In the richest country in the world we are told that
More than twenty-four million US workers have applied for unemployment benefits in the last five weeks. That figure represents more than one in seven workers. For comparison, in pre-coronavirus times, one million workers applied in a five-week period.
At the same time a June 2020 report from the US based Institute for Policy Studies in that country shows that
- US billionaires increased their collective wealth by $282 billion in just 23 days during the initial weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, a report from the Institute for Policy Studies claims.
- The Billionaire Bonanza report says that between March 18 and April 10, 2020, billionaire wealth in the US increased 9.5%. During that same period, the report noted, 22 million Americans filed for unemployment.
- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has increased his wealth by $25 billion since the beginning of the year, the report estimates.
- Eight billionaires in the US have seen their net worth surge by over $1 billion this year, the report said.
What are we to make of these startling figures? How are they related to the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens to wreak havoc on humanity and especially in those societies where inequality and its consequences are endemic?
There is now a considerable body of writing about the pandemic. Especially in the public media there are probably tens of thousands of articles providing data about the pandemic, its epidemiology, i.e. its incidence, global, regional and local distribution, infection and recovery rates and number of deaths, possible treatment regimens and experimentation around vaccines, analysis of its causes and effects, support for and criticisms of state policies and regulations, technological interventions in trying to deal with health, social and cultural life generally, public responses and perceptions, the psycho-social effects on communities and mitigating strategies for individuals and families, and a wide range of other matters arising from these concerns. Perhaps the areas of greatest focus in the public media concerns both the health of the general population and of the economy and more recently, given its social importance, the effects on schooling and the measures to ameliorate these. All these issues are inseparable from a wider and more comprehensive view of the social consequences of the pandemic.
By themselves the issues referred to above do not provide a useful explanation about the relationship of the pandemic to the social systems within which it occurs or what is called the biomedical aspects of the pandemic, i.e. the relationship of the pandemic to the physical and natural environment. While it is true that the virus arises ‘naturally’, that until now it is not possible to say that it is a causal result of the activities of scientists in laboratories or some other human action, it is important to understand the effects of the pandemic on society beyond its medical and health related consequences. These consequences are and can be devastating and can spell incalculable harm to human society without the measures that must be taken to control, limit and find a cure for the virus.
There is no question about the importance of medical and health related issues and especially the scientific endeavours to respond as urgently as possible to the COVID- 19. It is a matter of life and death. Nor are issues about hunger, food, work and schooling of any less import. Yet these issues cannot be discussed without any serious examination about their relationship to the very nature of the societies afflicted by such pandemics. A simple example of this, as we know, has to do with the relationship between the prevalence of particular diseases in poverty-stricken areas of the world and the social conditions under which these illnesses are more likely to occur, tuberculosis being a prime example.
We should therefore be concerned that despite this voluminous writing on COVID 19 – often accompanied by public discussion across many platforms – the discussion around the pandemic does not, except fleetingly, appear to raise deeper questions about the relationship of pandemics to the very nature of the social systems we inhabit. It does not enable us, in other words to examine what the effects of such a pandemic might be in societies that are structured differently relative to social systems where the arrangement of power and social relationships engender and deepen shocking inequalities and where such social systems are mired in rampant unemployment, poverty and hunger. Nor is there a wider analysis of the overarching framework of global and local political-economic, social and environmental regimes inured in ideologies pursued by nation states. This has had the effect of truncating from the start, the very possibilities for meaningful interventions by the state and society in such contexts. The value of such a wider analysis is in answers it could provide about whose interests have been and are favoured in the development of the existing regimes of power and socio-economic life and alternative regimes which could give life to possibilities for a long-term solution to the causes and effects of the dystopic characteristics arising in the context of pandemics, wars, racism, gender-based violence and other social crises.
The coyness about a discussion of the underlying social and systemic framework is analytically unavoidable for understanding the very nature of socially dystopic phenomena and how to deal with them. Especially academics and intellectuals who are publicly-minded should be engaged in such analysis and discussion. We must go beyond the ‘shock’ reaction that has been induced by the pandemic, to study its bio-medical and other effects, the ways in which societies can deal with the pandemic together with the response provided by medical science.
Moreover, we should be thinking of the implications of this pandemic not only for human beings, but most importantly for the relationship of humanity to the natural environment. This means that although the scientific community (epidemiologists, immunologists, virologists, data analysts and other related scientists) are busy studying the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, its connection to the wider study of human societies and the natural environment must also be examined closely. This is because the response to the pandemic occurs within a social system and is strongly conditioned by the characteristics of the social system and the forms of power prevalent in society at this time. These characteristics will largely determine how the pandemic is understood in relation to its impacts, what are the primary issues to focus on, the ‘solutions’ to the pandemic, and by implication, what interests and whose views and orientation is privileged in the policy related responses that are promoted in dealing with the pandemic. In other words the approach adopted by policy makers and the interests represented by them are inevitably shaped by the desire to return to a state of ‘normality’ – the conditions prevalent globally and nationally prior to the pandemic and which policy-makers and the dominant socio-political classes in society would hope to restore. As Walden Bello1 says:
One might say that this is the dominant opinion among political and business elites. Representative of this outlook is the infamous Goldman Sachs-sponsored teleconference involving scores of stock market players in mid-March of this year, which concluded that “there is no systemic risk”. No one is even talking about that. Governments are intervening in the markets to stabilize them, and the private banking sector is well capitalized.
