The pandemic presents a unique opportunity for improving society
Even though we could not completely tame the Covid-19 pandemic yet, we have started to re-open businesses. Everyone is talking about a new normal where the world we knew is significantly altered.
However, we are eyeing to reset the economy and reach to the pre-pandemic functionality, ie business as usual. The urgency for returning to normal is blurring the fact that the pandemic also presented us with an opportunity of a great reset. We have a unique chance in history to reorganize ourselves into a post- inequality society.
One may question my view on two grounds: Firstly, how can we build a post-inequality society? Secondly, amid progress of most of the development indicators, is the question of inequality even relevant? I will deal with the first position later after I reveal some of the fallacies of global progress/development.
Inequality and pandemic amid progress
The pandemic has hit an extremely unequal world. In 2019, the GDP of the world was $8,8081.13 billion but the top 20 economies received almost 79% of it. This data is revealing, as it is not true that only the 20 large economies did all the work of the world and the rest are being lazy.
Rather, unequal distribution of GDP growth indicates the pervasive nature of a global capitalist mode of production. Capitalism as an economic system has separated the locations of production and locations of the realization and appropriation of values.
Capitalism -- through connecting the distant parts of the world into an integrated system of production- distribution-consumption has enabled the extraction of socio-economic resources, including what we term as “brain drain,” from the weaker economies to the stronger economies.
The global economic connection and extraction is represented by a recent briefing of The Economist that confirms the world is more import dependent today than 20 years ago. In an economic system that dominates the world today, the production bases earn an extremely low rate of profit while the capital owners take the maximum surplus value.
Thus, the larger economies are getting an unfair share of the GDP of the world. For instance, in our garment industry, the wages of the workers only make up 3% of the ultimate retail price. The world suffers from an unequal distribution of labour income. Globally, ILO has identified in 2017 the top decile earned 48.9% of all labour income, whereas the poorest 50%, ie the global workers earned just 6.4% of the world’s labour income.
Moreover, even though our food production ability has increased more than ever before, we still have food hungry people in the world. WHO estimated 820 million people did not have enough to eat in 2018. The number of food hungry people has increased for the third year in a row.
The concerning disparity within humongous economic growth is resultant of a capitalist world system. Following the pandemic, we are on the verge of more inequalities. Overall, 81% of the 3.3 billion global workforce have experienced full or partial closure of workplace during the pandemic.
This will certainly have a “massive poverty impact” especially among the 1.6 billion informal sector workers of the world. Contrarily, the world’s richest segment is amassing huge wealth through the pandemic. In the US, billionaires have gained $434bn between mid-March and mid-May amid lockdown, according to a CNBC report. Inequality is created and sustained amid exceptional economic growth.
The unequal distribution of resources has led to an unequal impact of Covid-19. Globally speaking, the poor are dying at a double rate than affluent people. The higher death rates of the poor display a lethal economic inequality that has produced stark geographic, educational, and health deprivations shaping the global effects of the pandemic.
We always hear about the growth of the economy, the rise of per capita income, reduction of poverty, and many other indicators that stand for development. This rhetoric of progress creates an illusion of advancement. However, the reality is that there are three worlds on one Earth.
The “shocking” global disparity will continue if we just reset our economy to normal. In 2010, Richard Florida in the book The Great Reset has argued, a recession like the one that we have started to experience due to this pandemic is the mother of invention.
Hence, we have a choice before us, either we can get back to a world that will continue to produce inequalities or through a great reset, we can try to halt the processes that over the years have produced the conditions of inequality.
How can we initiate a great reset?
The only debate that gets attention in the post-Covid-19 visions of society is about better management of the capital and market. Some propose controlling the workings of the market while others wishing to set it free. None considers the crisis of capitalism inherent to it.
Across different sectors, people are suffering from capitalistic profit-making ventures, which became transparent during the past few months. From people who are very poor to the aspiring middle classes, all are pushed into uncertainty. If we want to build a society free of the existing inequalities, we can take a lead from the egalitarian experiments that the pandemic has forced us to adopt.
Many people have already experimented with alternative systems of resource distribution: Free supply of basic foods to the poorer groups through volunteers, many are facilitating a process through which agricultural products reach from the farmers to the consumers devoid of any middlemen, there are platforms for free medical consultation via digital mediums, and so on.
We should all join in to continue this form of solidarity so that everybody has a decent meal at least once or twice a day even after Covid-19 passes over. This expectation is not utopian. These are signs of a new society -- probably this is why capitalists are anxious to only resetting back to the usual.
For this transformation towards a post-capitalist/post-inequality society, we must take back the economy. JK Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy have suggested, we should start by transforming the communities, the world, and above all ourselves.
A capitalistic worldview makes us think that we can help the economy by an increased expenditure -- as often economists and governments emphasize on increasing the purchasing power. However, we do not realize, if we produce-distribute- consume devoid of the circuit of capitalism, we can limit the frenzy of capitalism, hence reduce inequalities and possibilities of future economic catastrophes.
Prior to this heightened capitalistic inequalities, as humans we worked, cared for each other, and participated in economic and social organizations in diverse capacities. We must apprehend, the economy is essentially a social space, where we, as humans interact. Instead of returning to business as usual and restore everything to a pre-pandemic time burdened with inequalities, we must start making ground for a great reset, otherwise we will be awaiting more inequalities and more deadly pandemics in the future.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.