The international dimension of the crisis

Only an internationalist response to the unfolding pandemic of Covid-19 can resolve a fundamentally international crisis, argues Sam Lowry.

19 May 2020.


Much of the coverage on the Covid-19 outbreak, including that of the Left, tends to focus on the UK, often extending to Europe and the USA, sometimes reflecting on China, South Korea, and Taiwan. Occasionally Vietnam gets a mention (and rightly so). We hear darkly about Bolsonaro and, less frequently, of the situation in Ecuador or India if we listen out.

But everyone has moved on from Iran and there does not seem to be enough discussion about the Global South more broadly. Yet, what happens in the Global South in this pandemic will be a determining factor in what happens to everyone wherever we live.

Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) is a tiny, impoverished country in southern Africa with a population of just over a million and, thanks to the appalling policies of Africa’s last absolute monarch, very high levels of poverty, poor levels of education, and limited access to health services for most people.

It has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world at around 26% of the population, combined with high levels of drug resistant TB, partly a consequence of this. Life expectancy before Corvid-19 arrived was one of the lowest in the world, at 58. It is unlikely to improve this year.

On 13 May, the Times of Swaziland reported nine new cases of Covid-19 out of 172 tests the previous day, bringing the official total to 184, with just two confirmed deaths so far. The numbers sound low, but it is difficult to know the degree of under-reporting this figure represents.

And what happens when the virus really gets its hooks in there? What happens when Covid-19 starts burning through Namibia, Mozambique, or South Africa, and other countries with high levels of HIV infection combined with often-inadequate public health infrastructure, especially for the poorest sections of society?

Start listing the poorest countries in the world, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Haiti. Or consider war zones and sites of conflict, such as Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Myanmar. Throw in North Korea for good measure. What happens in these countries?

What happens also to the indigenous minorities in many parts of the world, who are at particular risk and whose deaths would represent not only a terrible loss of life, but also the loss of – or serious damage to – cultures, history, traditions, and languages that are a fragile part of our global heritage?

We Must be Internationalists

How do we as socialists and internationalists begin to formulate a plan of action that takes account of the situations in these countries? How do we deal with the strategic problems the pandemic poses for all of us? How do we reclaim our world, our society, our civilisation even, if the virus smoulders away in corners of every continent, periodically mutating, periodically re-emerging in slightly different guises?

How do we ever get back to a world in which we can travel, trade, study and research overseas, migrate for personal, economic, or political reasons? Even more importantly, how do we create a different, a better and fairer world as we clamber out from under the shadow of Covid-19?

The simple fact is that, until a vaccine can be found and produced and supplied to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population (assuming one can in fact be found), if people in any part of the world are at risk from Covid-19, then people everywhere are potentially at risk – again and again and again. The only solution to this health crisis is an international one.

In the developed world we are struggling – some countries more than others – to produce adequate numbers of ventilators and CPAP (breathing) equipment, PPE, testing kits, and contact tracing systems. As these shortfalls are resolved, we need to continue production.

Overproduction, where it can be afforded and facilitated in the developed world, is essential for the developing world. We need to export these resources as part of a massive aid programme. If you want to use war metaphors (generally I avoid them), think of it as a new Marshall Plan for the Global South. Just as China has done for Europe, so Europe needs to send out resources, material aid, advisors, and physical assistance of every type to countries that will soon be desperately in need.

In fact, in a recent BBC interview António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, suggested that an aid package for the developing world was essential and would cost at least $2-3 trillion (and let us assume that is a somewhat conservative figure, given that in late March the US Senate voted through a Coronavirus aid package worth $2 trillion just to support its own economy).

The Needs of the Global South

But in the same interview, Guterres spoke of the ‘effective dysfunctionality’ of the current international response, with international cooperation never before at such a low level. It is clear that, even in countries where levels of infection have been managed relatively well in the short term, the ruling class is failing to take meaningful steps towards a true long-term international resolution to the crisis.

