Beyond the disease

Mar 25 2020


Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

‘STOP the world — I want to get off’ was a mildly amusing meme some decades ago. In recent weeks, the world has indeed steadily been grinding to a halt in many respects. But, naturally, no one can get off. We are all in it together.

It may sound contradictory, but in these unexpected times, isolation and solidarity go hand in hand. Isolation because, for the time being, it seems to be the best way to avoid contracting, or passing on, Covid-19. Solidarity because where would we be without it?

Sure, there has been no shortage of egregious displays of selfishness. A bunch of US senators, for instance, who were privy to intelligence about what lay ahead, sold off their stocks before the market tanked. On a far broader scale, across many countries, we have witnessed mass outbreaks of panic-buying — whereby shortages of basic foods and other essentials become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of them are merely hoarding, thereby leaving others — many of whom have little or no savings — to gaze in dismay at empty supermarket shelves. The ulterior motives go further in some cases, though, where the primary intent is to stock up on goods that can subsequently be vended at far higher rates than their previous market value.

The profiteering is not restricted to individuals.

Inevitably, this kind of profiteering is not restricted to individuals. An obvious counterpoint is public outbursts of gratitude for and solidarity with professions dedicated to mitigating the crisis and providing a path forward, from nurses, doctors and other health professionals to other employees in essential services, from transport to retail, all too often derided as ‘unskilled’, and, perhaps above all, the cleaners who crucially help to keep the deadly virus at bay in any number of environments.

It is somewhat heartening to see how many governments have been persuaded to suddenly turn their neoliberal ideological inclinations on their head and reach out to some of the most vulnerable segments of society with stimulus and rescue packages.

At the same time, some of them are finding it hard to shed their devotion to big business. In what is still the world’s largest economy, for example, a key bill was being held up at the time of writing because there was no bipartisan consensus in the US Senate over whether its large corporations or vulnerable families are more worthy of generous handouts.

It is nonetheless striking how government policies in many instances have pivoted to what was deemed unthinkable just a couple of months ago. In Britain, the Conservative government appears to have heeded the advice, as set out in a recent article in the right-wing Spectator magazine by ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, to “borrow from [Jeremy] Corbyn’s playbook to prevent a coronavirus crash”. In the US, some of the official initiatives are broadly in line with what relatively radical Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were until last month being ridiculed for proposing. They do not quite extend to universal healthcare, but the case for that measure has seldom been stronger.

Unfortunately, none of this necessarily guarantees that the post-Covid-19 world, whenever we get there, will differ substantially from the status quo ante. Right now, beyond the fringes of the far right, there are hardly any voices militating against ‘big government’ and ‘nanny states’. But that is no reason to assume that largely unregulated corporate capitalism, unlike all too many of its victims, is on life support.

There is anyhow more than one way of looking at the pre-eminence of the state when it comes to the crunch. Authoritarian tendencies can in some circumstances be life-savers. Public obedience in the face of official restrictions will likely turn out to have played a crucial role in limiting the number of casualties in countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore. But once the current exigencies are a thing of the past, will the instruments of mass surveillance and public control stay in place? Will governments with authoritarian tendencies relax their controls once the threat has dissipated?

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively sought to suspend democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, Viktor Orban is seeking sanction to rule by decree. On the other hand, though, the arguments against instituting public good at public expense — be it in respect of combating climate change or making sure everyone has adequate shelter and enough to eat — along the lines of ‘where will the money come from?’ would appear to have been irrefutably challenged, if not comprehensively defeated.

There is no dearth of money. It can be created, if necessary, to facilitate the survival of human beings rather than stock markets. Who can tell, though, whether this message will seep through?

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020