Views & Reviews
An appeal During Great Humanitarian Crisis
In this time of great humanitarian crisis triggered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that we sink or swim together. It is clear that despite closed borders and quarantines a global collective effort is required to surmount this crisis or we sink together. To close ranks between ourselves and retreat within narrow walls may help stem the spread of the pandemic but would come at a huge cost of lives and livelihoods lost that could have been otherwise saved and a path towards petering out of what it means to be human. Suggestions that the pandemic should be left to run its course because the culling of the elderly due to the virus would have a beneficial effect on the economy, reveals an inhumane and mad logic all too prevalent today. The COVID-19 is a menace faced by humanity and in the not altogether unlikely scenario of this pandemic lasting a long year or two, we may manage to cooperate and find that our shared effort affords time for reflection with ‘sober senses, our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind’.
We may question how well our current institutions serve us and their capability of delivering on assurances made. If the current system is hamstrung and incapable of delivering on basic human rights due to its internal incoherence then surely, we must decide that the system be transcended. The current crisis reveals all the more sharply systemic flaws that are insurmountable given our extant institutions. Human rights have long been delimited by constraints imposed by these institutions and their hegemony that dictates that there is no alternative, whereas the opposite should have been the case: Institutions like the State should be arranged in a manner that makes them capable of delivering on at least basic, indisputable human rights such as the universal right to dignified employment, security and peace, and a minimum basket of goods and services including healthcare. This process of rearranging institutions should allow a progressive realisation of expanding human rights.
How do we as a society decide upon a social provisioning process that accomplishes this and allows furthering ourselves in a manner that enhances the freedoms and rights due to all humans? It cannot be dictated by the alienating crisis-prone logic of markets, nor mediated by political systems predicated on domination and coercion.
Integration of the Global South into financial capitalism has made these countries vulnerable to the irrationality of a system where they now face the ‘triple threat of pandemic, recession and financial crisis’ triggered by the flight of capital seeking to return to the safety of the major currencies. This greatly enhances the fiscal and monetary policy space available to issuers of these currencies while greatly reducing the policy space available to the very countries that are the most vulnerable, at a time they need it the most. Calls for capital controls in the past have been decried and framed in the language of ‘rights’ of the free movement of capital being violated. Capital markets are reified and placed over and above even the people that labour to produce the very commodities that drive the economy. The rules of the game are set up such that all governments are drawn into a global race to the bottom in an effort to attract said capital, and unable to delink without coordination and cooperation. However, the realisation that the pandemic may ‘circle back’ across the globe unless it is stopped in the developing countries where health systems also happen to be poorest has been made by world organisations like the UN. The ties that bind people in the Global North to the global South have never been clearer and choices to be made starker and more unavoidable. Capital controls and outright debt cancellations must become the new order of the day.
Closer home, this very irrationality reproduces itself in shortages of commodities even though both stocks of commodities and capacity to produce in plenitude exists. The pandemic only intensifies this shortage due to panic buying by consumers able to afford doing so and hoarding by suppliers aiming to fleece citizens. The ailing public distribution system crippled by inadequate funds and subject to consecutive budget cuts also means that the poorest and most vulnerable are hardest hit. The steady privatisation of the country’s health system also means that access to healthcare is not geared towards handling public health emergencies like pandemics due to its profit-maximising model, with prices marked-up at incredible rates over the cost of production, which perforce limits access to such a crucial service. The crisis threatens to burst at the seams and expose the foundations of an unjust social structure built upon the backs of the exploited and oppressed. Already afflicted with pre-existing maladies, the country’s economy is now saddled with disruptions in supply lines and a further slump in aggregate demand that is incapable of rectifying itself if left to its own. Millions of wage labourers who have been unable to meaningfully unionise under a neoliberal India, find themselves thrown out of work-places. Safety nets have hurriedly been put in place, but many will slip through and suffer destitution and hunger. This jeopardising of the reproduction of value continues to be invisible to a system given to fetishising capital as value especially in times of crisis. Political, religious and ethnic minorities experience an amplification of their daily lived discrimination, only now explosively violent. Spat on, thrown out of residences and living in fear of being lynched, they risk life and limb for mere existence under an irrational and unjust system. Even the citizens in the urban centres of the mainland now experience the impunity and brutality of an unaccountable state-backed police for daring to break curfew, a phenomenon which has been part of the ‘normalised’ daily lives of people in the militarised regions of the Northeast and Kashmir for decades. Afforded this shared experience, perhaps they have an inkling of what motivates peoples’ protests in these parts of the nation. The exploited and oppressed of the country are either forced to live in slums where recommendations of ‘social distancing’ are an unimaginable luxury, or forced to flee the urban centres where prejudice, discrimination and lack of social support systems make living risky, and back to their hometowns in the hinterlands, risking the spread of the pandemic to these regions, which also happen to be the least equipped to deal with health emergencies not to speak of an unprecedented pandemic like this.
To mitigate the worst of these effects, a core set of immediate demands must be claimed by people. A universal public distribution system that delivers essential goods, a revitalised public healthcare system and a public housing program. Beyond this, unproductive expenditure such as military spending should be curtailed and prisoners including political prisoners freed or granted bail in order to relieve pressure on over-crowded prisons, following the lead of many other countries in view of the pandemic. The national average of occupancy in prisons is 114% of capacity and 67% of people in custody are under-trial prisoners awaiting ‘investigation, enquiry or trial’ according to the India Justice Report (2019). An outbreak in the prisons would be extremely difficult to control, especially given the close quarters inmates are held in, over-crowding and administrative hurdles that cause inevitable delays in access to treatment.
The Northeast region, in particular the agrarian societies in the hilly states, must in the long-run find a path that leads them away from utter dependency on central funds and imports and the clientelist politics they foster, leaving them especially vulnerable in times of crisis. This requires communities to increase productive capacity and surplus and find avenues of reinvestment in activities that serve to ensure universal access to food, housing, employment and healthcare at the bare minimum. Greater cooperation and solidarity within the region will be necessary to reduce the turbulence of an agrarian transition. There are multiple paths to development but only a few are sustainable, equitable and not prone to middle-income trap and crises. In order to traverse such paths, a free, frank and demystified examination of the processes of production, circulation and distribution is essential.
Regimes of accumulation and hegemonies are long-lived features of human society and interregnums few and far between. However, we cannot afford empty platitudes and meaningless gestures in a time like this.