We have no choice. It is down to us. Politically this has to be something that socialists and labour movement activists fight for in every country. Testing kits must be churned out literally in the billions – both for the virus and the antibodies. If treatments are discovered they must be made available free to the world. The same must be true of any vaccine. Any profiteering out of this disaster – and there is plenty already – must be prosecuted, embargoed, boycotted, and challenged through industrial action.

Any and every company that succeeds in manufacturing successful treatments and vaccines must have their intellectual property placed in the public domain, relinquishing commercial rights. Ventilators and other oxygenation equipment must be produced at cost price and purchased by those governments contributing to international aid packages. The same should be true for PPE and testing kits. Nightingale-style field hospital kits must be packaged up and shipped out to wherever they are needed.

But to be of any use they will also require specialists to train and support local health workers to use and maintain them, reversing the current trend where nurses from the Global South are currently seen as a resource for the Global North.

The Plight of the Oppressed

As socialists we see the need; we understand and care about the social implications of this pandemic. The capitalists and their supporters focus always on the economic and on their self-interest and will erupt in rage at these suggestions.

But the cost to the world economy, the human cost, the political cost of not doing this will be far more substantial than the cost of doing so. And the quicker we do so, the cheaper and more effective the programme will be.

Of course, even if it were won to more collaborative international action, the capitalist class in its various national configurations would wish to resolve this problem in its own particular way, focusing on the needs of those it cares about, discarding those who serve no useful purpose for it, and all the time funnelling profits into its capacious pockets. As socialists we will need to fight against this every step of the way.

And we must develop plans of action designed to protect precisely those who are the most vulnerable to being discarded – the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the unemployed, members of the LGBT community and, in many parts of the world, those who are part of an ethnic minority in their country of residence, as well as, not least, those who suffer political or national persecution. We must, in particular, take up the cause of those minorities who are persecuted for some supposed culpability for the pandemic – different social groups in different countries – but all equally blameless.

Women around the world are not only to be found very frequently in the care-giving roles most vulnerable to infection, but are generally economically disadvantaged, subjected to discrimination and oppression, and they are also victims of heightened levels of domestic violence during lockdowns and quarantines. Any universal income payments put in place to help people through the economic crisis accompanying the pandemic must be designed to give women more economic independence. Secure hostels must be provided to give them an escape route from domestic violence and abuse.

Children, too often voiceless and powerless, are also more likely to suffer abuse as well more general suffering because of the economic deprivations inflicted on their families, the dislocation and possibly the termination of their education, the stunting of their personal development, and who knows how much future psychological damage. Significant numbers will lose parents and carers, thrusting them into situations of even greater vulnerability. For many children the impact of the pandemic on their later lives and opportunities will be enormous.

We need political answers that address the plight of all these groups.

Social Measures

Thinking about broader social measures, should we not start to propose new health and safety standards for schools, colleges, shops, and public places – effective isolation measures for staff, strict control on entry to buildings, and so on?

Do we need international standards for the workplace on physical distancing, access to PPE, provision of sick pay, including assistance during the prolonged periods of recuperation that some victims need?

What about proper health and safety checks and provision of adequate, safe, and properly installed equipment for those working from home along with compensation for the use of domestic lighting and heating?

However, we must not forget that health and safety regulations for shops and workplaces are meaninglessness for a street trader or casual labourer in an informal or illegal settlement in the Global South. To enable them to work safe from the virus would require a different order of social change.

Should we be increasing the use of electronic payment over cash? In some regions could we use text message-based systems of micro-payments on basic phones to manage money and make small payments without physical cash, or load up USB sticks with digital cash to buy things?

These systems exist already in countries such as Eswatini. Nevertheless, for very poor people in many countries with only a basic digital infrastructure this model still requires significant international support and investment.

