Saturday April 20, 2024

Last chance to learn

By Kamila Hyat
April 02, 2020

The coronavirus has united the world in crisis and chaos. It has also exposed a great deal about the manner in which it is run, the flaws of the capitalist system which dominates it, the ability of people to cope with new modes of living and how industrial giants headquartered in nations such as the US are effectively destroying the world.

This has perhaps been most visible in Australia, which combatted two crises in the early months of this year alone. Bushfires created by climate change compelled thousands to live in conditions of high heat and poisoned air which could be fought off only by those able to afford air purifiers, or else holidays in Hawaii. For those unable to do so, there was no choice but to breathe in the toxic smoke and watch an inept government insist that firefighters be cheered on even though they should never have been plunged into such danger. We have seen this closer to home as well.

The enforced lockdown in Lahore, with vehicles pulled off roads, factories and workshops closed down, and people quarantined in their homes has resulted in a fairly drastic improvement in the city’s hazardous air quality. The levels improved on some days to what seemed like an almost miraculous ‘healthy’ on the Air Quality Index, and reminded us of the way we should be living. The blue of the skies had not been seen for a very long time in the city and those immediately around it. The impact of capitalism on our planet has been displayed like a giant landscape before us. What lessons will we take from it? Will the world change? Will leaders like Donald Trump accept that climate change and global warming truly exist? Or will we return to the old world once the crisis is over?

It seems unlikely that there can be a total shift back to the previous norm. In the US and across Europe, there has been intense debate over the healthcare system and its ability to provide for its people when their need is greatest. In the US, in particular, Bernie Sanders has pointed out the degree to which the healthcare system collapsed under pressure and spoke of how the US was the only developed country unable to offer its people even basic health cover. The same questions have arisen in the UK, where the NHS has received less and less funding under conservative rule. An argument has been put forward that as the crisis hit the country, private hospitals, some of them run by billionaires, should immediately have turned any additional beds and services they had over for use by people who could not afford them. None did so.

The cruelty of capitalism has been exposed too in the struggle of those on daily wages in our own country to survive and in the high pricing expected to be placed on any drug developed by Big Pharma to combat corona. The rich will recover, the poor must die. They must die of hunger, of disease or the inability to find work in the world that will follow corona, with economies in the same state of collapse that we saw in 2008. Should any country, any political system have the right to determine who lives and who dies? Should this be a matter of who owns sufficient money and can use it to protect themselves but not the society around them? These are all questions that are already coming up in newspaper articles, in podcasts and for the first time in many years in public debates between politicians.

In our own country, the government argues that the lockdown which is necessary to contain the disease will hurt the poor. But does it recognise fully that our failure to develop a healthcare system which is funded by a minuscule percentage of our GDP cannot survive if millions turn up at hospitals and other centres? Do they recognise that it is the same daily wage labourers they wished to protect who will suffer worst, because they do not have access to spacious housing, good hygiene or decent nutrition.

We have learned that we can possibly survive without placing thousands of petty criminals in overcrowded jails. Many already die of starvation daily in our country, directly or indirectly. More will do so across the capitalist world in the cruel age of corona.

Because corona has hit big companies, the state will inevitably step in to help save them. This means a bigger role for the state in the operation of companies and the manner in which they conduct themselves. There has already been a divide. Some companies refuse to lay off workers and offer them what help they can. These may be few but they have been identified quickly by people who work in the lower tiers of such companies. Others have not hesitated to quickly downsize their workforce in order to protect their own assets and leave them to survive in whatever fashion they can. This divide too may make a difference as people attempt to determine for the future what kind of companies they want in their society.

The upcoming US election will be one test of this. The healthcare system has become a major talking point in the months running up to voting. To the south of the US lies the tiny island of Cuba which has suffered far less from the coronavirus than its giant neighbour. They have succeeded in containing the disease and minimise deaths to only three. This is a far better performance even when population numbers are taken into account.

Cuba has 12 cases of corona per million people; Italy has 1,616. The US has 431. Cuba has also been able to accept cruise ships with corona patients which had been refused docking by the US or other countries. It has sent out teams to combat the disease to countries around the world, just as it did when other crises like ebola and HIV hit the world. Cuba spends 10.6 percent of its tiny GDP on healthcare and is the world leader in the number of doctors per percentage population, with 67 doctors per 10,000 people. It is not the perfect democracy. But its socialist policies have protected its people and could help protect the world. Somewhere there is a lesson here to take on board, to adapt and to keep in consideration for our future.

A pandemic such as corona had been predicted for a very long time by health experts. Now that it has hit, we have seen the world in a different light. We have seen ways to control pollution. We have found possibilities for schooling at much lower costs through virtual means. Will the world change once the pandemic is over? We do not know. But certainly, it will leave us with a great deal to think about and a great deal to consider about the policies which drive leadership in so many countries and the impact these have on people living under them.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.