Murphys Haystacks - Mortana, South Australia

How should nations, communities, and workplaces respond to the inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Content

'Back to normal' or 'a new normal'

It is now we must begin to postulate a post-pandemic future. When I say we I mean you, the reader. It is not my role or intention to tell you what to suggest although some of my principles will have become clear through the choice of characteristics and facts. This is always inevitable in any work like this. The reader’s task is to weigh the evidence and arguments and to propose their own solutions. These should be clearly set within a justifiable framework of ethics and principles that the proposer proudly accepts.

In Part 2 the reader was introduced to a few of the contextual concepts that have had a significant influence on the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic and more importantly the health and lives of people trying to live through it. None of what follows is meant in any way to diminish the wonderful work done by health workers, some politicians and many others to ameliorate the effects of this awful experience. Offered here are some principles that must be considered rather than allow ourselves to be returned to the conditions of ‘back to normal’ which caused the worst outcomes of this disaster. This section is limited to the same few concepts that were probed in Part 2. 

To return “to normal”, as most in business and governments seem to be advocating, is to return to “business as before”. This approach has its own moral and philosophical bases. Among many other stances it is based on a belief that a very few in society are worthy of controlling the many. It suggests that none of the lessons about the inequality of pain and death from COVID-19 need attention. It continues to trust an economic system based on monopolistic capitalism, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, will lift up the poor to a condition of slightly less poverty. 

If on the other hand we agree that we wish to build a “new normal” we must decide what that should look like. Equally importantly we need to propose how that can be best achieved. The Director-General of the WHO presents the challenge.

WHO prescriptions for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19 

This along with several of the earlier videos suggests that only an holistic answer will do. It submits that we must consider the effects of any change on society and natural environment as well as the economy. It hints at underlying principles such as the few canvassed in Part 2 of this essay. 

Similarly the need for, the nature of, and ways of achieving a 'new future' or the 'next future' is being studied and promoted by UNESCO.   UNESCO – The next normal  [See the Addendum for further links which explain the UNESCO activities.] 

What should happen after the pandemic is a question exercising many. The New York Times asked “Is the pandemic an opportunity” and has published a collection of essays grouped in a couple of chapters to form a major opinion piece called The America We Need . 

Readers can dip into these and form their own opinions.

Debate and Decision-making after the plague

It is healthy for our ideas and beliefs to be challenged provided it uses fact-based, logical argument. Sadly most discourse in this present age has been fashioned as either white or very black - even evil. Following their example many who use social media platforms eschew sensible, respectful debate and resort to personal abuse and violent threats. I am particularly saddened that even some academic researchers fall back on such puerile behaviour when they are apparently unable to muster cogent fact-based arguments. 

As soon as a rational question is asked that does not agree with the acceptable, establishment norm both it and the questioner are vilified. As noted earlier the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has been steadily starved of funds and moulded into a 'more tolerable' form. Despite the ABC's demonstrable value during the recent horrific fire season and the recent pandemic the Federal Government recently slashed millions of dollars more from its budget. The more rabid cry is for it to be privatised and the ultra right wing media like Sky News are shrill in their demand that the ABC be gagged.

As nations emerge from strange and salutary experiences everyone needs to seek solutions in a sincere, co-operative manner. That is one of the first and most necessary changes we should hope to see after the plague has receded. 

Equality - the obverse of inequality

Several times earlier it has been shown that equality is often best recognized by its virus in the absence. It is much easier to observe inequality as revealed in Singapore by the migrant workers crowded into tenement buildings, on low pay and without access to the national health scheme. More recently we have seen it in the ravages wrought by the virus in the favelas of Brazil. Here ironically their greatest help, in the limited support from the federal government, seems to have come from the erstwhile feared local gangs. In the USA the burden has fallen disproportionately on the indigenous, black, and migrant minority Americans. A similar picture is plain in the UK. To a lesser degree this pattern is also seen in Australia.

