THE novel coronavirus spreading rapidly through the world represents an utterly historic moment. If the immediate task is to do all possible to ‘flatten the curve’, longer-term questions about the shape of the global political economy are equally important to think through.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that 18 months down the line — when a mass vaccine is expected to be available globally — we will resume business as usual (pun intended). Slowly but surely, MNCs and most nation states that preside over the capitalist world system will stealthily nurse us all back through a standard dose of ‘post-disaster reconstruction’.
Recent history suggests that this is possible; it was barely over a decade ago that the global financial crisis (GFC) exposed the brittle, crisis-ridden and polarising edifices of economic, political and cultural power that structure our lives. Marx was read widely again, the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements captured the imagination of a new generation of young people, and the term ‘crony capitalism’ was mainstreamed. And at the end of it all we got Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Sisi, Imran Khan and others whose leadership — or lack thereof — has been exposed, once and for all, over the past few weeks.
But COVID-19 can prove to be a very different shot in our collective arm. Historians use the term ‘contingency’ to refer to the outcomes in social life triggered by unpredictable events that end up shaping the future in profound ways. As we speak, people in Pakistan and the rest of the world are breaking out of their alienated shells to do whatever they can to stem the virus, offsetting ruling establishments without the ability or willingness to respond to a burgeoning human catastrophe.
COVID-19 can prove to be a different shot in our collective arm.
Scientists tell us that COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century epidemic, comparable to the Spanish flu of 1918-20, which claimed more than 50 million lives worldwide. Today, we have both the technology and means for collective action for all the world’s people to be healthy, educated, and live with dignity. Here is why more of us need to come forward to make this the contingent outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, Western powers that have ruled the world for so long now find themselves at the whims of a globalised system, the inherent crisis tendencies of which cannot be confined to ex-colonies and other peripheral regions. The relentless search for profit across borders explains the origins of the virus — industrial agriculture — along with its spread across the world. Powerful interests in China and beyond knew of COVID-19 in December, but the logic of profit-making trumped precautionary measures.
That the rich and powerful are calling this a global crisis betrays the everyday crises experienced by the poor, oppressed ethnic/racial communities, women and religious minorities in countries like ours. They navigate unaccountable states and brazen class privilege, let alone successive imperialist wars, perpetual state/non-state terror, and ecological breakdown. Capitalism as it plays out beyond the glam and glitter of shopping malls, gated housing communities and the fetish of commodities is a crisis, a scandal, a blot on our collective conscience. Indeed, in the event that the virus spreads in the slums, markets and farms of South Asia and Africa, the wretched of the earth will again carry the heaviest burden.
Second, even if this mass pandemic does not do as much damage as is feared, it is apparent that corporate agricultural and industrial practices along with a reckless financial sector will generate more existential moments whether pandemics, or fallouts, caused by global warming/climate change.
Third, the US, UK and other governments bailing out big business confirms that the ‘free market’ is a sham. Spain has nationalised private hospitals, France waived utility bills and Europe is in the throes of an unprecedented push for indiscriminate basic income schemes to get working people through impending economic recession. The fact that public health infrastructures in rich countries like the US, UK and Italy are buckling demolishes whatever claim to legitimacy neoliberalism had left.
The survival of the fittest mentality that dominates the world must give way to an organised politics to transform ourselves and the planet. For Pakistanis, March 23 represents an opportune moment for us to think through hegemonic notions of ‘national security’ which explain why our public health infrastructures are so poor, why atom bombs cannot help us now, and how we must move beyond the rentier logics that guide our establishment and its puppets.
On the one hand is the divide and rule of capitalism encapsulated in smears like ‘Chinese’ virus and officialdom in Quetta stigmatising the Hazara community. On the other are the politically conscious people now charged with discovering a truly global vaccine to the structural virus that is eating us alive.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2020