COVID-19 This time it’s different (I hope)

Kevin Albertson

History indicates that periods of time in which there is relative peace and stability lead to increasing socio-economic injustice: wealth inequality; incomes inequality; and social inequality. There have been, throughout history, some attempts to address this problem. For example the ancient biblical celebration of Jubilee is suggested every fifty years. Proclaimed as a festival of liberty, on the year of Jubilee, land and property would return to its historical owners, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and, in short, the wealth of the land would be more equally shared.

In practice, history indicates the concept of Jubilee is seldom implemented. Rather, according to a study of the broad sweep of human history by historian Walter Scheidel, the practical means by which inequality has been reduced are: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. To these four, we might also add (rather less disruptively) unionisation.

We need hardly be told that, in the period or relative peace since the end of the cold war, inequality has increased in much of the (so-called) developed world. This has been justified, incorrectly, by ideological position that economic growth relies on increasing inequality. However convenient is this story for the “winners” and hoarders of the global economy, it is a fallacy: net economic growth (growth less costs) per capita has declined since the 1970seven as inequality has increased.

There are those who suggest that perhaps COVID-19 will cause a reassessment of the growth in inequalities model. Walter Scheidel has recently argued in, for example, the New York Times and the Guardian that the coronavirus might tip the balance of power between the rich and the poor, reducing inequality. Consider the impact of the 14th century (and following) bubonic plagues in Europe: the population fell by between 30% and 60%. There was about the same level of work to be done, but fewer people to do it. This led to such a shortage of workers that (what we would now call) the working class were effectively able to renegotiate, and on average improve, their position in society, thus the pandemic reduced inequality.

The impact of COVID-19 appears to be the opposite. There are roughly the same number of workers because, mercifully, the death rate has remained relatively low (although what it is precisely remains unclear), however there are far fewer jobs to be done. There would have been fewer jobs anyway, because of automation, COVID-19 has merely hastened this effect; therefore many of these jobs will probably not return.

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is evidence there were only 1·5 billion good jobs in the world and a global workforce of 3 billion – implying a global un/under-employment rate of 50%. Rather more worryingly only 5% of the working population had great jobs. Clearly, there is not going to be any shortage of workers for the foreseeable future, rather the opposite. Simple economics suggests, in this situation, those who are employed will see their bargaining power in the market (and hence their terms and conditions of employment) decline.

It would appear the COVID-19 is not catastrophic enough to reduce inequality. For the lack of catastrophe, we must be grateful! However, we must recognise that, as inequality increases, societies become increasingly hostile to liberal values. If left unchecked escalating inequality appears to make violent revolution more likely. For the sake of our own self-interest (never mind issues of socio-economic justice) we ought to seek a different path in the future from that on which we find ourselves.

It seems foolish to wait for one of the other four horsemen to turn up to address growing global socio-economic injustice; I don’t think it will be much fun if it does. We could “head the problem off at the pass” and simply declare a year of Jubilee and share the inherited resources of the world. There is enough to go around; enough, that is, for everyone’s need, but not enough even for one person’s greed.

Dr Kevin Albertson is Professor of Economics at Manchester Metropolitan University. Kevin’s most recent books include Marketisation and Privatisation in Criminal Justice and Responsibility Beyond Growth A Case for Responsible Stagnation, both from Policy Press. To read “1979 and all that”, a conservative critique of the neo-liberal policies established in the 1980s please go to https://academic.oup.com/cje/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/cje/bez037/5550923.

Credit photo: pixabay.com


Towards post-pandemic self-sufficient communities?

Vertically social distancing

Leslie Sklair

Inspired by Alison’s post (and the symbolic recycling bins?), and having just reached the grand old age of 80 last Monday, I feel ready to join in this conversation. As some of you know I have been deeply immersed for the past four years in editing a book (mercifully now in press) on how the Anthropocene is reported in global media. The coronavirus epidemic has come as, maybe, the last piece in a ghastly jigsaw that has been forming subconsciously in my mind. This started me thinking about the dialectic between age and youth. The family, including four London-based grand-children (plus one ZOOM from Devon), came to celebrate, with me vertically social distancing from the kitchen window (I am being very cautious). The basket is for me to send down some treats for them and to bring up their lovely home-crafted birthday cards (with a little help, for those who can’t write yet, from mums and dads).

