The big reset
Even as COVID-19 has stripped bare the hidden inequalities of the neo-liberalist global system, it has also afforded humanity a chance to course-correct
History never follows in linear progression but is made of downturns and accelerations. COVID-19 has plunged us all into an age of volatility and uncertainty beyond compare. These are indeed extraordinary times in which almost all of the world's population simultaneously socially distanced itself within a span of a few weeks. Across the globe, COVID-19 has caused major disruptions in the established ways of functioning. As the pandemic grips the globe, its ramifications are varied and uneven across communities.
The moral vacuity and economic fault lines of the neoliberal template that dominated the global agenda since the 1990's are wide open now. From the beginning, neoliberal theme whipped up strong sentiments and the capitalist history was dotted with equivalent moments of aspirations and appalls. COVID-19 uncovered the dark underbelly of globalisation. As an ideology, neoliberalism almost unapologetically venerated the market and discounted humans; however, the pandemic revealed that the 'tyranny of profitability' has been the only preferred metric for neoliberal agenda. It has dealt a brutal blow to the much-celebrated theory. At this instance, as countries after countries quarantine themselves and erect borders to deal with the Coronavirus, the epithet of neoliberalism, based on the free flow of ideas, people and goods, has turned upside down.
The pandemic is also testing the ethos and edifice of the global liberal order. Adam Smith's famous mantra 'Laissez-passer, Laissez-faire' has dramatically altered into 'rester chez sois' (stay in). Neoliberal paradigm, firmly embedded in the perspicacity of four meticulous pillars – liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation, and individuation, is being closely dissected to grasp the disproportionality and discrimination it perpetuated. In his famous 1989 essay 'The End of History', Francis Fukuyama boldly envisaged the uncontested triumph of liberalism. The high octave cheerfulness postulation by Fukuyama in the 1990s has since the 2008 financial crisis given way to a steady dribble of distrust about the capacity of the world system to collectively confront the mammoth social economic and environmental challenges.
Thus, began the ascendency of populist anti-globalisation discourse, the rise of 'new right' movements and conservatism. Trump and Brexit, themselves, constitute two remarkable events in contemporary politics, since neoliberalism's political triumph. Joseph E Stiglitz presciently forecasted in as recently as November 2019 that there were cracks emerging the architect of indomitable liberalism. Wolfgang Sachs has argued that global development is now more about survival than progress. So, the pandemic has called upon all of us to embark on discerning query on: Are these post-COVID-19 developments manifestations of beleaguered global capitalist order? Are these shifting concerns in the global order going to strengthen protectionism and boost the inward-looking policy regime? If this happens, will the impulse of globalisation be reset? These are some of the emerging issues needing our reflection.
In an uncanny video shot uploaded by Madonna at the height of COVID-19 pandemic in her rose petal filled bathtub, she called the pandemic "a great equaliser". To call any virus a "great equaliser" is in itself phoney and a sham. It erroneously supposes that we will all be equivalently impacted by its harmful fallouts. History has shown that this is not the case. The influenza outbreak in 1918 taught us as much. The gap between the haves and have-nots is only sharpened during major disruptions and COVID-19 has noticeably led to colossal economic impact: job losses, migration, health service failures etc and impacted the marginalised and poor more adversely. People on the fringes and on edge have been pushed over.
A pandemic inherently has the distinctive capacity to amplify existing health inequalities, disproportionately affecting socially disadvantaged groups, including racial and ethnic minorities and low-income populations.
The verticality of the trickle-down approach does not match the vast horizontality of the COVID-19 driven economic downwards spiral. In general, response to this global pandemic has highlighted the clumsiness of global apparatus and has widened the cracks in the global arrangement. The UN's Framework for the 'Immediate Socio-Economic Response' warns that the COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis: it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely amplify poverty and inequalities at a global scale, making the achievement of SDGs even more critical.
For sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to revisit the deep-seated complex issues of how to tackle with the fissures in current circumstances where both the state and the market have failed to safeguard the citizens. How do we resolve the dichotomy between common good or profit? To utilise Immanuel Kant's vocabulary we all need to inquire: What would be the 'metaphysics of morals' for future times? What symbolises a system of 'a priori moral principles' that can apply the 'categorical imperative' to humans in current times?
The writer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal