Building the New Normal: A Social Democratic Roadmap
Last November 9, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its experimental vaccine against COVID-19 has shown significant results, with an efficacy rate of 90%. Though clinical trials are still ongoing, the company's CEO, Dr. Albert Bourla, appeared well-pleased with the development, stating that they are now “a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis.” A week later, biotech firm Moderna also reported that its own serum proved 94.5% effective against the deadly disease and that it will soon seek the approval of health regulators in the United States.
These two announcements were made almost a year after the world was first informed about the virus, which has now claimed the lives of more than a million people. The results of the trials were naturally met with a mixture of excitement and relief, raising hopes that the pandemic could soon end, and that people's lives can finally return to normal.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) remains cautious, maintaining that it would take months, if not years, before the vaccine can be made available to the rest of the world. This was underscored by Dr. Edward Kelly, head of WHO's Service Delivery Department, stating that four million new cases were reported on the same week that Pfizer made its breakthrough announcement. He further added that, “we will have more of those weeks before the vaccine is out there.” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is equally circumspect, reminding the public to still “use the tools we have to interrupt the chains of transmission and save lives now.”
Such prudence is not completely unfounded. Experts agree that if the vaccine's development goes according to schedule, then the first batch of doses can be made available by the end of this year. Unfortunately, this initial supply will not even be enough to cover all the 320 million adults living in the United States, much more Asia's 4.6 billion population. Health officials are, therefore, asking the public to manage their expectations, especially since mass vaccination can only begin in earnest by 2021.
And if, perchance, the vaccine becomes widely accessible, then the world will still have to deal with the pandemic's social consequences and its continuing toll on the most vulnerable. Conservative estimates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, suggest that 90 million people will fall into extreme poverty as the global economy contracts by 4.4%. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has an equally dire forecast, as 245 million full-time employees are expected to be laid off in the last quarter of 2020.
The problem is particularly acute in the developing world, where already-fragile healthcare systems are now being overwhelmed by the ongoing pandemic. In fact, as early as July, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had already pointed out that ICU beds in the 20 poorest countries will be filled to capacity once 0.4% of their population gets infected by the virus. However, even if the most stringent measures are put in place, the UN agency warns that the infection rate is still expected to rise to a high of 2.5%.
And apart from its health impact, COVID-19's social repercussions will be particularly painful for the people of the Global South who, for decades, have been suffering from economic mismanagement and authoritarian abuse. With the global economy grinding to a standstill, the developing world is likely to lose US$220 billion in income, while public debt could soar to US$3.4 trillion in the next two years.
For Asia, it would mean between 109 million to 167 million in job losses, or 69% of global unemployment. It would also drag 56 million people into extreme poverty, who will then be forced to survive on US$1.90 (or even less) each day.
All these data, however, point to one troubling reality: that while the pandemic is universally felt, its social impact is unevenly distributed.
This was pointed out by Daniel Susskind, an economist from Oxford University, who argued that the “striking variations in COVID-19 infections and outcomes reflect existing economic inequalities.” It is a view that is shared by German parliamentarian Michelle Müntefering, noting that COVID-19 is “above all a socio-political challenge” since “it is precisely the weakest who are hit hardest.”
COVID-19 is therefore the supreme paradox of our time. While the pandemic continues to disrupt the growth and flow of capitalism, it is also reproducing the social inequalities that are inherent in that system.
If humanity is to overcome this virus, then it is not enough that we return to how things were. Instead, we must craft a new way of life that is based on freedom, solidarity and social justice. As Indian novelist Arundhati Roy reminds us, this pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,” for it has “forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.”
This issue of the Socdem Asia Quarterly seeks to imagine that new world by gathering some of today's leading progressive thinkers. The articles that we have gathered not only remind us of what has been, but also offer glimpses of what could be.
We begin this issue with a think-piece from Malaysian legislator, Liew Chin Tong. Describing the pandemic as a “once-in-a-century political, economic and health triple crisis,” Liew calls for the creation of one million jobs to “cushion the economic fallout of COVID-19.” This can be done, he argues, if the government focuses its spending on job creation, which would put money in the hands of ordinary Malaysians and boost consumer spending. Liew, however, cautions that growth should not be pursued for its own sake, but should instead be a means to “achieve socially desirable outcomes that we cherish.”
While Filipino journalist Rene Ciria-Cruz agrees with Liew that the current crisis is an opportunity to “build back better,” he also argues that the pandemic is not “an inevitable prelude to a better order.” Focusing his analysis on the Philippines, Ciria-Cruz asserts that “coronavirus infections will not suddenly vanish, even with the availability of an effective vaccine” because of the country's “longstanding social inequalities.”
To address this dilemma, Filipino progressives must have a “determined effort to provide free or low-cost vaccination for all,” and ensure the “continued deployment of flexible preventive measures.” But the long-term solution, according to Ciria-Cruz, is to have “durable social safety nets funded by redistributive taxation” which will protect all citizens “from the vicissitudes of the temperamental market economy.”
We turn our attention to Thailand in the next article by Chaiwat Wannakhot, Suphalak Bumrungkit and Sustarum Thammaboosadee. Written in the midst of the largest protest demonstrations in Bangkok since the military coup of 2014, the authors underscore the suffering that has been brought about by COVID-19—with millions of workers now forced to accept depressed wages, while new college graduates face unpaid student loans and job insecurity.
To ease their people's burden, Wannakhot and his colleagues propose that a “universal social welfare policy from womb to tomb” be established, which includes universal child support, universal pension for all senior citizens, and a universal basic income of not less than US$100 per month. To fund this radical welfare scheme, the authors propose imposing a Net Wealth Tax, which will be collected from the total property value of every individual. They further assert that “democratic socialism is the only way for the country” since it will “reduce the population's vulnerability and enhance the power of workers to bargain with entrepreneurs.”
Developing a viable ideological alternative is further explored by Joel Rocamora in his essay on Akbayan Party. Formed in 1998, Akbayan was already undergoing a process of refundacione when the pandemic began. This provides the party, Rocamora argues, with “a better position to push new, more radical ideas” by “putting neoliberal economic policies, including globalization, into question.” He further points out that COVID-19 has not only “forced conservative groups to confront the consequences of key elements of the neoliberal canon,” but it has also shown that “only the state has the authority and the resources to deal with a crisis like this.”
We then close this issue with an essay from Australia's former Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan. Since gaining power in 2016, conservatives have launched a vicious campaign to roll back the social measures that were enacted during the previous Labor government. They did so, according to Swan, because of their fundamental belief in austerity and “small government.” However, they were forced to reverse course after witnessing “the biggest drop in global demand since the Great Depression,” as a result of the pandemic. This move, Swan suggests, not only exposes the utter bankruptcy of conservative ideology, but it also highlights the simple fact that we are all “socialists in a pandemic.”
Without doubt, we have yet to attain our vision of a post-pandemic world, but the ideas contained in these pages could lead to a good start.