When they start to understand what is going on, a virus spread in a world carelessly globalizing, what will they think of our generation? Of course, this has prompted me to write something on the evil triad of capitalist globalization, the Anthropocene, and the epidemic (the literature on this is growing exponentially). Is there really going to be system transformation, a new eco-normal, a new change of heart globally by big business, the big state, publics all over the world being exhorted to buy, buy, buy. Of course not, while the same people in charge now stay in charge? What to do? As I argued in my HALF-BAKED some years ago, the only way forward is exit from capitalism in all its forms and from the hierarchical state that nurtures it, create new self-sufficient communities (there are plenty of good examples all over the world). It may be too late for us, but we can make a start by teaching our children (biological and social) how to grow their own food. A utopian, anarchist, socialist dream? Of course, but better than any of the other ‘business as usual’ dreams on offer.

Leslie Sklair is emeritus professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. His work in the last few decades has focused on the transnational capitalist class, capitalist globalization, the culture-ideology of consumerism, architecture and cities and, most recently, how these connect with the Anthropocene.

Credit main photo: localfutures.org

India’s migrant labour exodus and the missing trade unions

Resmi Bhaskaran

The images of the great Indian migrant exodus are fresh in the memory of the nation. Migrant workers came in droves to Anand Vihar Bus Depot in East Delhi on March 28, 2020, following a rumour that transport is being provided to people travelling to the eastern and central Indian states. They waited patiently with discipline for more than 36 hours and then started walking to their villages. Millions of people walked silently with their families and all their worldly possessions without any protest. The sudden declaration of the nation-wide lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19 pandemic forced nearly 100 million migrant workers in different cities to hit the street in a state of absolute uncertainty.

This great human tragedy unfolded in the last week of March brought to the fore the plight of millions of workers in the unorganised sector in the country. They did not have able leaders and trade unions to engage in collective bargaining and conduct negotiations with their employers and the state. Years of neoliberal policies have weakened India’s labour/ trade unions through a process of informalisation of the work place and workers. The labour laws were relaxed in favour of employers, and the image of trade unions took a beating. The exodus during Covid-19 lockdown exposed the vulnerability of workers in India in the absence of trade unions. They were pushed to the corner after a gradual, but systematic decimation of trade unions.

According to the Participation of Labour Force Survey 2017-18, 38.3% of the employed people in urban India are self-employed and 14.7% are causal labourers. The numbers for the entire country are 52.2% and 24.9%, respectively. This means 77% of working Indians are on their own in the labour market. Out of the regular wage/ salaried people, more than 71% work without a contract, 55% do not have paid leave, and 50% do not have any social security support. This explains how vulnerable they are and why they cannot organise for their rights. In the last decade, there has been a sharp rise in non-contractual regular jobs in India. They function in the formal sector as informal workers. When the lockdown was declared, employers were not obliged to provide support to their staff. This explains the worker exodus that unfolded during the lockdown.

The Participation of Labour Force Survey goes on to explain that almost two thirds of those who work as regular employees are service workers employed in shops, craft and related trades, and support workers in the formal sector. They become jobless when the economic activities stop. Most of those in the unorganised sector are engaged in construction, manufacturing supply chains, household support work, restaurants, shops and sanitation work, while some are street vendors or owners of micro units.

The lockdown was rolled out in an unplanned manner. The workers in the unorganised sector failed to collectively bargain with the government for transportation facilities. Without the power to assert their human and labour rights, they were left at the mercy of the state and charity of others for food, water, stay and transport. Simply, the system converted informal workers into beggars and forced them to walk to their homes hundreds of kilometers away.

