The Indian writer Arundhati Roy has called COVID-19 a "societal MRI", exposing the sicknesses within our systems. Neoliberalism shifted societal risks, including the risk of public health crises, on to individuals. The virus has forced governments to suspend some key tenants of neoliberal capitalism. Suddenly, they are investing in public services, recognising the need for local production and nationalising essential services. The call for the state in time of turmoil is a clear illustration that the current systems are fundamentally incapable of dealing with crises.
Governments will need to build recovery plans unlike any seen outside of war. Political leaders have the unprecedented opportunity to leave a legacy of a more just, equitable and sustainable society. The default position of many countries in the Asia-Pacific region will be to revert quickly to type and impose austerity measures for years to come. Instead, we must build trade union capacity to advocate for COVID recovery plans that can fundamentally re-shape the social contract.
These plans must not be simply framed around economic stimulus. Instead, they must re-organise our societies around the capacity to care for all people and the environments we depend on. Governments should embrace the prospect of the largest delivery of public goods in a lifetime – new public health infrastructure and research, new universities, new public broadcasters and data systems, new public clean energy, new public spaces and guaranteed universal social protection.
Public health once and for all
Governments have been repeatedly advised to prepare for a global pandemic. They have also known that we are facing a global shortage of 18 million health workers with the largest shortfalls in Asia. Governments must now significantly increase funding to the public health system, improve the wages and conditions of health workers and care workers to attract and keep qualified workers and reduce the large loss of workers through professional health migration out of the region.
Substantial public resources are being mobilised to support the development of diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. Yet, we have not been guaranteed that they will deliver universal, free services to the public or will stay in the public domain. We need a global consensus that all research, data, equipment, treatments, and vaccines are global public goods, unrestricted by proprietary interests.
Decommodification of life, decent work and green recovery
Perhaps the biggest change required in the post-COVID world is a change in the way we measure value. Instead of measuring financial efficiency and profitability, all public and private entities could have fiduciary obligations towards the greater public good, including to provide decent work. Workers representatives and community representatives should be required on all boards to ensure real primary accountabilities.
Trade rules restrict the policy space governments need to respond to crises, to nationalise public services and to prioritise public health, environment and public good over corporate interests. We must reform global trade rules so that we can make economies work for people, not the other way around.
The pandemic proves that governments can shut down some sections of an economy and take monumental steps to address a crisis when required. A public-led, green recovery can deliver a jobs guarantee, publicrenewable energies, expanded public transport, as well as expand jobs in health and care, education and sustainable services.
Redistribution of wealth, power and resources
To fund COVID recovery plans, governments must rapidly expand their revenue base. At least USD 36 trillion is currently hiding in tax havens, which means at least USD 500 billion of corporate tax revenue is lost every year through the use of such havens.
To take an example from Europe, Denmark and Poland have excluded companies who operate in some tax havens from receiving government bailouts. We need that to go further and exclude these companies from any government procurement and include all low tax and secrecy jurisdictions.
Tax revenue options for governments include excessive profits taxes, digital services taxes, wealth taxes, until global tax reforms allow unitary taxation so that corporations are taxed regardless of where they hide their wealth.
Whilst rich countries can create funds by having central banks buy government bonds, weaker currencies and external USD debt makes more debt dangerous for many developing countries. Therefore the global call for the permanent cancellation of all principal, interest and charges on sovereign external debt due in 2020/21 must be implemented.
The reality is that the global social and economic order will change as a result of the pandemic. Corporate interests are already working to cement even greater corporate power. It is our job to make sure that change is just, equitable and healthy.
Kate Lappin is the Asia-Pacific Regional Secretary of Public Services International (PSI). PSI is a global union federation for workers in public services, bringing together more than 30 million workers represented by over 700 unions.
The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.
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