Covid-19 shows up inequality across and within societies
The most dangerous global pandemic of the past century may present a threat to virtually all of the world's people, but it is increasingly evident that Covid-19 will exacerbate existing class divisions, both within societies and across an uneven world.
South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are home to most of the planet's poor, with densely populated low-income settlements in urban centres a massive potential breeding ground for what has already proven to be an extremely virulent pathogen. The practice of "social distancing" is, in such settings, rendered effectively meaningless.
Public health infrastructure in India, Pakistan or any number of sub-Saharan African countries is already struggling to cope, even at this relatively early stage of the virus spread. Healthcare providers are overwhelmed and do not even possess appropriate protective gear, while both equipment for Covid-19 testing and treatment is sparse. If the worst-case scenario of a mass outbreak in the slums of Mumbai, Nairobi or Karachi came to pass, already ill-equipped public health facilities would be overrun.
Even in the absence of such an eventuality, however, the extremely tenuous economic conditions of the majority of people in South Asia and Africa suggest the makings of a crisis that could potentially engulf organised society at large.
Most of the workforce is undocumented and toils in often sub-human "informal" conditions for paltry wages in a variety of different occupations, including domestic housework, seasonal agriculture, multinational sweatshops, housing and construction, and the mining sector. Quite simply, hundreds of millions of South Asians and Africans literally face starvation if they do not go out and earn some income on a daily basis.
India's 21-day lockdown announced last week caused chaos, with millions of precarious informal-sector workers in metropolitan centres suddenly unable to fend for themselves, thronging to their native villages in overcrowded public trains and buses. In neighbouring Pakistan, haughty mansion-owning elites are firing domestic servants, forcing a retreat into ghettoised squatter settlements without any respite from impending hunger on the horizon.
Both Indian and Pakistani governments have, like many across the world, announced emergency relief that ostensibly caters to these deprived segments of the population. Islamabad's package features a one-off cash transfer of 12,000 rupees (S$100) to 10 million households (or about 60 million individuals out of 220 million). Quite aside from how much of a cushion such a paltry one-off payment provides to the most vulnerable segments of society, the Pakistani state's limited administrative capacity makes identification of the poorest 10 million households virtually impossible, let alone delivery of the said amount.
In India, the already established Public Distribution System guarantees food rations to approximately two-thirds of the country's population, but the announcement of a US$22 billion (S$31 billion) relief package acknowledges that massive interventions are required to stave off economic collapse for the huge population of working poor. All in all, 800 million Indians are said to be eligible for food rations, while different segments including women, senior citizens and daily-wage earners have been promised cash transfers up to 2,000 rupees (S$38). Again, it is unlikely that such amounts can tide over the crisis for long, while even living up to the commitments presents a huge challenge.
To be sure, it is not only in South Asia that precarious workers are likely to suffer the brunt of what is now widely expected to be the worst economic shock since the Great Depression. The gig economy has already transformed work as it was conceived through much of the modern era, with larger numbers of working people now designated as self-employed.
While an Uber driver in New York City is still more likely to insulate herself from the coming economic downturn than a Pakistani street vendor literally living from hand to mouth, a severe contraction in the global economy will nevertheless affect many precarious workers across distinct geographies.
Many policy advocates are pushing hard for a universal basic income across these different contexts, but even "rich" countries have stopped, yet to make such commitments.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, Mr Boris Johnson's government announced what it termed the largest government support package in British history, committing to cover 80 per cent of private companies' wage bill, but this still excludes millions of British workers without long-term employment contracts.
The class dimensions of the global crisis also have a currently under-specified political dimension. In especially polarised countries like Pakistan, privileged segments of society are lauding apparently more top-down and authoritarian responses as having had greater success in containing the spread of Covid-19.
In fact, the single biggest denominator of the relative "success stories" - Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea - is an efficient and universal public healthcare system. European countries with historically well-funded and extensive public health infrastructures are now suffering the effects of these systems' emaciation via three decades of neoliberalism. The irreconcilable contradictions of neoliberalism have already thrown up a wave of xenophobic right-wing populists across the world. The shock of Covid-19 could trigger a definitively authoritarian upsurge as class and other inequalities rear their ugly head.
Yet, for all the ominous indicators, the global digital public that has crystallised in and through this crisis is throwing up examples of unprecedented solidarity and collective action. To be sure, the fact that universal healthcare, basic income and nationalisation of key sectors are now firmly back on the mainstream policy agenda confirms just how substantially this pandemic is jolting both the global political economy and the political consciousness of ordinary citizens across the world alike.
Whether or not the world escapes from Covid-19 without mortality rates similar to the Spanish flu of 1918-20 will depend, in significant part, on whether South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa become the epicentre of the virus as East Asia, Europe and the United States have before them.
As ever, this global crisis is likely to place the heaviest burden on those least equipped to bear it. If nothing else, this is why returning to "normal" must be avoided at all costs and new logics fashioned collectively, between and within societies, to shape a free, harmonious and egalitarian future.
• Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is Associate Professor of Political Economy at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2020, with the headline ''Normal' must look different after the crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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