During the time, some Indian states suspended labour laws that ensure the dignity of workers. Many Indian private enterprises announced massive layoffs and salary cuts. The institution that worked to provide dignity to workers — trade unions – was either absent or absolutely ineffective during the entire crisis.

Trade unions: Growth and coverage

The post-reform period saw the informalisation of production activities in India. More jobs were generated outside factories. Since people working from home were not connected to each other, unionisation of workers became difficult. Out of the jobs generated in India during 2017-18, 80-90% were in unorganised sector. This sector contributes nearly 40% of the GDP and 90-95% of the total private sector employment in India. Demonetisation and GST rollout had impacted the workers adversely. The Covid-19 lockdown aggravated their hardships and pushed them into poverty.

Over the last 30 years, a few deliberate and some accidental interventions by various agencies rendered the trade unions powerless. According to the National Labour Bureau, the number of registered trade unions in India fell from 55,680 in 1992 to 12,486 in 2014. The decline was dramatic since 2006. Union membership fell from 5.7 million in 1992 to 3.4 million in 2004, but thereafter rose steadily to 8 million in 2015. Only 1.7% of the total workers in both the formal and informal sectors were part of a labour organisation in 2015.

Data from different sources explain how badly labourers are organised. While 60% of trade union members are in the formal sector and among them a majority are with public sector. The rest of the union members are in informal sector that constitute more than 90% of the total workforce. Therefore, only less than 0.5% of informal sectors worker have membership in trade unions. In the informal sector, trade union members are mainly engaged in agriculture, construction, transportation and storage sectors. Other sectors have very few trade union members.

Further, most of the trade union members in India are from two states — Kerala (32%) and Assam (25%). Kerala and Assam together have only 5% of the total workforce in India, but they have 57% of the trade union members in the country. The trade unions are either absent or powerless in India’s major industrial hubs such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal. They are also absent in major agricultural and mining centres such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. About 36% of the trade union members are in agriculture and allied activities. Only a small fraction of workers in non-agriculture sectors are organised.

Many of the trade unions in India are affiliated to political parties such as the BJP, Congress and Communist parties, still they are powerless to protest the shoddy treatment of workers. So, an event that could have resulted in a nation-wide labour unrest, went without a whimper in India. In the absence of trade unions, the state needs to go the extra mile to mitigate the sufferings of the country’s vulnerable working class.

Dr Resmi Bhaskaran is a development economist based in Manipal, Karnataka. This blog post has initially been published on the Policy Circle website.

Main photo: An Indian handloom worker. Many of the trade unions are affiliated to powerful political parties, still they are powerless to protest the shoddy treatment of workers. Credit: discoveringchennai.wordpress.com.

The unbearable weight of white lies

Dr John David Jordan, Liverpool Hope University

This is the sort of time when you write and re-write a blog post. Everything seems like the wrong thing to say, but for different reasons; not least that things are moving so fast that a new event could happen at any moment and make a blog post obsolete before it is even published. I wanted to start, then, with one such event, but to try and tie it into something permanent.

I have lost track of days so I don’t even know what date it was when President Trump tear-gassed peaceful protestors for a photo op. I remember watching these immense events, aghast, into the wee hours, and then looking in the mirror and thinking Wow, I desperately need a haircut!

The psycho-social experience of existing in momentous times whilst simultaneously retreating into an enforced micro-focus on the minutiae of day-to-day living is, I guess, something like being a crew member on a nuclear submarine, but without the sense of immense personal purpose. Which is the other thing. So much is going on and it’s not clear what I should be doing to be a part of it. Or rather, am I doing enough? I know what the immense personal purpose is: It’s to fight the power! As always. But am I doing enough? I mean, not just as a person, but with my mind, as an academic. And not just as an academic, but as a person, with my actual body, in a pandemic.

And which thing do I get most focussed on? Racist police murderers? The racists in power? The conspiracy theorists? The hypocrisy? Prince Andrew? Elite fascists and the potential purge of the Left that they are now salivating over? The masked thug on Twitter threatening to storm universities and kill socialist lecturers? The colossal mishandling of the covid-19 crisis in the UK that has seen thousands of unnecessary deaths? Or, within that, the callous disregard for the elderly and adults with learning difficulties? Or the higher numbers of ethnic minority deaths? And what about the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria – seemingly forgotten?

