The coronavirus pandemic has been tearing apart what the world has developed over the last four decades.
Yes, I am talking about globalisation, or the connections across the globe through transportation and communication, trade and commerce, tourism, education and ideas, and the necessary supplies like food, cloth, and medicine.
This crisis has ended our generalised admiration of and aspiration for globalisation and instituted a squarely opposite realisation of the urgency of keeping social distance. No one talks about keeping connections any more. Everybody maintains that social contacts must be cut off to stop the deadly virus from spreading.
Amid the apparent failure of governments in protecting citizens from this coronavirus, the Microsoft billionaire and renowned philanthropist Bill Gates declared billion-dollar funding for medical research to invent a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. He believed that his philanthropic foundation could mobilise this effort faster and more efficiently. Considering how the governments have been struggling with the outbreak, his claim seems plausible. The governments do not only lack enough workforce and resources but also suffer from mismanagement. Moreover, the Gates Foundation has proved its efficiency in generating necessary funds as well as co-ordinating support from governments and other international organisations in combating public health crises like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But is a vaccine sufficient to tackle this pandemic?
Recognising the Covid-19 pandemic as the greatest since WW-II, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warns that this will cause devastating social, economic, and political crises. A vaccine, while effectively protecting the public from getting contaminated, would hardly be able to protect us from similar threats without understanding the social context that allows this pandemic to happen.
l Globalisation of the Virus
Experts recognise the Covid-19 virus contamination as a respiratory disease like its predecessors Sars and Mers. The most common symptoms of contamination include fever, fatigue, and a dry cough. However, medical screenings reportedly found some individuals testing positive without showing any signs. According to the WHO estimate, the fatality rate of this virus contamination is 5.9% of confirmed cases globally, which is far above the fatality rate for the seasonal flu. While the overwhelming majority among the dead are elderly with pre-existing health issues, many younger patients reportedly died, too. The doctor who first talked about this deadly virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan – who died of this virus – was only 34 years old.
The governments in almost all countries are struggling to tackle this virus due to a lack of sufficient doctors and health professionals, hospital beds, supporting technical equipment, and an absence of a vaccine. Thus, social distancing – or maintaining a physical distance so that those already contaminated do not spread the virus to others – is the only currently available option to combat this virus. As a consequence, schools, colleges, businesses, and shops are closed down, public transportation and air travel are postponed, public gatherings are prohibited. No one knows when life will return to normalcy. A recent epidemiological study at Harvard University projected that such social distancing would be required intermittently at least until 2022.
Social distancing has become a part of our commonsensical knowledge thanks to the relentless efforts of the medical experts in explaining causal connections between the virus and physical proximity, governments in implementing necessary regulatory measures to keep people from a social gathering, opinion leaders on social media motivating ordinary people to comply with formal directives about avoiding social gatherings as well as to take personal responsibility in maintaining social distance in everyday life. Interestingly, this follows a similar pattern of collective encouragement, adoption, and implementation of creating and maintaining connections on a global scale whereby the experts including the economists, government planners, international organisations, business, and opinion leaders.
Wuhan – the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic – is one of the largest industrial hubs in China, with about 11mn population. It is the centre of the Chinese steel industry. Besides Chinese businesses, Wuhan hosts the business operations for international corporations like Nissan, Honda, and General Motors, Renault SA, PSA Group’s Peugeot, IBM, HSBC, Siemens, Walmart, Ericsson, and more. The beverage company Anheuser-Busch InBev SA is also located in Wuhan. Major fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC are also parts of the city’s industrial infrastructure. Wuhan’s global connections demonstrate an important aspect of the pandemic. Much like an individual with the Covid-19 virus contaminating others through close contact, Wuhan has also caused the virus’s global spread through global networks. For instance, the second place where Covid-19 pandemic hit hardest is Northern Italy, which has dense networks with Wuhan through the supply of cheaper raw materials and manufacturing as well as visitors from Wuhan.
