Albena Azmanova:
Our Neoliberal War on the Pandemic

April 3, 2020: In fighting the pandemic, our societies are deploying the very same policy logic that created our current predicament. Neoliberalism – the policy doctrine that has prevailed in Western democracies since the 1980s has two pillars: (1) individuals are held responsible for a thriving society; (2) governments are held responsible for a thriving business environment. Conspicuously absent is the third ingredient that allows privately affluent societies to truly thrive – a robust public sector. One great intellect had commented on the nascent tendency as early as 1958 and warned against the deleterious consequences of that trend for both our societies and our natural environment. John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society became a best-seller and a classic of economic thought. Yet center-left and center-right governments embarked with zeal on reducing budgets for essential public services (including for healthcare), and privatizing public enterprises – a trend which the financial meltdown of 2008 not only did not reverse, but deepened further. This policy logic is now guiding the fight against the coronavirus epidemic.

On the one hand, citizens are ordered to stay home, with social isolation becoming a civic duty, enforced with the means of Martial law. Civil participation and acts of solidarity are well publicized and celebrated as hope-inspiring evidence of our communities’ resilience.  Governments are calling on universities to help with innovative ideas and counting on businesses for practical solutions. Responsibility is thus being offloaded onto individuals (as citizens, professionals, entrepreneurs) under the guise of ‘participative democracy’, while societies are becoming more precarious as they are made to rely on businesses’ good will and individuals’ self-sacrifice for critical public service such as emergency healthcare.

On the other hand, governments are promptly pouring money into the productive economy and the credit system to sustain business activity. European States have adopted measures akin to a Marshall plan for stabilising the European economies; in the Unites States, a $2 trillion economic stimulus package is to disburse funds both to households and businesses.

Social distancing is supposed to help us slow down the contamination in order to build up sufficient healthcare capacity to deal with the virus. Unless this is done, no matter how much money is injected into the economy, people will continue to die inside emergency rooms while waiting for a bed in public hospitals and precarious workers will be facing the choice of dying from the virus or dying from hunger.

Our hospitals are overwhelmed not because this is a rare natural disaster for which no government can ever have on-hand capacity to cope, but because, unlike South Korea for example, Western governments have been under-funding public healthcare for decades, neglecting medical infrastructure, and outsourcing the production of key ingredients to countries with cheap labour.

Our societies have displayed remarkable stamina, good will and resourcefulness. In the U.S. some states are relaxing the requirements for licensing for medical practitioners from other states, in order to meet growing demand; retired medical workers are asked to come out of retirement. Some are working on e-visits and distance diagnostics, so practitioners from less strained areas can help. German hospitals are offering intensive care unit beds to patients in overstretched neighboring France. But these are sporadic measures that local governments or hospitals take on their own. In the meantime, there are shortages of tests, masks, and medical equipment. Even countries with solid health-care systems like Germany and Belgium (the latter has been praised by the Financial Times for its excellent handling of the lock-down) are not doing the necessary to boost long-term public health capacity.

Fighting the pandemic in this individualistic way is a neoliberal fantasy. The confinement measures are seen as an end in themselves and an opportunity for our heads of states to showcase war-time leadership, while neglecting to implement all other measures requested by the World Health Organization, such as setting up massive and systemic screening for the infection, training of personnel and building new health infrastructures. The strict enforcement of confinement via law-and-order measures while also not implementing rigorous testing and tracing regimes thus amounts to coronavirus ‘greenwashing’ – doing the absolute least with maximum fanfare. There is no deficiency of competent advice, which is largely being ignored. Thus, despite much rhetoric about the “return of Big State”, Western governments remain trapped in the very neoliberal policy logic that brought us here.

Beyond the immediate crisis-management activities, we need to boost healthcare capacity and invest in science as a longer-term strategy for public authority to regain responsibility for the wellbeing of its citizens – a policy approach I have discussed as ‘socially responsible rule’ – rule that takes into account the long-term consequences of economic policy on society, beyond growth and the particular distribution of affluence. Without a robust long-term investment in public healthcare, social distancing, which can slow down the contamination but not eliminate it, is no more than a neoliberal tactic of transferring social responsibility to citizens, and enforcing this with a combination of an iron fist and some redistributive measures which, even as they reduce the rampant inequalities, still leave society deeply and massively precarious. Enter autocratic neoliberalism. We will still have the freedom to sing opera at our balconies (as the Italians are now doing), and to applaud in unison our medics’ valor in front of our open windows at 8pm every evening (as it is done now in Belgium and France). Our societies might even be more equal. Our future is oh so blissfully bright!

Albena Azmanova is the author of Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020). She is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies.

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