Covid-19 exposes the destructive legacy of neoliberalism
For over three decades, neoliberalism has ruled the roost across most of our world. Peddled by the heirs of Thatcher and Reagan, and benefitting multinationals and wealthy investors to the tunes of trillions, this brand of free-market economics, consumer choice, and unfettered competition is perhaps best known for the destruction of the many public services that we hold dear.
The Covid-19 crisis, however, has fully exposed why neoliberal economies are unfit to deal with a pandemic such as this.
It has illustrated how destructive neoliberalism has been for our health services and workers in particular. If you wonder why EU countries now have fewer hospital beds, more exhausted and underpaid healthcare workers, it’s mostly down to EU governments and institutions subscribing to the neoliberal dogma of putting the interests of a wealthy minority before the interests of the general public, as GUE/NGL group’s coordinator on the European Parliament’s economics committee, José Gusmão MEP (Bloco de Esquerda, Portugal) points out:
“During this health crisis, the people of Europe have rediscovered the importance of public services and the role of the state.
“Now, as the health crisis becomes an economic crisis, the liberals are already using all of their propaganda to convince people that we will need to cut public services to pay for our debts.
“It would be such a sad irony if we were to allow the response to this crisis to undermine the very same public services that have, quite literally, saved our lives.”
So, just what impact has neoliberalism had on the EU’s response to the pandemic? Here are just some of the examples:
1) Profiting from healthcare
One of the worst aspects of neoliberalism is the influence it has had on so many major economies and international institutions that wield enormous power in the world. From the US government to the IMF, the WTO to EU institutions, neoliberalism has dictated, influenced and rewritten government policies year after year.
As we have witnessed across Europe during the coronavirus crisis, decades of privatisation and government cuts to our health system have led to severe under investment, lack of preparedness, woeful coordination and fatal shortages of medicines and testing equipment.
Neoliberalism has sought to turn public health into a commodity: for profit. By persistently prioritising competition and consumerism over free access, leaving citizens to the whims of private healthcare providers and medical services, governments around Europe are now struggling to cope as demand surges during a pandemic that many had warned about, and governments had chosen to ignore.
Public provision of universal health care is the best way to fight global epidemics and protect our societies. Healthcare must remain in public hands or in non-profit sectors so that we are not dependent upon the market. Universal access to good quality healthcare must also be matched by substantial increases in government funding and investment.
When a thorough evaluation of the EU and its member states’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic is carried out, it will become blindingly obvious that our leaders have failed to grasp how destructive their neoliberal policies and austerity have been, and why our systems are unfit to cope with this public crisis.
2) Competition over solidarity
One of the most galling aspects of this pandemic in Europe has been the lack of medical equipment and facilities to treat the sick.
During the early weeks of the crisis, the lack of help from EU states to one another was particularly striking. The solidarity that had long been trumpeted by the EU Commission was as good as worthless as first, Italy and then Spain were overwhelmed.
Sadly, neoliberal competition has long replaced solidarity and coordination. In times of crisis, EU member states were unable to coordinate or put the necessary measures in place to support one another, not just in health but also in economic and social recovery. Even the EU knew how underfunded the entire health system was, and thus failed to promote a common strategy to fight the virus in order to avoid competition between member states over scarce health resources.
The EU desperately needs a better budget that promotes solidarity over competition. But will the right-wing, neoliberal hawks in the EU Council agree? Don’t hold your breath.
3) Rights to medicine
The long-term results of cuts to public funding in research or the development of vaccines and medicines are all plain to see. And who will be the big winners at the end of this? The big pharmaceutical companies, of course – especially if they get the exclusive rights and lucrative licenses, and can just name the price to desperate governments around the world.
Who will pick up the tab? Taxpayers, as usual.
We therefore need to make sure that when EU public money is spent on research on a vaccine, the results must be free of intellectual property rights and that price accessibility to patients is guaranteed for the products developed.