The harm has fallen largely upon the poorly paid whose health was worse, those who could not so easily isolate, and those who could not work from home because of the nature of their jobs. Sometimes this was manual labour which has to occur where the task is - like mending a road; sometimes it was essential work like caring for the sick or aged. In a flare-up of COVID-19 cases in the State of Victoria in the latter part of June 2020 the media and governments simplistically pointed to the communication problems caused by the the affected immigrant workers English language inadequacy. Indeed that was an issue. As one community leader pointed out that even in the South Sudanese ethnic 'community' there are 63 tribal groups represented so a single language and cultural approach is not adequate. The implication being that it was the people's fault for not understanding rather than a systemic fault that put them in harms way. However the main issue that was largely ignored was that many of these were front-line workers. For example some worked as cleaners in the hotels being used to quarantine COVID-19 cases who had arrived from overseas. They had not been protected well enough at work and so took the virus home with them.

On the other hand the wealthier, in larger homes and with office jobs could work from home and self-isolate where necessary. The owner/manager class often quarantined in their rural or coastal retreats well away from the major threat. 

Power - control - influence

Most people do not understand that politics is the exercise of influence over the decision-makers. From the child who lobbies for a visit to the zoo over the cricket to the coal miner who wants to take over prime farmland we see politics in action. In any given situation it is those who can wield the greatest influence who control the shape of the economy, society and natural environment. On a smaller scale, say in a business, it is usually the owner/manager who wields the greatest power and controls that domain. In many enlightened enterprises some of that power is shared with the knowledgeable, skilful and energetic workers who frequently bring great wisdom to decisions that reap benefits for all if those rewards are fairly shared.

It seems to achieve a move from the prevailing, gross inequality in current capitalist systems that the decision making in nations and in enterprises must also become more equally shared - that is - more democratic.

Democracy

It is obvious that by definition democracy involves everyone in the group. We know from history that ‘democracy’ has been fashioned from place to place and from time to time to suit the powerful few. In ancient Greece, the ‘cradle of democracy’ only the small, elite, powerful Greeks could exercise ‘democratic’ government and impose control on the majority. In the English tradition of parliamentary government we parade the ‘Magna Carta’ as a broad document which underlies our democracy. We forget that this influential, legal document, Magna Carta Libertatum ("Great Charter of Freedoms"), was imposed on the crown, King John in 1215 by a few very powerful Lords of the Realm to maintain and further their wealth and privilege. It has taken many centuries for some of the freedoms described therein to also apply to ‘ordinary’ folk. Even then they often are not evenly accessible because the poor are often excluded from the legal process by their very poverty.

A key element of a fairer post pandemic world must include genuine democracy at all levels. We need to avoid the current pretence which allows the practice of ‘democracy’ slanted for the benefit of the class that defines and controls it. The pandemic has exposed to varying degrees in many nations the levels of inequity and injustice that currently exist.  

Democratic reform is needed at various levels to help avoid or at least ameliorate some of the issues raised above. Limited access to Equity, Justice, Health has been revealed as the major social and economic issue in the spread and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. In varying degrees power and control in the society and economy around the world is concentrated in the hands of a very few. This is true no matter what the apparent political system of a nation or region. We usually talk glibly about democracy as though it is some pure, monolithic system of governance. In truth it takes myriad forms throughout the world. The USA often claims to have the purest form of democracy which provides unparalleled freedom to their citizens and yet are the very nation which makes it as difficult as possible for some citizens to participate. At the same time this has frequently been used as a justification for invading another land to give them the gift (impose) of US style democracy. Think of Japan after WWII. 

Despite the gerrymandering that once was rampant in Queensland and South Australia citizens of that nation can hardly conceive the lengths many US States go to by redrawing boundaries and closing polling stations to discourage some voters. This video looks at gerrymandering in the USA. These voters are generally the very poor, recent immigrants and/or African Americans. These voters cannot be trusted to support the status quo where the interests of ‘big money’ dominate. Disenfranchisement takes several forms including representation in Territories of nations. This has been (and still is) a problem in Australia, the UK and the USA. The District of Columbia in the USA is just one example. Rep. @AOC explains why denying D.C. statehood denies the impact of slavery.  

In Australia voting is not only easily accessible, but it is compulsory to attend a polling booth and cast a vote. Their freedom comes in that they may choose to cast an invalid vote to object to all of the candidates offered them. This is true federally and in provincial elections. Of course such elections can be as easily influenced and corrupted by the dominant media which is controlled by the power elites so that information reflects their interests rather than that of the ordinary citizens. 