And what about the plight of refugees in camps and those who, because of the pandemic, cannot escape their current circumstances to become refugees right now? The real solution for refugees is to allow them citizenship rights in the country of their choosing. However, in the meantime we must fight for the safety of all those hunkering down in refugee camps, first and foremost children, the sick and disabled, and other vulnerable groups.

Crucially, the idea of resolving the problem of the pandemic is predicated on the notion that a vaccine is possible. If it is not, and immunity does not last too long (for many coronaviruses it seems that two to three years is the most you can hope for, sometimes a lot less), we are in a whole other ball game, one in which testing, tracking, and isolation are with us potentially for a generation or more, possibly forever.

At this point a global, internationalist approach, with healthcare and testing as its centrepiece, is the only salvation, and will be essential to avoid and challenge nationalism and increasing moves towards autarky and even darker consequences.

An International Programme of Covid-19 Related Demands

So what sort of demands should we be fighting for? Here are a few proposals as a starting point:

1. Unrolling a programme of oxygenation equipment manufacture for global need, including ventilators and CPAP, prioritised according to current international thinking on best practice.

2. A programme of field hospital manufacture and shipment to the poorest and worst affected countries.

3. PPE manufacture and shipment around the world for all vulnerable workers, not just health workers.

4. Unprecedented testing kit production for global use – again, free.

5. A concerted, internationally coordinated tracking programme that is transparent, not owned by the private sector and Big Data, and does not impinge on civil liberties or threaten human rights – a big ask and one only workers’ control could really guarantee.

6. International clearing houses of information and forums for discussion amongst health specialists to develop best practice solutions based on the widest possible experience, and available to health specialists everywhere.

7. Training programmes implemented around the world that focus on teaching existing healthcare workers how to deal with Covid-19 infections, working in ICUs, etc, based on developing knowledge and best practice.

8. Training programmes to increase the numbers of doctors, nurses, and other medical staff around the world, and increasing general health care knowledge in the wider population, paid for by an international fund. An objective of the planning around this crisis must be to enhance and expand public health provision around the world.

9. All health care workers must be assured decent pay levels, and treated with the respect that they merit. There must also be adequate counselling and support services available to help them cope with the work they are doing.

10. Building international stockpiles of equipment for future waves of infection and possible future pandemics of different types, ensuring they are stored securely, regularly inspected, and replenished as they become out of date.

11. Developing and disseminating low cost or free hardware and software for Zoom-style communications to anyone in communities too poor to afford it. Cheap smartphones with video conferencing capacity and the data networks needed to support them (the equivalent of free broadband to everyone in the UK).

12. Deployment of such technology to be used additionally for education programmes on basic health as well as Covid-19 related information, as well as for tracking infection and allowing communication for those in self-isolation. It could be also used for educational purposes when schools and colleges are forced to close as well as many other socially beneficial programmes.

13. Huge food aid programmes for those in need to help with the impact of isolation and consequent economic fallout during waves of the epidemic.

14. International programmes of public works funded to stimulate the economy and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the poorest communities – the building of hospitals and health centres, production of PPE and oxygenation equipment, as well as food, medicine, and basic household goods.

Plus a series of measures that go beyond the scope of this article’s preliminary thoughts, designed to reduce the impact on the environment of the return to economic activity – cycle to work programmes, motor vehicle reduction plans, in conjunction with new standards for design of public transport systems that provide adequate isolation and protection for transport workers (who are some of the key workers at the highest risk) and for passengers.

The return to full economic and social activity must also lay the foundation stones of a decarbonised world economy, but predicated on a just transition that does not abandon those whose livelihoods are currently dependent on the industries that we must change or phase out altogether in that process.

Finally, what about the idea of an international health service? The immediate question that raises is who would fund and control it? But from a socialist perspective surely such an organisation, again under workers’ control, would be a prerequisite for any future progressive solution to this and future global health crises.

This crisis is global and radical; our answers to it must be global and radical too.

Sam Lowry is a trade unionist and troublemaker at his dark satanic mill.

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