The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Scientists have been warning of the prospect of a global pandemic for years, even pointing to the possibility of a coronavirus and the risk to public health of ‘wet markets’ such as the Huanan market in Wuhan. But governments ignored their warnings. Some even responded by shooting the messenger, such as the Trump Administration’s closing of the US pandemic response team, or former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott sacking more than 1,000 government scientific staff in 2014.
In China, the signs were clear about the hazards of wet markets with exotic animals since the first SARS emerged nearly 20 years ago. Corruption by local officials may have played a role, but for whatever reason, the all-powerful government didn’t act. And when the first cases were identified last year, the whistle-blowers were threatened by the authorities, giving the virus a calamitous head-start. Elsewhere, autocrats like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are playing roulette with people’s lives in order to bolster their power.
The pandemic is pushing public health systems to the brink, and even beyond, but it didn’t have to be so bad. Countries which took the austerity path, by choice or under duress from the conditionality from the International Financial Institutions, the European Commission and the ECB to cut public expenditure eviscerated their health systems which in many countries were ill-equipped and under-resourced even before the virus hit.
Carving off health provision to the private sector became a trend in many countries but has also weakened public systems and created two-tier access. The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 doesn’t respect socio-economic tiers, and any country that thinks it can continue with the health status quo will only prolong the long period of adjustment to the new reality as the virus rages amongst the least-protected. And at a terrible human cost.
Big pharma has a case to answer too. Vaccine research is not much of a money-spinner so the world is less prepared, with under-funded academic researchers in institutions carrying the burden. Only now is money flowing into research at anything like the volumes needed. But governments need to ensure that none of the emergency research and production funding is siphoned off into tax havens — as Oxfam pointed out in their 2018 report, many pharmaceutical companies are adept at shifting profits offshore. And public investment must be conditional on access for all.
Funding for new antibiotics, needed to fight drug-resistant bacteria, is also insufficient. No new class of antibiotics has been developed in the past 30 years, although high-tech research at MIT and other institutions is promising. With public health systems now under unprecedented strain from the virus, the risks from drug-resistant bacteria are rising.
The result of all this today is the greatest display of solidarity in human history. Shutdowns and confinement now cover most of the world’s population, in order to protect in particular the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Lives and livelihoods are being put on hold at best, as the focus is rightly on containment and mitigation and supporting the health and care workers who are the frontline, and those in many other vital sectors.
The measure of any civilisation is its capacity to protect the most vulnerable but it will take global solidarity to fund the vital social protection guarantees, in which health is central, for the billions of people denied them.
Corporations have been pulling the strings of government, and loosening the strings of the public purse in their own interest, for far too long. There are companies which are taking responsibility in this crisis, but there are also corporate predators which see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gouge the public and come out the other side of the pandemic as entrenched monopolies. For social justice and for global safety, public health must be at the forefront if this crisis to be overcome and future risk mitigated.
It is working people who are bearing the brunt of the crisis — those in the front line and those pushed out of work. That’s where the real solidarity can be found and where it is needed most.
The G20 has recognised the gravity of the situation, with its pledges of cooperation, multi-trillion-dollar stimulus, support for developing countries and putting health at the forefront. Making this take root in the real economy is however not a fait accompli. Resilient public health systems will be at the core of resilient economies, as they should be. But that won’t be enough. What’s required is a new social contract, where unions, business and government agree on vital measures through social dialogue, where health and care are guaranteed for all, where the majority of the world’s people who don’t have social protection will finally get it, and where economic stimulus gets to the workers who need it and their families. It is already clear that where the COVID-19 response is at its best, it is the result of the social contract in action with workers, governments and employers all doing their part. We need to build on this and expand it.
As the human race confronts what may be its biggest ever challenge, we should look to ourselves. Any health professional will tell you that the human body is a highly complex but harmonious system, where all the bits work together and there are automatic stabilisers in case one bit isn’t working well or is running off the rails.
A new social contract would achieve that for the world. Governments must keep that at the front of their minds as we re-set the economy for the future.
The alternative is too awful to even contemplate.