Those are the thoughts I was mulling round as I sat down to write this. But then, there are also a whole bunch of other things about social theory in a more abstract sense that are rolling round in the mull too. Like, is it a global northern privilege to think that the speed at which negative events are happening is accelerating?

I guess yes, but there is also something significant going on in the global infrastructure – or at least, in its hegemonic leadership structures – that people right at the heart of current struggles are also highlighting. Times may be a’changing, but they may also be regressing, and we don’t know yet which way it will go.

Last year my colleague Dr Julia Lux and I published research in which we warned of the ‘mainstremeists’ who promote far-right theories – conspiracy and otherwise – not from the social extremities, but from the central institutions of state and cultural power. We also warned that this is not just an event, but an ongoing political and economic project with aims and momentum. A trajectory even. One aspect of this, which we continue to consider, is that this is also an ontological project; not just a ‘culture war’ (whatever that actually means) but a class struggle over reality itself. This isn’t only a matter of conspiracy theories, but of words more generally being cynically deployed in grotesque lies, logic-mangling bombast, and pseudo-scientific neo-eugenic theories on race, gender, sexuality and class that use rhetorical tricks to twist reality into its opposite.  

There are, for me, two breath-taking exemplars of such elite rhetorical grifting. Firstly, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special adviser Dominic Cummings’ absurd claim that he had to break the Covid-19 lockdown rules – rules that he himself helped to set – in order to ‘test his eyesight’ by taking his wife and young child on thirty-minute drive to a beauty spot on his wife’s birthday to see if they crashed or not. Secondly, Donald Trump’s sickening claims that a 75-year-old peaceful protestor, brutally pushed to the ground by armed American police, was some sort of secret Antifa super-agent on a high-tech mission to jam police communications. Both were mouth-garbage of the first order.

In the mainstream centres of power, there are many such characters who seek to use conspiracy theories and convoluted, malicious bloviation (invented words, even, in Trump’s ‘covfefe’ case), to weave an entirely false view of reality, which they then pitch, with utter contempt, to an audience who mostly know full well that they are lying. This is the culmination of a decades, if not centuries, old white-supremacist, bourgeois project to seize and control the institutional means of reality.

The mouth-spew of that project is for one audience – a white, privileged one – while simultaneously, a baton is doing most of the talking to the oppressed.

For the oppressed black community of America, direct experience of reality has been practical theory for a long time; powerfully transformed into multiple formats, such as protest, the academic analyses of black scholars, journalists and activists, the cultural output of black artists, and the immensely moving eloquence of speakers such as Ben Crump and the Reverend Al Sharpton. This is a decades, if not centuries, old project of experienced truth, turned into action, built into a movement and then relayed to a wider social audience who are increasingly exhausted by the unbearable weight of white lies.

The point I am wrestling with here is where theories of the global – often produced by white theorists – beyond direct action, sit within this story. And this is a story of both the global, and of action. Tearing down the statue of a slaver and sending it to the bottom of the water is (global) theory, praxis, rebellion and ritual, all rolled into one – and then rolled into the river! Where it richly deserves to be. But where next? Particularly as the unbearable weight of white lies is pressed determinedly against the history and practice of social theory.

The answer is in part for me to know that I don’t know; I don’t have the experience to inform the theory. What I would like to do, though, is remember here the work of black American Marxist Oliver Cromwell Cox, whose monumental theoretical analysis taught us so much about the role of racism in underpinning capital accumulation – particularly through the relative and intersectional exploitation of subordinated classes, castes and ethnic groups. Cox struggled personally and professionally against white supremacist social theory, which in turn has done its best to erase him. But it can’t erase the truth. It can’t use words, lies, conspiracies and rhetorical tricks to erase lived experience. It can only truncheon, teargas, imprison and kill. And even then, only for so long.

