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Has COVID-19 finally put a nail in the neo-liberal coffin?

By Dr John Töns

Has COVID-19 finally put the nail in the neo-liberal coffin? Morrison is rather self-congratulatory as to how well Australia has handled the crisis. Certainly, compared to other neo-liberal economies we have done rather well. But how do we compare to an economy that is not a neo-liberal economy?

When we compare the way the Marxist government of Kerala responded to COVID-19 to those western democracies committed to some form of neo-liberal agenda one is hard pressed to see merit in the neo-liberal ideology. The facts speak for themselves. Canada and Kerala have approximately the same size population; 37 and 35 million respectively. Canada has a per capita GDP of about $50,000 contrasted to Kerala with a per capita GDP of $2,700. Based on just those figures one would expect that Canada would have more resources to protect its population than Kerala. However, Canada had 97,114 cases resulted in 7,960 deaths whereas Kerala had a total of 2096 cases resulting in 16 deaths.

When we look at what sets Kerala apart, we can see that it was not just a case of responding better to the virus but rather that the country was simply better prepared. In many ways Kerala did much the same as most other countries. It had adopted the WHO protocol of ‘test, trace, isolate and support.’ This is much the same as Canada’s response. Arguably Kerala acted much faster than other polities. But that does not seem to be the full story.

Since 1957 Kerala has initiated land reforms, a robust public health and education system. The infrastructure was in place to enable it to respond quickly and efficiently to a pandemic. That infrastructure is publicly funded. The public sector is designed to respond to what people need, not to what people are willing to buy or can afford. The state identified a risk to the health and well-being of its citizens very early. A rapid response team was in place long before the virus had escaped Wuhan. How could a state with fewer resources than a wealthy country like Canada have fewer cases? Nor is it just an Asian thing – on a per capita basis Kerala outperformed both South Korea and Singapore. Singapore does also provide an interesting point of comparison. Singapore had a ‘second wave’ outbreak.

The world had been busy congratulating Singapore on its ability to contain the virus, but its second wave gave us a better insight into what was happening. The second wave occurred among the many thousands of migrant workers who lived cheek by jowl in cramped conditions. In Kerala 150,000 migrant workers were trapped by the national lockdown. These 150,000 people were well looked after given three meals a day for six weeks whilst they waited for the lockdown to be lifted. They did not add to their COVID-19 infections. Yet migrant workers in Singapore did. Why was there such a marked difference?

Writing on Facebook, Bilahari Kausikan, an ex-diplomat, put it bluntly: “We did drop the ball on [foreign workers] which are invisible to most Singaporeans.” But why would they be invisible? Marx referred to the reification of labour within an advanced capitalist economy. In Singapore and in many other parts of the world some workers are rendered invisible by the role they play in society – they may be employed as cleaners, construction workers and the like but they are not part of society – they are tools that shape the society and as such little attention is paid to them by public officials. As a result, their role in society renders them invisible. Public policy does not deal with the invisible – the invisible do not vote; it is only when the invisible impact on the lives of the visible that they come to our attention. One sees this around the world.

When a major city holds a major event like the Olympics the homeless are quickly rounded up – seeing homeless people sleeping on the streets is not a good look when a city wishes to show case itself. In the lead up to the 2016 games in Rio Catalytic communities launched a programme to bring visibility to the favela community voices in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. The blog was so successful that ten years later it is still bringing the plight of the invisible people to the world’s attention. Thus, as Tokyo was preparing its bid we find that in order to create a good impression for The International Olympic Evaluation Commission. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government welcomed the Commission by spending nearly US$5.5 million on the trip. Preparations included two weeks of city sweeps, removing homeless people’s tents and other possessions along the streets where the IOC Evaluation Commission members would pass by on their luxury bus tour.

These largely invisible people also seem to have the highest rate of infections and deaths. They are another denial that black lives matter or perhaps we should refer to it as a denial that invisible lives matter. These people at the bottom of society keep the wheels of the neo-liberal economy grinding along. In a neo-liberal economy, the poor, the disadvantaged do not count. One only has to look at the rapidity with which the Morrison government is dismantling its expenditure on the poor. Not only is the plan to revert the dole to its pre-covid status but job seekers are required to demonstrate that they are busy applying for the non-existent jobs. Childcare funding is being ripped out – again impacting adversely on women and single mothers.

