Changes for a post-COVID world?

There is something profoundly disturbing about this crisis. The results are frightening: ten thousands of deaths, hundred thousands of sick people, major cities in lockdown, an economic collapse…

Slowly, from China and South-East Asia, the crisis is now hitting Europe, the United States and will inevitably spread from there to the South. And as we know, the majority of poor countries does not have the capacities to care for their people. Almost half of the world population does not even have water and soap to wash their hands.

Speculations are going on on how our world will have to change after the crisis. But will it change?

One might smile when seeing how many healthy people come with their solutions, closely following their own yearlong concerns. Eurosceptics condemn the European Union for the lack of solidarity and promote more national approaches; advocates of basic income think to solve all problems with a monetary allowance; futurologists see a total collapse coming; ecologists point to the destruction of biodiversity and promote vegetarianism. And of course, those who believe in conspiracies see the virus travelling from the U.S. to China or vice versa.

Naomi Klein is careful and states this crisis might lead to catastrophic changes by leaders who just take this opportunity to do what they might not be able to do in normal circumstances. But her followers are not and already see capitalist takeovers and more austerity measures coming.


If we take this crisis seriously, it should of course lead to major changes in our political, economic and social order. But what changes will happen? Who is preparing them? I have no doubt that authoritarian national populists and neoliberal globalists have their plans ready. Progressive forces, once again, lag behind.

Let me emphasize however one positive development. All or almost all are suddenly seeing the importance of a solid and public health care system, based on solidarity. This is indeed very good news. Let me try and build on this statement.

One, a solid health care system means it cannot be geared towards profit making. Whether it is public or private, it should in all cases be non-profit as a basic rule. What some countries are witnessing today, with public hospitals overburdened and private hospitals accepting rich patients able to buy the best of care, is really unacceptable.

Second, it should be based on solidarity, which means all are involved and all have easy access to it, and preferably totally costless. Today, vulnerable people, those rendered poor, homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers should have equal access to all care facilities. We need universal health care.

Third, it now also becomes abundantly clear who are the important people in our system: those who take care of the sick, saving lives, doctors, nurses, assistants of all kinds. These people are usually underpaid and faced with difficult working conditions. If there is one thing that has to change immediately, it is this.

In the long term, a solid health system also means it should first of all think of prevention, which opens the door to a whole range of measures that, at first sight, have nothing to do with health care, such as food systems, access to water, research, housing, and so on.

All this means two things. First, the already well developed systems in some rich countries are not good enough. And second, from health care one easily comes to all other sectors of social protection and beyond. Health care, however essential and crucial, cannot be seen in isolation. It directly touches on education, on work and working conditions and obviously, on income guarantees. And it touches on the economy, what and how we produce, what and how we want to trade? This can become a truly progressive agenda.

So, for all those who now discover the importance of health care, please do look beyond and join us in the fight for a very broad social protection. Let me illustrate this with some more examples linked to the current COVID-19.

Public authorities should always be prepared for crises like this one. They should have safety stocks of masks and basic hygiene products. Hospitals should have urgency programmes and enough beds to accept a sudden arrival of many patients.

A solid health care system also means paid sick leave. Today, in many countries, people lose their jobs and receive no compensation at all. They fall back on their families, possibly, or on charity, if available.

Care workers, from doctors to nurses and assistants should have a decent income and work organisations that allow them to cope with sudden crises.

And again, obviously, austerity and privatisation measures should stop. They are responsible for much of today’s deaths because the health facilities are failing and basic appliances are missing. There can be no profit making in what is in the common interest.

Health care and social protection are not just a matter of redistribution. We urgently also have to look at the production and distribution of wealth. Current inequalities have to be tackled because they make all serious policy-making and even democracy impossible. Globalisation and trade will have to be examined. This is a good opportunity to look in detail at what exactly we want to produce and what exactly we want to trade in? The general discourses on de-globalisation and de-growth need to be made concrete.

Beyond the crisis

One day, hopefully soon, this crisis will be over. We will then have to look at how to reorganise our lives, our societies, our world. Plans should be made today. Remember the Beveridge Report came out in the midst of World War II, in 1942. The National Resistance Council in France proposed a full social security Plan in 1944. To-day, the World Bank and the Davos people have their plans ready, but have we? What are we waiting for?

It seems clear to me that a broad social protection system, with links to the environment and to the economy will have to be put into place. It is the only way to achieve social justice.

Several scholars already pointed to the problems with our way of destroying the environment and biological diversity that may directly have led to the emergence of this new virus. The way we consume meat, the melting of the permafrost, the lack of hygiene in some markets are all possible sources of current and future dramas. So there is a direct link between the social protection we want, the prevention we need, and the way we care for the environment.

Water and housing are the most obvious examples of topics that are not always included in social protection though they are crucial for people’s health.

At the other extreme of the broad links to social protection are patents. Just imagine we have a vaccine against COVID-19 in a couple of months, would it be acceptable this is monopolized by one corporation or one country? Certainly not. Also, austerity has to stop in research activities so that scientists can pursue their fundamental work.

It is clear the whole ideology of neoliberalism with a lean State with growing surveillance activities, complete trust in markets and fiscal balances, will have to stop. We badly need a whole new economic order, with selective globalisation, with re-localisation of some crucial activities, with spending on common goods such as education and health.

And obviously, wars and arms races should stop. They are one of the major causes of death, illness and environmental destruction.

The cost of this crisis will be very high. Is it thinkable to not call on today’s billionaires to pay the taxes they have been evading for years?

Of course, all this is a matter of power relations. But these are not only the consequence of money and weapons, they also are closely linked to hegemony and dominant discourses. Is this not the most urgent task for all progressive forces?

Social commons

Finally, it also is clear that a solid health care system geared towards prevention cannot come about without solidarity and without the active involvement of citizens. Many proposals have already been made in this respect, a territorial organisation, multidisciplinary approaches, participation of citizens in order to know what the real needs are and how best to meet them.

So, starting from the very obvious and very crucial health care system, we easily come to the need of a broad social protection system, to the protection of biological diversity and respect for the environment, to a change in our economic and political system and to an active involvement of citizens. They are the source of all power. A solid health care system is in the interest of all of us, undoubtedly. It is a social common.

Speaking of social commons does not mean we now have to go and work for it on a voluntary basis, on the contrary. This crisis shows how important our caretakers are. And surely, next to that community and solidary actions can help to care for vulnerable people. To avoid all misunderstandings, let me emphasize that the decommodification of health care does not mean the demonetisation of it. Decent wages and working conditions are of utmost importance. Social commons mean that citizens are involved in the coming about of policies and in the daily caring for each other.

It is easy to say and more difficult to achieve, but it could also be a fascinating task to start working on this, to imagine a better world, to put our demands on the table when other political and economic interests will also be there, ready with their demands.

This all will need local and global organisation. With the current limits on travelling, there is a serious risk that the fragile networks that have been created in the past years will also perish. That would seriously hinder the solidarity and cooperation preached by all major civil society organisations. Our future world will need omnilateralism, more solidarity and more cooperation.

We are after all the 99 %, we should have clear demands, ready to be implemented. Social protection is ours. The world is ours.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice

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