The world is facing a major health crisis threatening the life of the most vulnerable, the elderly, working and poor people in the industrialized world, often without access to appropriate healthcare, as well as all vulnerable populations in the developing countries without access to an adequate healthcare infrastructure. Also at major risk are indigenous peoples, refugees, migrants – including migrant workers – and populations suffering from war and aggression, as well as prisoners and detainees, including immigration detainees and political prisoners.
The crisis exposes and amplifies the weaknesses and inequalities in the global neoliberal capitalist system, for however developed a country might be, the economic system is largely responsible for the development of the health crisis.
The global neoliberal capitalist system is a threat to the right to a healthy and clean environment. Many people succumb to the coronavirus because they have underlying respiratory diseases caused by pollution or other environmental factors. The research to find medication or a vaccine against the similar SARS virus that killed many in 2002-2004 was stopped because the epidemic stopped and there was no longer a prospect for profit for the pharmaceutical industry. Health facilities in the whole world were weakened and undermined by privatisation programs and budgetary restrictions.
The ultra-right – including the Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro administrations – is advocating policies that favour and promote the interests of the big corporations and their shareholders, rather than taking direction from healthcare experts. They are willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of workers’ lives by requiring them to work without proper protection against infection.
And in many countries, authoritarian leaders are using the crisis as an excuse to suppress and repress discontent and hunger. The risk for permanent authoritarian measures is high, as represented by the policies adopted by the Duterte regime in the Philippines. In other cases, this authoritarian threat may be insidiously advanced through the use of surveillance-oriented, militarized and often privatized “tracing technologies”. While such technologies could be useful to fight a major health crisis, the pressure from private interests and police forces to extend the use of such technologies for non-health purposes under any kind of pretext once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided will be tremendous. Of course, the burden of such technologies will largely be borne by the most marginalized communities, including racially and nationally oppressed peoples and communities and low-wage migrant workers.
The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the severe dangers posed by repression in multiple forms. Those who have already been targeted by repressive regimes, such as political prisoners and other vulnerable detainees, are further placed in danger of their lives and health due to the catastrophic threat of COVID-19 spread behind bars. At this time, we highlight the imperative for the release of these vulnerable prisoners, even on humanitarian grounds, noting specifically the situation of political prisoners and other detainees in the Philippines, Colombia, Turkey, Egypt, India and Israeli jails in occupied Palestine, as well as the threat posed by the racialized prison systems in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West.
The present crisis has revealed, on top of these symptoms of a sick and decadent capitalist world order, a dangerous tendency to undermine multilateral international cooperation and solidarity between peoples. It also has revealed an effort to intensify massive wealth transfer, between working-class people and large corporations inside developed and industrialized communities, and between developing countries of the global South and the large Western industrialized powers.
In the USA, China-bashing has become an important characteristic of the political and economic approach towards COVID-19. The Trump administration has issued multiple irresponsible statements on the so-called Chinese responsibility for the COVID19 crisis. Rather than challenge this warmongering rhetoric, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden chose to attack Trump for being “soft” on China. The upcoming presidential election campaign might therefore be marked by a dangerous competition on who will be the most anti-Chinese. This could degenerate quickly into a new cold war that poses a risk to the entire world.
Amid the worst health crisis seen in decades, the US has also opened an attack on the World Health Organisation, the specialised body of the United Nations in which peoples and nations cooperate to fight global health threats. The pretext for this attack is either the ‘inefficiency” of the WHO, an allegation that has been largely contradicted by the international scientific and medical communities, or the allegation that the WHO “is controlled by China”. In fact, the US has been undermining the work of all UN bodies over which it cannot establish its control and political domination at the expense of the global majority of the world. Some previous examples include the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, as well as the defunding of the UN Relief Works Agency, the refugee services agency sustaining Palestinian refugees in the camps denied their right to return, and the threats maintained against the International Criminal Court for investigating reports of U.S. and Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The US, often followed by the European Union, also maintains its inhumane and unlawful unilateral sanctions on Iran, the DPRK, Venezuela, Syria and Zimbabwe as well as its blockade on Cuba, making it more difficult for all these countries to protect their population against the COVID-19 threat. The attacks on Venezuela have become particularly virulent even as the country has performed widespread COVID-19 testing despite sanctions, with a preposterous arrest warrant against President Maduro and a recent attack by US mercenaries aiming at overthrowing the legitimate government. While the U.S. has escalated its attack on nations around the world that continue to affirm their sovereignty, 80,000 (mainly poor) Americans died and more than 1.3 million were confirmed sick, with significant racial disparities including a highly disproportionate number of Black deaths due to COVID-19 and a significant outbreak in the Navajo Nation.
In Israel, the authorities have been reported to hinder and even prevent the provision of health care to the Palestinian population. Dozens of sanitary items have been denied to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the Israeli regime has defied calls from UN agencies to release vulnerable people, including political prisoners and nearly 200 Palestinian child prisoners. The new coalition government has taken advantage of the fact that the eyes of the world are on COVID-19 to schedule the annexation of large parts of the occupied Palestinian territories in complete violation of international law. In particular, Gaza is under tremendous threat given the decimation of its healthcare infrastructure from many Israeli attacks and an illegal siege perpetuated by Israel and fully backed, along with their other unilateral coercive measures, by powers such as the United States and the European Union.
All these aggressive policies based on unilateralism and confrontation are in violation of the spirit and the rules set by the Charter of the United Nations which promote international peaceful cooperation and solidarity between all peoples based on sovereign equality.
The coronavirus crisis illustrates not only the necessity to build a new international democratic economic order as an alternative to the present capitalist world order. It also underlines the importance of the principles of the UN Charter: the need for multilateral cooperation between peoples, nations and countries, and the danger of policies based on unilateralism and confrontation.
Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis illustrates the necessity to strengthen international solidarity. Positive examples of countries like the Republic of Cuba which, in this very difficult moment, choose the path of active solidarity and send healthcare professionals and medical equipment to some countries most affected by the new coronavirus pandemic, show that another path than threats of confrontation is possible. The motivating principle of social solidarity and collective protection, rather than profit, repression and exploitation, is critical in any serious approach to public health.
The coronavirus will, at some point, likely be medically addressed, but the post-Corona society should not be based on the same system which has been exposed by this pandemic. There should be no “getting back to normal” when “normal” societies are based on maintaining neoliberal capitalist exploitation and the domination and extraction of wealth from the global South by a very few powers. We must look forward to a future which values humanity and the environment over profit. These same states, particularly the United States, European countries and partners such as Canada, that attempt to further violate national sovereignty and undermine economic development through odious debt service in reality owe a substantial and indeed massive debt, including a climate debt, to the vast majority of the world.
The path to a world capable of protecting humanity requires the mobilisation of all peoples to defend and build a new international democratic and sustainable international economic order that guarantees the right to development, full social, economic and cultural rights and an international political order based on the principles of the UN Charter of multilateralism and peaceful cooperation of peoples based on their sovereign equality rather than on domination, militarization and exploitation. .