The importance of public research and development activities cannot be emphasised enough, institutions must cooperate on an international level – not one that is dictated by major pharmaceutical companies.
4) Neglecting the elderly & the most vulnerable
Not content with retreating from healthcare, the care sector has also become a useful cash cow for the private sector as a result of the liberalisation of public services. If anything, cuts and under investment in the care sector have been even more severe, leaving many of the most vulnerable in our societies at greater risk of neglect, abuse and death.
Austerity in healthcare means there aren’t enough beds for the elderly. Often they are shunted to the care sector, which was already overwhelmed long before the pandemic; just look at the shocking number of deaths in care homes in recent weeks.
You then think back to why they were struggling in the first place: lack of government investment; cuts to local provisions in care providers; lack of staff; lack of nurses; reduced home visits and diagnostic help…. all of which can be traced back to neoliberal austerity.
The same can also be applied to social services, charities and NGOs that protect the vulnerable like children, women, the disabled, domestic abuse victims, refugees and migrants. All of these groups have been neglected for years, and their plight made worse now by the pandemic as access to services are disrupted and overwhelmed. If neoliberalism prevails again post-Covid-19, just as it did after the financial crisis, these at-risk groups will have to endure even tougher times ahead.
5) Zoonotic catastrophe
Climate change may not seem to have an obvious link to the Covid-19 outbreak, but when you consider the part played by neoliberalism in the destruction of natural habitat, and the loss in biodiversity, the increase in the risks of zoonotic diseases is directly related to the destruction of our planet.
Indeed, Covid-19 is just the latest in a long line of emerging zoonotic diseases or pathogens caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites that spread from animals to humans. As the WHO has noted, 70% of emerging human pathogens can be traced back to animals. Well-known viruses such as Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the West Nile virus, dengue fever and, of course, bird flu are all zoonotic examples which have killed thousands.
Fed by neoliberalism, our increasing demand for food and grains have led to unprecedented encroachment into the natural habitats of animals, coupled with deforestation and wholesale destruction of our planet. Humans are now in closer contact with animals than ever through intensive farming, the trading of livestock and their widespread transportation, as well as cohabiting in close proximity with other species in market places. Likewise, the unregulated harvesting of wild species has also contributed to the spread. All of these are driven by the neoliberal dogma of free trade and competition, and we are paying the price for it.
The Covid-19 crisis therefore underlines the importance of protecting our biodiversity, and the creation of buffer zones between humans and animals. This requires serious commitments from the EU in tackling the climate and environmental emergency. The need for a social and green rebuilding of our society and economy after the outbreak is more urgent that ever.
6) Devaluing workers
Frontline health workers and other essential personnel aren’t the only ones to have been hardest hit under the EU’s neoliberal policies. Workers everywhere, too, with precarity on the rise and labour rights massively eroded.
Many workers, overwhelmingly female, put their lives at risk on a daily basis: front-line health workers lacking basic personal protective equipment (PPE), whilst supermarket staff complain about the lack of masks and gloves due to negligence on the part of their employers. For the millions of workers under lockdown, some have been temporarily laid off but others have no jobs anymore.
Already, there are foreboding clouds on the horizon. A proposal by the European Commission that would ensure workers’ jobs, salaries and labour rights, a temporary Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (SURE), looks necessary but is somehow a voluntary opt-in for member states. This means many of the newly unemployed could be left to fend for themselves by their own governments.
Furthermore, the funding of SURE will only come in the form of loans instead of public subsidies – raised by, yes, financial markets, which will allow private banks to profit from the crisis and increase a member state’s debt. In short, the elite is doing everything to look after one another again – just as they did during the financial crisis.
The inevitable recession that will follow will be unbearable for many workers. They will be the collateral damage as a result of this pandemic, and they must be first in line for any job guarantees and rights protection – not multinationals or banks.
We must expand our resources and find new ways and instruments to mitigate the upcoming financial and social crisis. Neoliberalism has no place in the reconstruction of our post-Covid-19 world.
- Bloco de Esquerda