The Marginalised Are Hit Hard By COVID-19 Pandemic. It Is Time To Reshape Our Societies.
The narrative we all grew up with was that humans are the vice-regents of God on earth (the Ashraful Makhluqaat). But this most powerful of creations that has colonized all corners of the world, has instead driven thousands of other species to extinction. It is only because of the Coronavirus, the smallest of creations that humans have been forced to isolate themselves indoors, allowing the world to start breathing again and for other species to exercise their right to life and livelihood.
Taking Murray Bookchin’s cue, who understood this environmental crisis as an outcome of the hierarchical nature of human society, I try to assess the structure of human society laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic.
The initial assessment points to the level of nations, understood today through the state that purports to represent a nation through its authoritative structure. But, it was the authoritative nature of this very structure that initially ignored the advice of medical experts allowing the virus to become a pandemic. Further, the state which used to safeguard its own security against other states was ill-equipped to confront a real danger to the people, given perpetually anemic investments in public health systems. Instead, state’s extensive investments in nuclear weapons, missiles and all kinds of weaponry were of no use, and interestingly its floating war machines termed aircraft carriers instead became a liability. While one can’t easily differentiate between democracies from non-democracies in their response to the virus, it was the quality of leadership representing the strength of their political and economic systems that differentiated South Korea and Germany from the harder hit United States and the UK. Corona pandemic thus lay bare the politics of hate and exclusion, the discourse which blamed internal structural issues on the ‘other’, and the disregard for critical rationality and science.
While Coronavirus pandemic could be seen as a balancing act between humans and the rest of creation, it only aggravates the hierarchical structure of human society, and thus there is little chance that this experience will lead to a more equal societies and the world. From the higher proportion of the affected African Americans in the US, the heightened discrimination against the Muslims of India, to the choice between disease and hunger among the informal workers worldwide, it is the marginalized who seem to bear the brunt of the pandemic.
At the root of this marginalization is the political economy of states which prohibits funding for citizen health needs including face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and test kits. This also has affected the capacity of health professionals who are at the frontline tackling the virus. But still, there is still little discussion on the zero sum oriented inter-state system justifying bloated defense budgets that retain imperialism, state sponsored terrorism, and proxy wars burning in the name of citizen security. On the economic front, a similar destruction has been dealt by the neo-liberal state-citizen relationship which has de-industrialized ‘developed’ countries, and rendered many ‘developing’ countries without an industrial base. Their self-sufficiency in critical commodities such as testing kits has been compromised, along with leaving millions of workers without rights and security.
Assessing Pakistan within this context, one finds that our security state which subscribes to neo-liberalism, is the very antithesis of a less hierarchical welfare state as it has more tanks than ventilators. Further, it has made a nuclear bomb, missiles and tanks, and has the means to forcibly make dissidents disappear or hound them into submission on social media. But it lacks the capability of extensive testing and tracing, the only method available to lessen the costs of the pandemic. Without the ability to make testing kits comparable to its population along with traceability mechanisms, complete lockdown remains the only option as there is no way to assess the prevalence of virus among our 220 million population, nor a way to control it.
While health is a neglected area as compared to other sectors, labour rights are missing from the agenda as successive governments. Worse, the judiciary, and other state institutions have also been hostile to labour. Explicit policy directions were given to ban industrial inspections by labor inspectors, while implicit orders restricted the formation of genuine labor unions leading to less than 2% of the labor force being unionized. According to Muttahida Labor Federation, only about 30-40% of factory workers in the biggest industrial groups of the country are registered workers; what to talk of neo-liberalism inspired sub-contractual (thekedari) arrangements that dominate business supply chains.
No wonder the country thoroughly lacks reliable data about the labour force, and so it is not possible to compensate workers according to their lost earnings. Because a functioning local government system which can institutionally reach people at their doorsteps does not exist, the state has no option but to use a self-registering household oriented mechanism to distribute relief. This mechanism is bound to have higher wastage and lower effectiveness. Furthermore, with an undocumented economy, there is a risk that the economic packages announced by the current government will mostly be used by upper echelons of the formal economy and never reach the informal enterprises as well as informal workers in the formal sector. These informal workers make up 74% of the urban labor force and would be around 90% of the labor force if agriculture, and hidden workers not captured by Labor Force Survey are included.
The corona experience thus creates an important incentive to change existing policies so as to strip down societal hierarchies. For instance on the economic front, both provincial and federal governments can develop economic relief packages for the industry which can incentivize documentation inclusive of labor organization and worker rights. The key steps are: One, develop relief packages for the formal industry based on their payroll expenses and registered employees, with the clause that they are able to register a certain percentage of their full time (unregistered) workers who work as daily wagers. Two, develop relief packages for the informal enterprises on the condition of getting registered while providing technical support for a cost free registration process. Three, condition the approval of relief package on both the management and labor union. If labor union does not exist then at least three labor representatives who are supported to form and register their union be included. Lastly, the self employed should also be asked to register to become eligible for government supported interest free loans through various micro-finance institutions.
On the political front, it should also be clear that our existing security state is a liability, and we need to move towards the human security paradigm which broadens the realm of security from external state aggression to include environmental threats, infectious diseases and economic deprivation. An acknowledgement for this should be reflected in our next year’s budget and the upcoming Defence Day. Along with our armed forces, we should not just honor our current frontline against coronavirus, the doctors, nurses, paramedics and lady health workers but also our support lines such as sanitary and service workers, transporters and public servants directly involved in this fight, as it is the nations who fight and win wars, not particular persons or institutions.
Still, institutions matter primarily because each state or societal institution is tasked with some core tasks, and without them being skilled, resourced and led for those tasks, society can greatly suffer. Thus, each institution needs to be valued as it could be the weakest link in a security chain. For instance, it should be our top priority to evolve a local government system as enshrined in the constitution, while ensuring that all state institutions such as the National Disaster Management Authority are led by expert professionals, and not general administrators.
However, it is the individual citizen who makes up institutions and it is these citizens who hold the responsibility and power to exercise social distance and wear masks. This flips Nelson Mandela’s often cited quote that “a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones” to a nation’s survival rests on how much it invests in its lowest citizens, thus ringing true that hierarchy is at the root of our current predicament.
Raheem ul Haque is a Senior Research Fellow at Center for Public Policy & Governance, FC College University in Lahore.