I have no grand theoretical point here. I just see a poignant opposition between the rhetorical malfeasance of the white supremacist project, whose ivory-castle conspiracy entrepreneurs spew out twisted rhetoric like they are getting paid to do so, and the solid base of experience of the oppressed, and how that, in itself, becomes theory-in-practice through protest, rebellion and activist speech.

Cox exemplified experience-led theory, and this seems to me important to remember at this point of change, where scholars are reassessing their own role/s in the struggle. Cox taught us (at least) five significant meta-lessons that scholars of the global should, in my view, take seriously today. Firstly, that there is a social and historical reality of the global, and that this can be empirically analysed and plausibly theoretically critiqued. Secondly, that underpinning this critique with direct experience can challenge the Right’s near hegemony over the institutional means of reality. Thirdly, that there can be no plausible analysis of either national or global capitalism without Marx, and his understanding of the central axis of exploitation in the service of capital accumulation. Fourthly, that there can be no legitimate analysis of the global system that ignores its profoundly racially structured nature. And fifthly, that to challenge white supremacist social theory we must upturn its fundamental ontology, including the partisan and overwhelming dominance of white (and, we might add, male, straight) people in running, controlling, hiring and reviewing the processes and means of knowledge. We must knock this edifice off its plinth and roll it into the river. The sooner we do that, the better. Theory as praxis. No justice, no peace.

Credit photo: BC for Studio Incendo

Lines of hope! Shattering Lines of Divide in Global Studies

Shoba Arun, Reader in Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University

I watch those lines getting longer, hazier and staggering. Families and children walking hundreds of kilometers during the hot Indian summer. Children on the back of worn out parents – their tired piercing eyes lashing out to humanity. These are ‘migrants’ who lived and worked across many regions of India in the construction, retail sectors and who wanted to return to their home states when the government declared lockdown. Why are they migrants, in their own country? For years, they have sweated to build homes and other key infrastructure such as bridges and roads in cities that define rising India. With lockdown, they became no one’s responsibility. Their long walk led to many deaths from starvation and stress and heartbreaking accidents and conflict, relegating them within the language of victimhood, rather than subjects of deeply entrenched social and economic power structures, of caste, class and region.

The current moment is a critical turn in global studies and migration research to centralise reflexivity to question the nature of our knowledge production, and to address the risk of migration studies of reproducing hegemonic structures and problematic definitions. The labelling of migrants serves the dual purpose of victimhood construction within debates of race, racism, inequalities and discrimination (BME migrants as vulnerable or exposed to more risks) and the perpetuation of the ‘dangerous’ other (terrorist or savage) or the dehumanised (helpless refugees fleeing conflict or hardship) juxtaposed against the dominant majoritarian – all of which sets the tone of discourses on migrant identities in a globalised context. The diversity of migration needs to be addressed more coherently within migration studies.

The temporality of mobilities, hastened by the internationalisation of higher education and ensuing movements of students have caught many unaware too. Such groups also labelled as migrants, and those on short term visas and work permits have had other traumatic experiences. I was an international student once, a BME worker and then a settled migrant from a colonial country who longed to be part of her motherland. My eyes rove across the long queues popped up in the UK as international students went short of food when Universities closed, and their temporary jobs ceased. Many got holed up in their tiny rooms, unaware of how to get help but whatsapping their distressed families back home – those who thrashed out their economic assets for their children’s’ education in hopes of a better future as promised by those agents of western education. In other circumstances, precarious workers were the victims, like the Uber driver who was found dead in his room, and in hunger as he was too scared to get help in fear of eviction. Another skilled IT worker was airlifted with the help of community leaders and crowdfunding, back to his country and to his loved ones as he was dying from terminal illness.

