Let there be no mistake! COVID-19 should be viewed primarily as a health emergency. But the pandemic has social and political dimensions that cannot and should not be ignored. Political analyst Marc Saxer said it best:

Like a spotlight, the corona crisis is illuminating the geopolitical, economic and ideological fault lines of our time.

If humanity is to overcome this crisis, then a progressive and holistic response has to be devised in order to address all the various aspects of the pandemic. On this question, the proposal of social democrats is crystal clear: workers and all other affected groups must be shielded from the pandemic's economic fallout through extensive social   protection measures. Doing so would require the complete repudiation of neoliberal prescriptions, with massive public investments for the health sector and a renewed regulatory role for the state.

It is in this light that we offer this special issue of the Socdem Asia Quarterly. Contained in its pages are six articles from leading thinkers and activists that provide grounded analysis on COVID-19, its impact on the region, and the actions that are being undertaken by Asian social democrats to control the spread of the virus.

This is evident in the opening essay of Aung Moe Zaw, chairperson of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), which examines the COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP) of the Myanmar government. Inaugurated in April, CERP's overall goal is to “leave no one behind” and to “flatten the curve without flattening the economy.” But as Aung Moe Zaw points out, relief efforts have largely focused on Burman-majority areas, while other ethnic groups — such as the Rakhine, Chin, Kachine and Shan peoples — are almost ignored. To ensure that no one is truly left behind, Aung Moe Zaw sees the need to “address the root causes of poverty and vulnerability in Myanmar,” and by giving workers, farmers and urban poor greater responsibility in CERP's implementation.

Six thousand kilometers to the south, Indonesia is also undertaking efforts to control the disease, with the Jokowi administration allocating an additional US$27.5 billion to stimulate the economy and improve the health sector. While lauding the government for this decision, Sondang Tarida Tampubolon of Nasdem Party admits that much work still needs to be done to fully overcome the social dislocation caused by COVID-19. Particularly hit are small entrepreneurs and daily wage earners who are the backbone of Indonesia's economy. Hoping to improve the response of the government, Tampubolon shares the policy proposals of Nasdem Party, which are meant to fight the pandemic “in a progressive and comprehensive way.”

Meanwhile, the situation in India remains disconcerting, with 1.3 billion people heavily affected by the three-month long lockdown. According to Sachin Kumar of the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, the central government's initial response to COVID-19 was largely ineffectual since “the country was ill-equipped to conduct disease surveillance and containment.” Their predicament was further worsened by India's “dismal record of expenditure in public healthcare,” which has resulted in “severe lack of testing facilities, ventilators, health professionals, isolation wards and personal protective equipment.”

Ironically, along with the devastation that it is causing, COVID-19 is also changing the political landscape of the sub-continent. Kumar writes that, “in a country where elections are fought along the fault lines of caste and religion, the availability of universal healthcare may (eventually) assume center stage.” In fact, positive changes are now occurring at the state level, with various sub-national governments investing heavily on healthcare reform.

One good example is the “Kerala model” which, according to senior scholar S. Irudaya Rajan, “provides enough lessons for emulation in moving towards a post-COVID world.” Because of the Nipah virus of 2018, Kerala has gained considerable experience in managing a viral outbreak. This has enabled state authorities to anticipate the spread of the virus, prepare its healthcare workers, and impose preventive measures days ahead of the central government in New Delhi. Another advantage that Kerala has is its “strong sense of social citizenship backed by a (long) history of social movements.” As a result, the government was able to mobilize local women's groups to deliver food rations and manufacture face masks, while other civil society organizations conducted various information drives. All these efforts are being undertaken, not only to keep Keralites safe from the virus, but to also cushion the inevitable economic impact of COVID-19.

Similarly, the Malaysian economy is also expected to contract, with approximately 2.4 million in job losses. This has prompted Dr. Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen (a member of parliament from Sarawak) and Fong Ren Ming (of the Democratic Action Party) to raise the issue of universal basic income. Because the health crisis has exposed “the holes in social security” and has “demonstrated the vulnerability of workers in precarious jobs,” the two authors maintain that the idea of universal basic income should be “at the core of a philosophical debate about a post-COVID-19 model.” This idea, Yii and Fong assert, is not farfetched as it seems, since “numerous voices are (now calling) for a universal basic  income mechanism,” including Pope Francis and Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. The authors also look to Spain as a possible model since it has already proposed a basic income scheme, wherein each adult is set to receive at least €462 (US500) every month.

Just like their Malaysian counterparts, Filipino activists Sabrina Gacad and Gus Cerdeña also propose a progressive approach in handling the pandemic. Assessing the performance of the Duterte administration with a feminist lens, Gacad and Cerdeña argue that “governance is care work,” since it is meant to facilitate the “wellbeing of people.” In the context of COVID-19, care work involves “care for the people who are infected and those at risk of infection; care for the carriers; and, care for the structurally disenfranchised and those on the cusp of poverty.”

However, the two authors observe that Filipino officials “often mistake 'law and order' solutions as real responses to the problem.” This mindset has often led the authorities to arrest people for curfew violations, even as “the promised mass testing remained low and slow,” and with personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health workers in dangerously short supply. This situation, Gacad and Cerdeña explains, is “not unique to the Philippines,” since it is “symptomatic of a global crisis of care due to patriarchal capitalism.” If we are to overcome the virus, the two authors propose that we must first “break the spread of helplessness on the streets,” so that we can gain the “social power and solidarity” that would compel the government to finally take action.

The case of the Philippines is further examined by Jaye dela Cruz-Bekema of Akbayan Party, who describe Rodrigo Duterte's response to the pandemic as “militaristic, punitive, and anti-poor.” She points out that the Filipino President is behaving like most authoritarian leaders who, after initially “downplay(ing) the anticipated effects of the virus,” is now peddling the message that “only two options are possible: ironfisted authoritarianism or fatal exposure to the virus with no cure.” Bekema, however, dismisses Duterte's argument as a false dichotomy, claiming that a “rights-based progressive approach” is still “the best and most durable path out of this global health crisis.”

This issue then ends with Socdem Asia's official statement on the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic, the document asserts, “has taken a huge toll on the incomes of working people everywhere,” with the poorest segments of society “bearing the full brunt of this crisis.” Decades of neoliberal policies, the statement also insists, “has resulted in inequality in health services” that has left public health institutions “overworked and underfunded.”

Because the pandemic has exposed the terrible flaws “in our models of healthcare and economy,” Socdem Asia believes that radical changes should now be introduced that would ensure universal healthcare, right to housing and livelihood protection. For the short-term, the Network sees the importance of extending social safety nets to all working class families, as well as the necessity of providing emergency cash transfers to the poor. At the same time, Socdem Asia maintains that “a global response is necessary,” since “this crisis warrants greater international solidarity (and) not less.”
And that idea of international solidarity is abundantly clear in this issue of the Quarterly. While each article is written with a unique voice and perspective, all our authors nonetheless share the same concern for suffering humanity and the same passionate commitment to social justice. And it is that same concern and commitment that once compelled Camus to write:

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this; there are sick people and they need curing.”


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