The next centre of this epidemic is the Iranian city of Qom, where the contamination is said to have started from a merchant returning from Wuhan.
There had been sporadic viral outbreaks in different countries in the past. But the world has never seen anything like the Covid-19 outbreak in the last 100 years. While some viral outbreaks – such as the Sars, the Mers, Ebola – were deadly and spread over a few countries and regions, none reached a global scale like this outbreak. The global networks between China and the rest of the world have played a role in the quick and expansive spread of the Covid-19 virus. From the news reports, we see that the countries – and regions within particular countries – with a higher density of global connections are the ones more vulnerable to this public health crisis than relatively less globally connected countries.
lVirus of Globalisation
Although the Covid-19 virus is contaminating everybody regardless of age, sex, race, class, and nationality, it is not equally fatal for all. Similarly, while almost all countries have reported positive cases, some are more devastated than others. Autopsy data of the deceased patients show that the virus is fatal among the old individuals with pre-existing respiratory problems and compromised immune systems. But what explains the relative strength and weakness of countries in responding to this pandemic?
I argue that the ideology of neoliberalism – an individual’s right to profit maximisation, free trade, and freedom from the state intervention – has systematically eroded the strength of many countries so much so that they are now unable to face the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Once inside someone’s body, the virus hijacks healthy cells and causes acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) that makes it harder – or even impossible – to breathe. While a healthy body can effectively battle against the virus and defeat it, an old and weak body fails to recuperate from the viral attack and eventually succumbs to death. A similar observation can be made by assuming states as individuals with comparable consequences regarding the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
As scholars recognise, neoliberalism promotes private entrepreneur’s free initiative as the best way of ensuring collective welfare, which is to be acquired and distributed through free trade and commerce in an institutional context characterised by a free market and a strong private property right. While the goal of augmenting total welfare is achieved under neoliberalism, the distribution of benefits is highly unequal and inequitable. Consequently, we live in a world with an unprecedented level of inequality. As David Harvey argues, neoliberalism destroys old institutional frameworks, the international and national divisions of labour, social relations, and social safety nets. For instance, privatisation and deregulation of the market lead to – among many policy responses – tax cut and tax-refund for individual entrepreneurs and corporations that could be used by the government to finance public expenses. To put this into perspective, Amazon earned $232.9mn in 2018. Not only did it pay $0 in federal tax, but it also received $129mn in a federal tax refund. This amount is higher than the assessed annual contributions from the US to the World Health Organisation.
The neoliberal globalisation does not benefit everyone equally, as Josef Stiglitz demonstrates in his book Making Globalisation Work. Global Justice leader and activist Nick Dearden also makes a similar argument supported with empirical cases in Lesotho and Sierra Leone. He shows how the neoliberal solution to public health problems through a public-private partnership not only fails but also exacerbates the problem and the governments’ ability to address public health challenges. The root cause is the neoliberal ideology of prioritising private interest (of profit maximisation) over public interest (of welfare). We must fight this ideology just as much as we fight the Covid-19 virus. And we see how all countries in the world have already started doing so – although as exceptional, but not a usual response – by offering direct cash as well as other forms of financial support for individuals and businesses, universal free medical care, and so forth. These government initiatives are aimed at public benefit and against the neoliberal conviction of non-intervention of the government.
The Covid-19 pandemic has so vividly demonstrated the real cost of the neoliberal approach to private profit maximisation, and also how the government – not private enterprise – is capable of and inherently interested in protecting public interests and welfare. While we must fight against this coronavirus from contaminating our body, we must also fight against neoliberalism from affecting our social body so that the public is not left to rely on small but weak unprepared government in times of public struggles.
*Hasan Mahmud is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University in Qatar.
(Teaches courses on globalisation, development, migration)
Picture uploaded to social media on January 25, 2020, by the Central Hospital of Wuhan show medical staff attending to patients, in Wuhan, China. Wuhan u2013 the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic u2013 is one of the largest industrial hubs in China, with about 11mn population.