Transnational care chains have been much discussed within Mobility debates, including the gendered dimensions of care. While there is much attention to migrants arriving to Italy by boat but takes of Romanian health workers, mostly women in Italy who have left their families back home to care for the elderly and the sick in other host countries do not receive much attention. Health and care workers, many identified as BAME, are migrants perhaps mostly defined as first generation, – and serving the health sector as frontline workers. Some of these were recruited  as international or overseas to address skill shortages in the NHS – but clearly have been more exposed to the deadly virus. The reasons cited were the lack of PPE, being in front line departments such as emergency, and as locum workers with little choice in how their roles are allocated. Many sadly have lost their lives in their fight to protect our lives, and to serve the NHS. Other BAME populations, who were once migrants, were identified as ‘at risk’ because of underlying conditions aggravated by structural inequalities in health and housing.

The Covid -19 Pandemic is indeed a turning point to reflect on the epistemological and ontological concerns about migration studies globally. Who is a migrant, and how is a migrant defined, and in whose eyes? My current research on Migrant Children and Integration poses a striking question as how generations of migration define changing experiences of children. Often, migrant children are interchangeable with BAME children vis-à-vis the colour of their skin or religion – but such lines of divide based on stereotypes need to be shattered!

Present discussions on migrant workers and the labour markets have revolved around how migrants have been concentrated in precarious forms of work, often summed up by the ‘d’s – in difficult, dangerous and dirty work. These now denote the key forms of front-line work that have helped the economy and households survive during the lockdown as well fighting the pandemic. Not to mention the frontline health or transport workers, or the temporary workers flown in from Eastern Europe to work in fruit harvesting. It is clear that key work and key workers will need far more than claps once we survive.

There are questions on how we engage with knowledge production on migration processes, which cannot be separated from race and inequality, eurocentrism, situated positions of researchers, or contested public debates. The term migrant virus or China virus used by Trump has unleashed a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”, as noted by the United Nations chief António Guterres. 

In hope, we continue to traverse the slopes of knowledge production in global studies and its circulation, questioning patterns of such knowledge utilization in policy, politics, or institutions.

Credit foto: Bhuvan Bagga/AFP via Getty Images

Climate Change Helped Global Cooperation. Will Coronavirus Undermine It?

Nives Dolsak, Aseem Prakash & Nicolas Wittstock (Department of Political Science. University of Washington)

Climate change and Coronavirus are global problems. The former encouraged global cooperation (although the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement) while the latter seems to create “us” versus “them” dynamics among countries. Would Corona-nationalism undermine global cooperation in the future?

Climate change is a problem of the overuse of a global common, the atmosphere. Because countries cannot unilaterally solve the climate problem, international cooperation is required. In 1992, climate cooperation began with the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With the 1998 Kyoto Protocol, global climate cooperation was formalized. Every year national leaders meet at the Conference of Parties (C.O.P.) meeting. Scientists work together as an international team in the IPCC.

Coronavirus pandemic is affecting every country. It has disrupted global supply chains. Social distancing has caused a worldwide economic recession. Unlike climate change, the globality of Coronavirus has not bred global cooperation. Instead, it has sparked “us” versus “them” fights in several ways.

First, countries have closed borders to non-nationals even before initiating domestic lockdowns. The U.S. unilaterally banned travel from 26 European Countries, subsequently including the U.K. and Ireland as well.

Second, Coronavirus initiated a blame game among countries on who caused it. The U.S. blames China while China blames American soldiers who visited Wuhan in October 2019. For the U.S., the prevalence of unregulated “wet markets” in China allowed the virus to jump from bats to human beings. The U.S. further alleges that China played down the severity of the problem and did not share data in time with the global community. This anti-China rhetoric has led to the racially-motivated attacks on Asians in the US, Britain, and Australia.

While this sort of finger-pointing takes place in climate change as well, especially between “old” polluters” and “emerging polluters,” countries have found ways to address these issues. For example, the UNFCCC has adopted the principle of “shared but differentiated responsibility,” which puts greater responsibility for climate mitigation on “old” polluters.

Third, Coronavirus is encouraging countries to disrupt trade cooperation. Many governments, 69 according to the University of St. Gallen study, have blocked exports of medical supplies by refusing export licenses. The United States has demanded that 3M Corporation sends N95 masks exclusively to the U.S., even when they are produced abroad. India initially banned (but has now relented) the export of 26 pharmaceuticals, including Hydroxychloroquine, which is touted as a possible cure for Coronavirus.

