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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