Thus, the real challenge for those who are opposed to the return to ‘normality’, is whether the prevailing crisis offers an opportunity to overturn the ‘normality’ as it existed in the period prior to the pandemic: what are possibilities at both a conceptual, organisational, and practical level to engage in a conscious effort to struggle against this ‘return to normality’ and to place other possibilities on the agenda? Unless such possibilities are found, not only will the pandemic reinforce (as it is already doing) the power of global elites, but also will it wreak unimaginable havoc, pain and misery on the majority of the human population.
We propose that the following kinds of issues be explored:
- How does the incidence of the virus relate to the very nature of the social system in which it is prevalent? In other words, would its effects be different in societies which are organised differently? For instance how would such a pandemic [not just the virus] manifest itself in societies where the structures and systems of power, the health and medical regimes, the availability of food and shelter, the distribution of incomes and wealth, work and livelihood, etc are fundamentally different from the systems and structures that are globally dominant now?
To take a few examples to exemplify this issue:
- How would a society deal with such a pandemic where it has a highly developed community-based public health system available to all its citizens as opposed to where this does not exist.?
- How would the effects of this pandemic be felt in a society where food, and crop production more generally, is based on the needs of the society and is not based primarily on the demands of single-crop production for export markets – which moreover are controlled by conglomerate producers, owners, distributors, patents and profit making on a global scale?
- How would such a pandemic affect a society in which the majority of its citizens were not bound by a wage-related job market but were members of communities where food provision was based on cooperative and collective community based processes in which the primary objective of food production was in harmony with nature and was for the use of human beings and for feeding animals?
- What if work was about the production of socially useful goods without the interference of profit-making and was organised for livelihoods which were socially constructed so that the reproductive role of women in work was abolished in favour of cooperative ways of producing socially necessary goods and services? How can we learn from the many experiments in alternative production and socialised economies taking place throughout the world?
- Would the effect of the pandemic be different if water and electricity were freely available to all citizens in a country regardless of their economic circumstances and where the energy requirements of a nation were not left in the hands of the most powerful interests in society and could be met without destroying the environment?
- And of course, all of these questions invite us to ask about the kinds of learning, teaching and knowledge production which would be necessary to support the development of such societies.
More recently following the death of George Floyd a raft of similar issues were dealt with in the journal Nature of 10 June 2020.
- These are just some of the immediate questions which can be asked for thinking more deeply about the nature of catastrophic events that have become increasingly frequent in the world. The increasingly frequent occurrence of global phenomena which have wide effects on humanity and the planet might appear to be unrelated to what we are discussing here. But is it? It would be, if we have only thought about pandemics of a medical and health related kind – COVID 19 being the latest of these. But should we not broaden our concept of ‘pandemic’ to include all those events which can cause major global or regional destructive consequences on significant parts of humanity and indeed on the planetary environment? Should we not also see the persistence of wars and conflict, together with the rise of right-wing neo-fascists regimes in so many parts of the world, as at least culpable for how humanity is able to deal with the pandemics? Can we discount the reality of the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of human beings, the mutilation of so many more, the homelessness through the destruction of living spaces, the ruination of social and family lives, the obliteration of ancient human cultures, economic and social systems, the violence on women and children, the calamitous consequences for the environment as a result of destructive wars and genocidal actions in the interests of a global elite? Does all of this not require a new definition, or at least a more encompassing (even if differentiated) approach to what we regard as a global catastrophe?
- There is a great deal of factual data which can be brought together to provide the evidence – if that is what is needed – to show how the effects of the present pandemic are indeed closely related to the nature of the social systems in which it occurs. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this is in the terrible effects it has had on the citizens of some of the most advanced capitalist countries on the globe – those that have accumulated the greatest amount of global wealth in aggregate and per capita – as a result of the policies pursued by those countries over the last few decades that permitted the rapacious development corporate interests. Contrary to what we might have assumed, we can see that the public policies of these so-called ‘highly developed’ countries have virtually paralysed the public health systems which were previously able to provide health and welfare and other public services of quality, despite their ‘development’. These countries have drowned in the effluent of greed and profit-making, showing the uncaring cynicism about the effects of their actions on countries of the South and indeed on the planet itself.
- As we can see already, struggles not only for survival but for thinking about and practising alternative social responses to the crisis engendered by corporate profit-making (and supported almost without exception by the governments of the day), are happening everywhere. These are sometimes small and local. However, these struggles raise the most profound questions about the reorganisation of society to achieve a completely different set of goals to that which ruins all lives and environments for the benefit of a powerful global elite.
We think that the pandemic must be examined not only medically, but particularly in relation to its social, human and ecological effects. This is necessary because of the importance of understanding the relationship between diseases emanating from viruses and other causes, and ‘diseased societies’ which provide fertile grounds for the social havoc that follows medical pandemics like COVID-19. Focusing on the medical aspects of the pandemic and the prophylactic ‘solutions’ now proffered, is hugely important and immediate, but such a focus must be supported by an analysis about much more fundamental approaches, ideas, theories and solutions to show the possibilities for leaving behind the dystopia of the present for a better world.
15 July 2020
Enver Motala is a researcher who has worked with working-class organizations for many years. He is presently a research associate of the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University and Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at University of Johannesburg.
Siyabulela Mama is an activist at the Assembly of the Unemployed and part of the Port Elizabeth Amandla Collective, has Organized and facilitated a number of workshops for the Radical Educators Forum. He is co-researcher at the Centre for Post-School Education and Training.
Irna Senekal is part of the Radical Educators Forum working to support community and worker education. She is employed as a researcher at the Centre for Integrated Post-school Education and Training (CIPSET) at Nelson Mandela University.