With the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) considered a pandemic, some governments, such as Italy, Spain, Iran and the Philippines, have already responded with lockdown and quarantine measures. IBON International asserts that governments are duty-bound to respond to communities’ immediate needs, and must not use the health emergency as a pretext for repressive measures that threaten civil-political rights and bolster authoritarian trends. In the long run, structural changes are needed to protect the people during health crises.
Today’s health emergency is a time for international cooperation. We must stand in solidarity with peoples whose communities are afflicted by the coronavirus disease. It is even more important today to stand with people’s organisations demanding the realisation of rights to create conditions for healthy communities and long-term sustainable development.
Immediately, governments in affected countries must provide for basic supplies for hygiene and building immune resistance. Resources must be channelled for mass testing facilities as a primary way of curtailing the contagion. The right to social services must be guaranteed, such as water supply and health services for prevention, monitoring and treatment of the disease. Working sectors must be guaranteed basic rights to secure employment, living wages and benefits, and safe workplaces. Frontline health workers, who bear the burden in a health crisis, must be supported. Effective public information should reach the most in need.
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic reveals the structural barriers to the people’s right to health and to other basic rights, after decades of neoliberal policy working for corporate giants in the monopoly capitalist system.
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic reveals the structural barriers to the people’s right to health and to other basic rights, after decades of neoliberal policy working for corporate giants in the monopoly capitalist system. Costly health services are a major barrier today after decades of privatisation, with official estimates showing that around 210 million people spend more than 25% of their annual incomes on health care, as workers see lower income shares while corporate profits rise.
The people’s right to health cannot be separated from other socio-economic rights. Workers must have the collective capacity to assert their rights today, from sick leaves to benefits. But after decades of “flexible labour,” workers are seeing impediments to their right to join or create a union in 107 countries by 2019, as they face different forms of harassment and even killings. Before working people could self-quarantine or practice social distancing, they need affordable, decent and mass housing and transportation systems. But these systems are not present in many parts of the global South, and around 1.8 billion people live in “abhorrent housing conditions and homelessness.”
Without food sovereignty and the right to food, people have nutrition gaps and increased vulnerabilities to illnesses. But after decades of trade and investment liberalisation that burdened small farmers in the global South, more than 820 million people are undernourished, and another 124 million live in “crisis levels of acute food insecurity”—affecting women more than men. This is as 45 to 200 million hectares of land have been plundered from small farmers in the last decade, largely in low income countries.
Subpar responses to the pandemic of a number of governments show precisely why long-term and genuine development, led and for the people, is essential. A way to cushion the impacts of future epidemics and prevent mass contagion is to ensure that people have the material basis to take care of their health and sustain their needs.
Budget cuts in healthcare worsen the situation in Southern countries. Conditions of debt dependence, corporate tax evasion, and regressive tax regimes that encouraged austerity and drains on public coffers, while placing the burden on the people, must be reversed. It is high time for development cooperation to improve in both quality and quantity—for aid to really be based on historical responsibility and communities’ demands instead of donor interests. South-South Cooperation would be valuable for humanitarian needs, along with mutual cooperation in sharing effective strategies to curb the spread of infection.
The international community and peoples around the world must also be watchful for governments that might abuse the situation to further authoritarian rule and the interest of power-hungry cliques and business. Militaristic solutions to a health crisis only divert resources otherwise productively used on immediate needs and long-term development.
Already, business interests and policymakers are fearful of the effects of the COVID-19 on markets, amid travel suspensions, community and border lockdowns, and slower economic activity. The world must be alert that responses focus on public needs primarily, and not be instrumentalised for big business purposes. World Bank officials’ claims that developing countries must work for “supporting the private sector” through tax cuts and subsidies must always be counterposed with realities that public spending on health and other social services must be the priority to solve the health emergency. We must also maintain that public needs—from emergency measures, and later on, vaccine patents—should not be captured by private business interests.
It is of utmost urgency for the international community to dismantle the decades of neoliberal policy that removed guarantees on people’s rights and resulted to precarious economic situations. It is time to listen to peoples and their organisations asserting their right to health and development.
Peoples and the international community must ensure that immediate and long-term policy responses do not worsen the already dire state of working people’s rights and their access to basic social services. States which are not guaranteeing these basic socio-economic rights must be held accountable by their citizens and the international community.
It is of utmost urgency for the international community to dismantle the decades of neoliberal policy that removed guarantees on people’s rights and resulted to precarious economic situations. It is time to listen to peoples and their organisations asserting their right to health and development. #