Thus far Labor has been muted in its criticism. It is time Labor made an unambiguous stand and showed that the impact of COVID-19 was as bad as it was because we have a government that is more concerned about the economy than the welfare and the health of all Australians. For a little while we were all in it together. But no longer.

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11 comments

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  1. Jak Sayla

    Rudd failed the courage test at the critical point and ever since Labor has opted for moral hazard instead.

  2. Jack Cade

    Nails in its coffin would by ineffective; it needs a stake through its heart, like all bloodsuckers.

  3. Gangey1959

    Bring back Rule 303.
    Find them, “try” them, bury them.
    And then leave a great big indue card on a stick, in the name of “Here Lies” as a warning to everyone else, over their pit.

  4. Kerri

    One thing’s for sure this pandemic has exposed the arrogance of wealthy countries and their leaders over the more pragmatic attitude of the poorer nations.
    When you see redneck Americans complaining that they can’t buy lawn seed or get their roots done you realise how western countries have lost their grip on science.

  5. Kevin Rennie

    The answer to the Q posed in the title: Not in Australia. Compare the Coalition’s economic recovery plans with the IPA’s. It will be business as usual with extra spin.

  6. New England Cocky

    @Jak Sayla: Uhm … I think you are misquoting history. Kevin Rudd & Ken Henry devised a strategy to protect Australian voters from the 2009 GFC induced by US bank greed, “go early,go hard go families” which was so successful that the vast majority of Australian voters did not realise that there was an economic crisis in other Western economies.

    SO where is your evidence of “Rudd failed the courage test”, or is it merely an unsubstantiated allegation designed to throw mud in the worst Liarbral Nazional$ manner? Must be a bye-election in the air somewhere …

    Now compare the Scummo Sacked from Marketing response to COVID-19. Go to the football, think about doing something, pay out to corporations, starve any persons not beneficiaries of other Liarbral financial largesse. Yeah … good one … NOT!!!

  7. Brad Black

    150 thousand migrant workers in 3rd world Kerala are looked after during a covid lockdown with 3 meals a day and in Australia scotty told them to go home.
    Speaks volumes really.
    Nicely written article, thanks John.

  8. Mark Shields

    Not sure why you’re comparing an Indian state with a north American nation?

  9. Andrew Smith

    I would question the comparison when Canada would have people more exposed due to freedom and wealth to travel, which leads onto issues of definition.

    Most people are neo-liberal to a degree, wanting growth in their well being through ability to purchase food, utilities, goods, access to housing etc.

    The issue nowadays is how radical right libertarianism has made inroads into society e.g. 90% have the disadvantage of libertarianism being applied such as user pays, commodification of housing, less union coverage, paying higher proportion of income as tax, more debt, less access to services etc.; while being persuaded to give the right way against their or coming generation’s interests….

    Meanwhile the top 10% including corporates are the recipients of state largesse or socialism, whether proportionally less tax on income, including indirect rebates and being catered to by ‘owned’ (LNP) govt. influenced and manipulated by imported US ideology; socio-cultural, political, defence, trade and financial.

  10. andy56

    If jobkeeper is to be dismantled from big slabs of the economy, centerlink will get very busy. I cant see them letting the bottom just fall out, even they can see the problems there. But i can see a scenario where they let the bottom fall out slowly, because you know government debt is bad and private debt is good. You just cant kickstart the uni sector without chinese students and you cant just kickstart a tourism sector with 1.4million chinese tourists less. For a start, aussies will be shocked if they try . These sectors are bloody expensive for the average aussie. You wont get aussies flocking to farms in harvest season because of the mafia that runs employment scamming. So really if decisions are so effing hard, its because they make them so effing hard. Drop the ideology, the protestant ideology, of being jealous of people getting money for not working. There wont be jobs for many people for a very long time, if ever. Neoliberalism doesnt address the problem, it pretends it can go away with the right levers. its called BLIND FAITH.

  11. andy56

    New england cocky, i too think Rudd failed the courage test. But rather than put too much emphasis on that, we should also, in the same breath, say that Abbott would have made a good Caligula .( thats being kind, i would rather he spent considerable time in jail for sabotage).

    Its all about context. Isnt that the real story, how an arsehole brought about the destruction of a good government. The arsonist becomes the firefighter, the irony.

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