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The New Normal Should Be Pro-Worker

Network for Social Democracy in Asia Statement on International Workers' Day

The COVID-19 Pandemic has now reached a point of overwhelming the world’s health systems and spawning an economic crisis that will reverberate in the years to follow. Such a pandemic of this scale has not been seen since the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic. Despite the pandemic’s global reach, the most affected in terms of health risk and economic dislocation continue to be the working poor of the world. This pandemic has shone a light on a neglected crisis that has persisted for far too long: the crisis of inequality. This is reflected in two parallel currents of inequality that exists under the present conditions, on one hand the vast difference in resources mobilized against the pandemic between the Global North and Global South and on the other hand the inequality in the access to healthcare services between the rich and the poor that exists in these countries. The crisis has affected the working class the most and has shown the vulnerabilities that have existed prior to this pandemic.

As this pandemic continues to infect tens of thousands, world’s leading economies are also feeling the strain. This is leading to the dislocation of millions of the world’s workers to the brink of poverty. Many workers in the Global North can expect some form of wage subsidies from their governments but for the vast majority of the working poor, many who are in contractual work, informal sector work or who are migrant laborers, the pandemic and the stringent measures enacted to slow its spread have practically obliterated months’ worth of income and now threatens to send millions into poverty and hunger. Oxfam’s analysis puts the number of people threatened with hunger at 50 Million just in West Africa alone. The United Nation’s World Food Program further warns that an additional 130 Million worldwide could be pushed to the brink of starvation adding to the almost 1 Billion people who are already facing hunger or worse. Amid this crisis, huge bailouts and economic lifelines are being extended to the wealthiest corporations. And leading the way is the United States, the world’s largest economy, which is coincidentally also has the greatest number of infections.

This obscene inequality should not be tolerated with or without a pandemic threatening the world. It is clear that a multinational and comprehensive health response to this pandemic must also entail an equally ambitious intervention to address the huge inequality that has made our societies more vulnerable to pandemics and health crises.

Lack of Occupational Safety and Protection for Workers, Social Protections

Despite the gloomy prognosis for the next few months, the numerous solutions that have been taken are beginning to slow the spread of the virus. Moreover, essential services such as maintaining peace and order, delivery of foodstuff and medical supplies continue to reach their destinations. These essential services can only continue because health workers and front-line workers have accepted the risk to their health and safety. Governments and societies fitting show of gratitude is to ensure the occupational safety of these workers. Due to the lack of preparedness manifested in the early weeks of the pandemic, many governments scrambled and competed among each other to procure personal protective equipment (PPE). Hospitals and health centers were forced to ration health equipment and PPEs. In many cases, private individuals volunteered to create makeshift PPEs such as facemasks, face shields, and protective gowns to fill in the lack of supply. While admirable, ordinary citizens should not be the main source of PPEs, governments have the duty to provide sufficient PPEs for all health workers and front-line workers in essential services.

Moreover, these workers who are risking their lives should be provided adequate social protections. This must mean proper compensation, mandatory hazard pay and security of employment for these workers. We cannot ask them to endanger their lives and the lives of their families if it means also risking their employment and livelihood.

As this pandemic continues to place tens of millions on home quarantine or social distancing measures, workers in food delivery and transport play an important part in feeding millions. For them, this is not a simple “gig” as the gig economy would suggest. Risking their lives to deliver food and supplies spells the difference between having a job and starvation. Workers in these precarious employment arrangements deserve the security of employment and protection of rights. Workers in the informal sector and migrant workers have to contend the double burden of a health crisis and financial ruin because of lack of employment. Weak labor laws must be retooled to guarantee a minimum social protection for these most vulnerable sectors of society. This must include the revitalization of unions and increase in union membership where unions are already permitted, and legislation to protect workers and the right to organize in countries where such rights are severely curtailed. A true recovery from the pandemic can only be possible with raising the standard of living for workers and the poor and along with it the guarantee and protection of their rights.

Political and Economic Reform

Alongside the immediate protection for our workers, structural reform must also be put in place. Political and economic reform must also proceed. We must take a hard look at the political and economic institutions which have pushed us to this situation.