Those vested interests ensure that Australia has the most casualized and part time workforce in the Western world. This disproportionately affects the immigrant workforce. As noted elsewhere these workers do not have sick leave and some are precluded from the Australian medical care scheme. This often leads to chronic, untreated illnesses that can become co-morbidity factors in a pandemic. These workers are usually also at greater risk as they are inclined to attend work when feeling unwell because of very low incomes and lack of sick leave.

Justice

Justice is one of those ‘motherhood’ national and industrial concepts that almost all people espouse - and often very loudly and ostentatiously. It is too frequently proclaimed together with false patriotism and nationalism. That is if one does not agree with the prevailing practice of the law that person is declared subversive. The awful, uneven imposition of the law in the USA which has a wild imbalance in incarceration of black Americans. Often those who protest against this do so in peril of their lives (e.g. Rev Martin Luther King Jr).

The pandemic of 2020 exposed the inequity and lack of justice in resolving the injustice.

Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam in 1963 after four young girls were killed in a Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. There had been several other killings of black American civil rights workers at that time. Now in 2020 after continued killings and lynchings her passionate, angry words of protest sadly are just as true. And the powerful are still saying ... 'Go slow'. Ordinary folk now seem to be saying 'enough is enough'. The passion and anger of this song screams for justice now as it did nearly sixty years ago. This song outlines the issues in four minutes far more powerfully the thousands of written and spoken words have ever done. 
Mississippi Goddam - Nina Simone 

'All I want is equality
You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality' 

Listen also to a couple more of her brilliant protest songs - Four Women and To be Young, Gifted and Black.

How can we integrate these concepts for a just new world

The reader may have noticed in some of the earlier videos suggested that Professor Richard Wolff has long postulated and developed in practice “worker co-operatives”.
Richard D. Wolff Lecture on Worker Coops: Theory and Practice of 21st Century Socialism 

This is a lengthy, but fascinating lecture. It is worth viewing the first few minutes to begin to understand the context from which this whole issue of a “new normal” may emerge. It describes a world where no-one, least of all modern economists, have ever analysed or critiqued the prevailing gospel of capital. The bulk of us have never read Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek or Ayn Rand but hold their teachings as articles of faith from the popularized version of them we have been fed by the media. That is uncritical acceptance. Much in the same way many church goers uncritically accept the creeds of their church. There are remarkable parallels.  

One of the practical outcomes of a critical analysis of modern economics for Wolff was to help establish places of business based in different principles where all of those who produce the surplus capital - managers, foremen, and workers - have an equal say in how the company functions and what happens to the excess capital. 

Professor Wolff also proposes a rather dramatic possibility that under current duress that capitalism itself may collapse - The Financial Bomb Can Destroy Your Savings & Capitalism .

A different approach is taken by Yanis Varoufakis. A good starting place to discover his proposition is the following video - What Comes After Capitalism .

He gives a good, brief survey of competitive capitalism versus monopoly capitalism and then suggests a way beyond the current concept of capitalism. It too involves the idea of greater equity and control, but uses standard capitalist ideals like consumerism to justify it. He suggests that “our job is not to save capitalism, for capitalists, but our job is to stabilize capitalism and use its stabilization as a foundation on which to an alternative to capitalism.” Once that is achieved proposes a second conversation about “What comes after capitalism?” 

Some criticize his approach as useful tinkering, but that it does not achieve permanent justice for all. Basic to his argument is the concept of an Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Great publicity was given the UBI by Andrew Yang, a recent candidate in the Democratic Party debates in the USA. His version was to pay the UBI of about $1,000 per month to every citizen. This would lift everyone out of poverty, reduce homelessness, and together with a changed health system make Americans fitter (and incidentally less prone to pandemics).  

In the normal capitalist economy this would significantly aid consumerism and businesses. Governments worldwide demonstrated their belief in this when many adopted versions of it during the current COVID-19 disruption to the economy. Be it the flat rate of AUD750 per fortnight Jobkeeper payment in Australia, or the even more generous scheme in the UK; governments paid. Not for altruistic reasons of helping the poverty stricken, but primarily to deliver some level of business support. These support payments will soon be scrapped long before the economies are functioning as before and so families will lose homes and experience the worst aspects of poverty.