Even worse, export restrictions are now accompanied by domestic procurement policies. Just like steel jobs, the United States wants to bring the pharmaceutical industry back home. For reference, the U.S. has a staggering level of dependence on China for pharmaceuticals: 97 percent of U.S. antibiotics are sourced from China. President Trump wants the U.S. government to purchase medical equipment and drugs from US-based manufacturers only.

Interestingly, import dependence has not encouraged “America First” policy on climate issues. The U.S. imports most of its solar panels and wind turbines. It completely relies on China for the imports of “rare earths” which are critical for electric cars.

Fourth, the Coronavirus is instigating an R&D war among countries. The Trump administration attempted to buy a German biotech company, CureVac, allegedly to corner the market for a potential vaccine. The company ultimately declined the offer. This incident was met with condemnation and outcries of national pride across German newspapers and social media.

Fifth, international cooperation is helped when international bodies play a leadership role. Unlike the IPCC, which is the source of global scientific and policy information on climate change, the WHO, is struggling to stay relevant in the Corona crisis. Even the global field trials for drugs to treat Coronavirus via the WHO’s Solidarity project are getting scant attention.

Future Ahead: More Global Cooperation or Less?

Will the “go-it-alone” mentality fostered by Coronavirus undermine global cooperation in other issue areas? It is possible that after November 2020 elections, the U.S. might re-engage with the world. But one should not depend only on this political event; a more durable institutional solution is required.

International cooperation survives when there is “deep” institutionalization. For public health, this requires that the focal international organization, the WHO, make sure that it appears to be an independent body.

Public health cooperation could be facilitated if there is a forum where national leaders regularly meet. The annual Conferences of Parties to address climate issues play an important role for climate cooperation. Another example is the annual meeting of I.M.F. and World Bank Governors, central bankers, and finance ministers, which allows for a regular high-level dialogue on economic issues. If global cooperation on pandemics is to be strengthened, a platform is probably required to facilitate an annual meeting of heads of states, or at least health ministers. The WHO is probably running low on legitimacy to organize this event. Perhaps the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust together could organize an annual World Health Forum, akin to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to create a platform for this purpose.

Acknowledgement: This blog post draws on a commentary published on Forbes.com (11 April 2020).

Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor in Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs. Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the Director of the Center for Environmental Politics. Nicolas Wittstock is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at University of Washington. All are at the University of Washington, Seattle. DISCLAIMER: Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of the University of Washington, nor any funding body.    

Crisis and the Anthropocene

Alison Hulme, Senior Lecturer in International Development at University of Northampton

I’ll begin by asking you to picture a scene. I am outside my house, with my four-year-old daughter. It’s a Thursday evening; 7.56pm to be precise. We have lifted her (small) drumkit out onto the front gravel and I have grabbed a large frying pan and a wooden spoon from our kitchen. People are emerging from their doorways all down the street and there is an air of excitement and camaraderie that feels exhilarating and almost unknown in our times. At 7.59 we hear one tentative clapping sound, then more, then more. Our street begin to join in. One by one, people get louder. Some whistle and cheer. We bang our pots and pans. My daughter, having lost her initial bewilderment, goes absolutely crazy on her drumkit bashing any bit of it she can. The street love it. They are pointing and laughing and shouting encouragement up the road to us. Then, somewhere, some fireworks go off. We are all amazed. Just amazed. And moved. In fact I am still moved to tears writing this. Silly me.

‘The clap’ for NHS and keyworkers became a regular feature of lockdown life for us and part of what in a Radio 4 interview Peter Hennessey brilliantly called a ‘redistribution of esteem’. I am aware that not all streets are like ours, but my own experience is one of a huge sense of coming together. Last week, when it was the final clap, I felt overwhelmingly sad. Sad that it might all mean nothing in real terms. That it might not provide any legacy apart from sentimental memories. That is might not prove to be the glue that disallows any future politician to dismantle the NHS or underpay key workers. I also felt proud that some of my daughter’s earliest memories will be of these scenes, and that nobody can take that away.

