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Coronavirus, workers and a world in dispute

By Victor Baez Mosqueira

In January 2009, I was part of an ITUC international trade union delegation that went to Washington to engage in a series of talks with the heads of the IMF and the World Bank. For them, overcoming the 2008 crisis meant returning to the old orthodox recipes. The two other serious crises on the rise, the environmental and the social, arising from the extension of wild market policies to these areas as well, were not taken into account, nor did they matter.

Our position was that we had to look ahead and aim to solve all three crises together, with integrated and comprehensive policies.

Not only was nothing done in that regard, but the policies advocated by the international financial institutions continued to prescribe the wrong policies by demanding spending cuts and the reduction of social protection until it was only a timid remedy, timidly limited to the extremely poor, leaving aside those who were a little above the poverty line.
In the political sphere, the rise of extreme right-wing sectors to the governments of several European countries, the United States, some (neo) coups d’état in Latin America, such as in Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil and, recently, Bolivia. The culprits of the crisis became the popular sectors, the migrants, workers who had collective contracts or wanted to assert their rights as citizens.

Although, albeit symbolically, the creation of the G20 was a tacit admission that a more participatory management of the world was necessary, because the divorce between the alleged leadership of the G7 and reality was already explicit, on the other hand, big business continued its task of undermining multilateralism, by initiating an offensive within the United Nations that has as its culmination, among other things, the signing of an agreement between the UN and the World Economic Forum for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which, in our view, further undermines the foundations of multilateralism, which is so necessary for the governance of the world.

There was no return to “normality” prior to the 2008 subprime crisis. Much less were the pre-existing crises resolved. What was done was to implement some patches that helped make things worse. Inequality grew, the depredation of nature continued (the number of governments denying the very existence of global warming increased) and the number of governments (with an authoritarian appetite) that were enemies of inclusion multiplied.

The results are visible. The coronavirus doesn’t come in a vacuum. It arrives and spreads in a world dominated by well-known elitist and exclusionary policies.

For several years now there has been talk that less than 10 percent of the population retains the same amount of wealth as the 50 percent of the world’s poorest population. On 28 November 2019, Jeffrey Sachs, one of the three leading economists on the planet today, gave shocking figures at an event held at the ILO in Geneva on financing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDAs). He said the world’s GDP is estimated at 100 trillion dollars, of which 10 trillion (10 percent of the world’s GDP) is in the hands of 2,000 people, the billionaires of the planet.

On the other hand, a report by the NGO Global Financial Integrity, dated March 3, 2020, shows that due to over- or under-invoicing in international trade, $8.7 trillion (8.7 percent of world GDP) has not been collected by the treasuries of 148 developing countries worldwide, between 2008 and 2017. Where have these resources gone? Probably to tax havens. The other leaks are not taken there for other reasons. And to think that they continue to insist that the public sector is the cause of all the ills of the world. Poker faces!

These are just two examples of many that can be given, which are relevant because now, with the coronavirus, as the epicenter is moving towards the Americas, sectors are emerging led by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and others who insist on installing a debate on whether to prioritize economic or public health. They say that the economy must not be stopped, that work must continue and that it is regrettable, but natural, that “some” lives should be lost. The extreme right is going further than in the subprime crisis. Then they demanded that we renounce our rights, now they demand that, in addition to surrendering our conquests, we offer our lives in a holocaust to defend “their” economy, the economy that serves them only.
Now everything is focused on returning to normal, that is, to the state of things before the appearance and propagation of Covid-19. There are laudable efforts to find a vaccine, to test as many people as possible, to have health systems adapted, as far as possible and as a matter of urgency, to deal with the emergency.

We should note, as proposed by José Robles of the World of Work Institute in Argentina, that all these efforts are aimed at solving the enormous global problem created by this pandemic. And he asks himself: What would happen if, in a short time, another virus and another crisis were to emerge? Would our countries be able to cope? Would the world be able to cope? Of course not.

There are some changes of position that are positive. It is not common to see the IMF recommending that governments spend more on health and stimulate domestic consumption. There is a joke going around in Latin America that fear of death turns many neoliberals into Keynesians. But striking speeches promising change after the 2008 crisis erupted were also made. Among them, I remember Sarkozy’s. There were no ulterior motives and today we are as we are.

It is therefore abundantly clear that the solution is not only to overcome this murderous pandemic and return, over the coming months, to our so-called daily normality. Either this neoliberal model is overcome or a large part of life on the planet, including billions of human beings, will perish. Either the role of the States is recovered and politics and life are placed above the whim of big capital, or we will not have sustainability.
Either a Tobin-type tax is imposed on financial transactions and the result is redistributed and a “welfare tax” is established on those two thousand billionaires we are talking about, or we will not be able to finance the ODS.

Either we strongly demand that the embargo on Venezuela, Cuba and other countries be lifted or we will see a hecatomb as a result of the active policies of some governments and the silent and unsupportive complicity of others.
Either governments impose robust public development banks to sustain and promote small and medium enterprises, the real generators of employment, and accelerate the necessary transition to a production model focused on social and environmental innovations, or we will continue to be held hostage by the usurious financial sector.

Attracting foreign direct investment is important for developing countries but it is hardly capable of promoting transformations when articulated with local small and medium enterprises and integrated into an innovation-focused industrial policy.
Either we insist again on real integration in the continents, in this case in Latin America, and reactivate UNASUR and CELAC, or we follow our recent trajectory of increasing loss of relevance in global decisions sustained in an adefesio like PROSUR. Journalist Mariano Vazquez rightly argues that this ogre should better be called PRONORTE because it is fully functional to Donald Trump’s policies.

Either we establish tax systems that make social inclusion possible, or we will continue to expel compatriots abroad. We continue to insist that the solution is not only equal rights for migrants in the countries of destination, but equal opportunities in the countries of origin. Right not to migrate.
Either we defend and strengthen multilateralism, where governments of small and large countries interact, or we will allow “multistakeholderism”, led by big business, to lead the actions of the United Nations.

Many things may be missing here and it may be necessary to prioritize the points, but the truth is that, if we want a sustainable world, we cannot be content with going back to the months before Covid 19. Every country and the international community must be prepared to contain any other virus and any other type of crisis, because instability is the new normality in the world to come.