David Harvey offers a more complete analysis of the situation. These thoughts came very early in the crisis but can be applied to the long-lasting impacts.  

Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of Covid-19 - David Harvey 

The following video is a very long discussion of new ways of organizing a society, economy, and space. 

A Call for New Organizational and Collective Forms for Cities After COVID-19 - David Harvey 

One criticism, perhaps somewhat churlish, despite Harvey’s passing acknowledgement, is the scant attention that many of these thinkers pay to the natural environment as a crucial, integral part of the whole system. When the readers frame their own responses I do encourage consideration of improving not only the big concepts of Equality, Justice, Power, and Democracy, but also the fundamental elements of the global and local systems of environment, society and economy. 

A “new normal” or more of the “same old”

The proposition posed beginning of this essay was -
The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic requires us to construct a different way of life to better serve the society, economy, and natural environment. 

What do readers think now? If what the pandemic has exposed about the inequity of our way of life does not concern us then there is nothing to do. One can just hope for a return to the old ways which have caused so much damage.

On the other hand most readers have noted that the consequences of the pandemic have created havoc because of inadequate preparation and that unequal impact of the COVID-19 disease. It has also been noted that the worst affected groups are also those that are the poorest, have little or no access to adequate health care, are more likely to suffer chronic illnesses, are less educated, and are frequently from minority groups such as foreign workers, immigrants, indigenous, or coloured in predominantly white societies. 

The reader’s mission is to reflect on the key points raised and illustrated earlier and to form opinions about how to improve our economies, societies and natural environments.
Some things to rehearse and ponder are suggested here in note form.

  • How bad is the pandemic crisis? The video linked here illustrates the issue for the USA, but much of this applies to varying degrees all over the world. The coming economic crash will be like NOTHING in history : Professor Richard Wolff
  • Two pandemics - Pandemic impacts differently on the rich and the poor.
  • Two pandemics - Novel coronavirus and systemic racism.  

Reconsider some key aspects exposed

  • Equality - 
  • Justice - 
  • Power and control - Who gets a say? 
  • Democracy - for what, for whom, what form
  • Poverty - What is it?
    • A lack of character - (‘personality defect’ - Margaret Thatcher) or
    • A lack of cash
  • Nature of humankind - What is that actual nature?
  • The role of the worker? - Organized labour is blighted by neoliberalism, conservative media, and complicit governments.
  • Essential services - Has private enterprise delivered? The profit motive has meant less employees, limited training, and poorer goods and services. A grim recent example was the private security which allowed the coronavirus to escape a Melbourne quarantine hotel with devastating effect. If not - how to deliver them? Which services? Government corporations? Cooperatives? Other?
  • How to integrate systems thinking and practice - We ignore or damage the natural environment  at the expense of society and the economy. What to do?
  • Ways forward - Do these include -
    • Co-ops
    • Better democracy? Within nations, local political units, work-places, institutions like health and education.
    • Universal Basic Income (UBI). Basic Income Guarantee. (BIG)
    • What about capitalism? Could it suffer the fate of feudalism after The Plague? [Note particularly the change from Adam Smith’s competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism.]  What Comes After Capitalism: Yanis Varoufakis 
    • How to get justice for all? (Special attention to racism. Listen to Mississippi Goddam - Nina Simone)
    • Green New Deal? What form of this could help in your nation?

Closing on a positive note

It would be wonderful to believe that after the raised awareness of Black Lives Matter, systemic racism and inequality that nations will seek a ‘different normal’ rather than a ‘return to normal’. As we emerge into the sunlight from the pandemic let us seek changes which could be the dawning of a ‘new day’ that makes us all feel good. But it must be all - every class, every ethnic minority, every race, every faith group, every indigenous group, and all nations on earth.

Feeling Good - Nina Simone (Lyrics)

Let us work for -
- a new dawn
- a new day 
- a new life
- freedom for all

Link to - Aftermath Addendum