WHERE TO START? the COVID-19 crisis that now engulfs us is a stark communication and policy gauntlet slapping our current systems of government and our economic way of life. No less.
It has hit us marked by the early denial by governments worldwide about cause and threat. That echoes the response to the drought and fires just a few months ago by the Coalition Australian government. And the reluctant response to the climate disruption that sits in the background.
It also throws the spotlight on our dealings with the natural world. You might call this corona virus (that first entered humans from eating wildlife) the revenge of the Pangolin or the bats or any number of exploited wildlife ingested or worn or just caged by our species. Wildlife for the table is part of a global trade that runs fourth behind guns, drugs and human trafficking in profitability and that is priming faster extinction rates.
Uncertainty leads to binge shopping and market crashes
Many metres of copy have been written in recent weeks as journalists struggle to cut through the misinformation and mixed messages regarding what to do and how to prepare for the health pandemic. Psychologists say the uncertainty about what will happen — lockdown how, when and where — and distrust of the leadership we have is partly behind the binge buying of toilet paper, hand sanitiser and canned goods. Probably beer too but that hasn’t been reported.
With a health system already struggling under systemic cuts and growing populations, it’s all a new ballgame for everyone from the chief medical officer through government ranks out to the financial sector.
There we are seeing the crash of an exuberant stock market fuelled by sky high personal and business debt. Money markets, lenders, are reported now to be drawing back. How that affects infrastructure projects or first home buyers, who knows.
How are we faring in globalised free enterprise?
As for the particular globalised capitalism that has governed English-speaking countries for the past 30 years, the present pandemic highlights built-in social cracks. How will the growing casual workforce, the gig economy without a financial safety net, cope as things shut down?
Following, I have clipped a couple of analyses that delve into this interesting question, starting with a piece by Guy Mosel for Sunday Focus (March 15) published by Unions ACT.
In a piece entitled ‘Corona virus exposes a broken society’ Mosel notes that the federal governments stimulus package of $750 payments to people on welfare and pensions, while OK as far as it goes, still leaves unsupported the literal health and well-being of those in society who will bear the brunt of the response to the pandemic.
“Four decades of privatisation, financialisation and casualisation have left Australia in a poor state to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Our public service is weakened, our health services are underfunded and our community bonds have been shredded by an economy that rewards naked self-interest above all else,” he writes accurately and offers the following observations and evidence.
“Hoarding toilet paper might be odd,” writes Dr Cristy Clark in Eureka Street, “but it’s nothing compared to the hoarding of money and property in a world where people are homeless and living below the poverty line.
40% of workers are living pay-cheque to pay-cheque
“Austerity and a fixation on fiscal rectitude has left millions of unemployed and precarious workers, welfare recipients and elderly Australians vulnerable — and that was before the pandemic. One in three workers can’t get access to paid leave.
“Forty per cent of workers are living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. What happens to them when they can’t work and the money runs out? Go into more debt? We’re already the second-most most indebted population on Earth.
“A piece by Dawn Foster in Jacobin titled ‘Austerity is the patient zero of Coronavirus’ describes the UK’s predicament, although it could just as easily apply to our own: “Gutting vital services and leaving millions of people just about managing financially has created a precarious society, socially and economically, and coronavirus looks set to cause the fine threads holding everything together to snap.
“As the Australia Institute put it, ‘the size of the stimulus is right, but the shape is wrong’. The package still leaves many casual workers and sole traders not on welfare without any support if businesses shut, shifts are cancelled and people are forced to self-isolate on mass. And if the pig-ignorant comments about casual earnings by Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter are any indication there’s no help coming.
“You and I have been telling governments — of all stripes — for years that Newstart is too low, that wages are too low, that worker entitlements are not a disposable perk and that private health cover is too expensive. Now that the slow decline into hyper-inequality is at risk of accelerating into full-blown societal collapse, will they now start to listen,” asks Mosel, unabashedly putting the argument for a more cooperative society and workers’ fair rights.
Crisis offers mirror to needed reform
He points to the opportunities that could open up for meaningful reform. “Maybe expanding the social safety net, restoring health spending and kickstarting a massive social housing program?
“With many people likely to face the impossible choice between going to work sick and not being able to pay their bills, Australian unions are calling on the Morrison government to guarantee two weeks of paid special leave for all workers affected by COVID-19. In this excellent piece in Overland, United Workers Union executive director Godfrey Moase makes the case for special leave, saying Australia faces “a stark choice between social solidarity or the barbarism of the status quo”.
Where did Tom Hanks pick up that virus?
Mosel does not ignore the spectacle of a United States, the most powerful economy in the world, now belatedly coming to grips with COVID-19 under a federal leadership that make Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson look informed and marginally enlightened (or pushed) about what to do in the public interest.
“Donald has spent three years in the White House disembowelling the precise services and infrastructure that any competent response to such a crisis demands.
As Alex Pareene in The New Republic writes, “These are all the predictable consequences of giving power to people whose only understanding of the role of government is to protect investment portfolios.”
I have linked as the next analysis an on-the ground view of what happens in the US under these circumstances — featuring a young, casualised worker who could be anyone’s daughter.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Our favourite economic reporter, the ABC’s Ian Verrender brings us a sobering report about the economic consequences to all of a governing system that has ignored, delayed and indulged in denial. Again, it is remarkable that the same inadequate response (federal, state and local levels) continue to face us with the climate emergency. That one may have taken a breather, but has not gone away economically.
For those who want to learn more about how this corona virus (it’s not the first or only one in circulation) affects us, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have an admirable ‘explainer’ reporting series going.
This and many other articles offer lists and links about what to do for personal health/safe living.
The same indepth reporting series brought us the explanation about the wildlife exploitation connection to this pandemic. I linked it near the beginning of this commentary.
Stay safe in the weeks ahead, wash your hands and don’t hoard toilet paper or face masks! (But I think chocolate, coffee, painkiller and your favourite tipple may be another story.)
MAIN IMAGE: Many employees in the food/hospitality industry rely on casual work. (Sidelnikov, Dreamstime)