Sunday, 4 April 2021
This latest issue of the Socdem Asia Quarterly appears a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic because of its “alarming levels of spread and severity.” Since then, the virus has infected more than 123 million people, and has claimed the lives of nearly 3 million individuals. But apart from its horrific death toll, the social consequences of the disease are also equally catastrophic—devastating even the strongest economies, heightening global inequality and plunging millions of people into ever deepening poverty.
In his July 18 Nelson Mandela Lecture, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres stated that “the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world” since humanity's progress in “eradicating poverty and narrowing inequality have been set back years, in a matter of months.” In fact, the UN's own estimates suggest that 400 million people from the developing world now form part of the “new poor,” with global poverty shifting towards South and East Asia.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria offers an equally grim prognosis, warning that COVID-19 will likely reverse a quarter of a century of economic gains and “return us to a world of great and widening global inequality.” In the previous year alone, the global economy shrank by 4.3%, thereby increasing the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The pandemic's economic effects are most strongly felt by those from the developing world, with their limited industrial base and fragile health systems. Because of the sheer disparity in resources, the deep divide between the Global North and the Global South has now become even more abysmal.
Nothing highlights this problem better than how the global supply of vaccines is currently being distributed. In a February 2 article, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus admitted that “rich countries with just 16 percent of the world's population have bought up 60 percent of the world's vaccine supply,” even as lower-income countries are “struggling to purchase enough doses to cover just 20 percent of the population.” Despite his urgent appeal to strengthen “the international community's ability to stop COVID-19,” it is unlikely that the WHO can immediately reverse the ongoing trend.
This, of course, is hardly surprising, for as David Harvey avers, our existing economic system “has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality.” Christina Sathyamala, a physician working for the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), also made a similar observation, stating that “in the context of COVID-19, the virus and capitalism have shown a remarkable propensity to nurture and cohabit as intimate bedfellows.”
Fortunately for us, we can always draw inspiration from Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru. “Crises,” he noticed, “have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.” This latest issue of the Quarterly illustrates what Pandit Nehru had in mind. The articles found in these pages not only describe how progressives are responding to the pandemic; they also examine how the world can be reshaped based on the principles of freedom, justice and solidarity. This present edition, therefore, continues the conversation that the Quarterly had begun in its previous issue—that of developing a roadmap towards a new social democratic normal.
We begin our issue with a think-piece from Filipino youth activist Justine Balane, which argues that the Philippine government's “priorities around a new normal are misaligned” since tax cuts are being given to corporate elites even as their workers “went on for months without aid.” Asserting that the “new normal should not be a 'neolib' normal,” Balane cites the examples of India, Hawaii, Spain and New Zealand to prove that ordinary workers are capable of self-management “through principles of community wealth-building.”
This aversion for market-led solutions is also shared by Faiz Mustafa who is pushing for “more equitable, redistributive taxation and welfare policies.” A member of Malaysia's Democratic Action Party (DAP), Faiz maintains that “the current crisis bares clear the flaws of the previous neoliberal policies,” as well as the need to “push the government to increase public expenditure, especially in the health sector.”
The ill effects of neoliberalism are strongly felt in Nepal where the private sector has considerable presence in the country's healthcare system. In his article, journalist Kamal Dev Bhattarai wrote that there is now a growing demand for greater public investment in health services, after several private hospitals refused admitting patients with corona-like symptoms.
A similar experience has also been observed in Indonesia where the government is now undertaking far-reaching reforms by providing citizens with healthcare insurance. According to Martin Manurung, a member of the Indonesian parliament, the pandemic has shown that “the market is not enough” and that a more interventionist state is required to adequately address the crisis. At the same time, the Jokowi administration, Manurung adds, has rolled out an ambitious stimulus program to create jobs, revive the country's industries, and “prevent the health crisis from becoming an economic crisis.”
Despite our contributors' unique experiences, they all agree that democratic governments are in the best position to address the pandemic. This is underscored in Cecilia Lero's comparative study of Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, and the United States under Donald Trump. Though these three leaders represent “the most emblematic cases of the current global wave of authoritarian populism,” Lero observes that they all “failed to adequately ameliorate the pandemic's devastating effects on vulnerable populations, especially the poor.”
This issue of the Quarterly is dedicated to the brave men and women who risking their lives to combat the pandemic. We also offer our thanks to all our readers who have been with us for the past eight years. Rest assured that Socdem Asia will not cease in providing you with the most cogent analyses on issues affecting the region, albeit in a much-improved form. This is our pledge and our mission.
See you all soon.