I have been trying to analyse this great sadness I feel, and also my strange desire for things not to return to the way they were. I am painfully aware that many people’s experiences and challenges during this crisis have been and still are absolutely horrific. Indeed, a PhD student of mine fought for her life for five days; a friend of mine is having to use a food bank; another is suffering awful mental health challenges due to having to isolate. So, I know that my experience is (so far) one that is luxurious in many ways and I hope that what I write here does not come across as negating the very different ways in which COVID has affected different demographic groups for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I recognise the irony that whilst for me, finally, it did feel like ‘we are all in this together’, for many it was quite the opposite.

Yet still, with that caveat firmly in place, I cannot help but feel this crisis makes thinking about the Anthropocene even more relevant, and not just in the obvious sense that this is a global pandemic. Rather, it is relevant because at its core, it insists that we are all in this together. That despite huge inequalities, there is a fundamental truth to that idea, certainly when it comes to ecological disaster, but perhaps also when it comes to global health crises. Just as climate change has no boundaries, so too COVID knows no nation states. It attacks princes and prime ministers as well as refugees (and this is not to negate the far greater devastation it causes in more deprived areas of course). Most pertinently, COVID has brought us in some important ways, down a similar pathway to that which ecological concern does. We were forced to drive less and immediately saw the benefits. We were forced to rely on others more, and Ivan Illich’s conviviality was felt by many. We were forced to buy less and thrift became the new norm. And finally, oh heaven(!), saying these things and enjoying a life less imbued with capitalisation was perfectly acceptable. I realise that on a macro scale there was much capitalising of the crisis, not least with competing contracts for drug and PPE supplies; but on a personal level, life felt/feels freer of the kind of relationships and interactions that come with intense capitalism. Ah, and this then, is why I find myself not wanting ‘normal’ back; desperately seeking ways to hold on to some elements of lockdown life; and crying because the last clap is over.

Credit photo: Cosmin Popan

GSA Manchester Conference 2020

GSA MANCHESTER CONFERENCE 2020: ‘Global Dis-Connections and alternative scenarios’.

Hosted by the Research in Arts and Humanities! (RAH), the RCASS Centre  and the Global Cultures Cluster, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Conference will focus on the theme of -Disconnection- in a globalised human world, raising questions for the future of Global Studies. Undeniably, we are living at a time of conflict, declining optimism and growing challenges to nearly everything we had hoped for following the end of the Cold War and the intensification of globalization processes from the early 1990s onwards. Given this context, the conference calls for papers which explain and analyse how we got to our present situation of crisis and disconnections, compared to the  optimism of the global connections we had hoped for, and where might we go from here. The underlying role of globalization in past and future conflicts and crises might constitute one central line of enquiry, relating to rising disconnections between the state and societies (evils of capitalism), dis-connecting communities (Brexit, Migration and populism) and relation between the environment and the human world (climate change and Anthropocene debates).

Papers concerning the following suggested topics are welcome – though there are many other possibilities.
> The rise of Right-Populist movements:  their current and likely future impact on democratic politics. Examples might include Brexit in the UK, India, Eastern Europe or other global examples.
> Migrants and Migration: what does the future hold for skilled and/or unskilled migrants, and migrant communities in a world of closing borders, revisiting debates on cosmopolitanism? > Environmentalism and its contradictions: intensified governmental cooperation and global citizen- movements provide the keys to a sustainable planet. Yet will the massive socio-economic re-localization that follows lead to de-globalization and rising attention to discussion on the Anthropocene Era?
> Cosmopolitanism and cultural borders: what role does and may the social media and the various forms of artistic expression play in dissolving or hardening national/ethnic divisions at local, national or global levels?
> Globalized corporate high-tech capitalism: some argue that growing swathes of humanity are increasingly irrelevant to capitalism.  If so, what kinds of alternative society may (need to) evolve and how?