Now more than ever, democratization efforts are needed to extricate the vast majority of people especially those in autocratic and illiberal democracies from the dangers of continued authoritarianism and populist politics. As shown by responses from the world’s populist and authoritarian leaders, they have failed every metric of effective governance. Instead of listening to constructive criticism from health experts and public policy experts, such autocrats have taken to blaming critics for their inadequacies. In some cases, they have engaged in actual denialism and conspiracy theories thereby risking the lives of millions more. Some, have resorted to unleashing the might of state security forces to put people in check. In the Philippines, after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered security forces to shoot people who violate quarantine rules an army veteran suffering from a mental disorder was shot down by police officers. In Thailand, the military junta’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has used the pandemic to reintroduce sweeping censorship regulations to control the narrative on the pandemic in the country. In Mongolia, the government of President Khaltmaagin Battulga is leaning towards the imposition of emergency powers to address the crisis. In Burma, the military establishment has used the crisis to escalate military action and resume hostilities in ethnic territories. Meanwhile in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government response is to place more than 1 Billion people under a state of lockdown without adequate provision for their food while security forces have been shown to perpetrate violence against lockdown violators. This lack of transparency and impunity during a pandemic creates a situation for further consolidation and control for autocrats and is ripe for an escalation of abuse.

Instead of a proper response to this health crisis, autocrats are further emboldened to weaponize social distancing and quarantine measures as means to control their people. Violations of civil rights can be justified under the guise of a public health response. An effective solution to the pandemic cannot come out of a regime of abuse. The only viable solution is to foster greater transparency and accountability to allow the public to see the full effect of this health crisis beyond the government sanctioned numbers and to allow them to hold their leaders accountable if they failed in addressing or if they exacerbated the crisis.

While humanity will undoubtedly survive and thrive after this pandemic, the economic systems which have endangered millions and placed millions more vulnerable to economic ruin, starvation, and abuse should not be permitted to survive. Neoliberal capitalism and its proponents in the North and South have been responsible for severe policies of privatization, and austerity have gutted public health systems and pushed vital health services to become inaccessible to many. A public and universal health solution is incompatible with neoliberal economics. When economic systems are incentive to reward growth, public healthcare is relegated as another commodity that can be attached with a price. It also ensures that crises such as this become a recurring phenomenon. Such cyclical health and economic crises will take a huge toll in human life.

Future Economies and Polities built on democracy, human rights, solidarity and equality.

At this juncture of a health crisis and economic crisis, citizens and their leaders must exercise the political will to reorient and rearrange their economies. This is not unprecedented. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the United States through the New Deal reined in the excesses of its financial market and instituted a jobs program to employ millions in public works programs. Similarly, in post-war Britain, the Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee introduced groundbreaking policies in universal healthcare, accessible housing, and social security. All these policies were done during a period when their governments were still reeling from the aftereffects of economic crisis or war. Even as we speak, government across the globe have been deploying far-reaching relief packages for citizens, which just a few months ago would not be seen as practicable or logical by many.

Workers and the poor should no longer accept the excuse that such expansive social protections are too expensive and are a drain on the economy and national budgets when in fact they are investments on our citizens. Such arguments against social protection policies cannot be justified in times of economic growth when similar policies are being enacted during this time of crisis.

Elements of a future economic system must include:

1. A basic living wage. This will allow many poor workers the ability to lift their families from poverty. This must be set as the minimum standard for workers in the formal sector. Similar arrangements such as government subsidies for informal sector workers must also be extended. A minimum living wage will grant workers more freedom and access to goods and services. This will also serve to increase spending and consumption and thus hasten the recovery of many economies.

2. Universal social protection. A lifeline from governments must be extended to the most affected by the crisis. Those most at risk from the crisis must be given ample protection to survive not only the pandemic but also the looming economic crisis. Protections such as cash transfers, unemployment insurance, work programs, debt relief and other measures must be the minimum standards set in place as safeguards for future pandemics and economic crisis. Such protections must also include retraining and upskilling of workers as a fundamental right of workers to better adapt to the new economy we wish to build.

3. Universal health care. It is necessary to ensure that healthcare becomes a universally recognized right for all. Privatizing health care will only translate to greater disparity and inequality in terms of access to much needed medicine and treatment. A more humane health system must remove profiteering as a driving motive to save human lives. Instead such a health system will mobilize public funds and resources towards healthcare because it is treated as a public good rather than as a private commodity.

A future post-pandemic world must be characterized by solidarity, democracy, human rights, and equity for all people. The current crisis shows deep-seated flaws in our political and economic systems which worsen the pandemic. While the virus may not discriminate based on class, race, ethnicity, or gender, our responses to the pandemic are affected by those innate flaws. The working class are the most in danger of getting sick, going bankrupt, losing their jobs, and falling in debt. This 1st of May is a celebration of the struggles and victories of the workers movement in building a more humane and decent society. This occasion is made more meaningful as we grapple with the multiple challenges posed by this pandemic. The opportunity for creating a better future exists but it is only possible with collective action and persistent struggle. As progressives we know that is the only proven effective strategy and we must now make the decision to take it or let it pass.