Changes to the world around us
Six months ago, our world was unrecognisable from what it is today. Many people were convinced of the triumph of the capitalist world order, where the state was expected to do nothing more than provide an enabling environment for a free market, it was argued that healthcare be privatised and people only get what they can pay for. Skyscrapers reaching into the clouds were being built and wars were being planned. Today, everyone from the blue-collar worker to the mega corporation wants a government which intervenes and helps. More and more people recognise the need for a healthcare system which provides treatment based on the condition of the patient and not based on their ability to pay. Those skyscrapers today stand as monuments of waste, decadence, and ego. The only war that makes any sense today is a war against disease, illness, and death. We collectively failed to foresee and to plan for a calamity of the scale of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 crisis has been a test for governments and leaders around the world. The crisis has exposed many and given an opportunity to rise for others. Leaders had a choice on how to deal with this unprecedented challenge. The choice is between empathy and indifference; between science and ignorance; between courage and cowardice. Post COVID-19, it cannot be back to normal again and in many ways, it shouldn’t be back to how it was.
The healthcare system is broken for the overwhelming majority. Public healthcare and health insurance have been neglected for far too long in far too many places. The greatest threat at the moment does not come from enemy armies but from an invisible enemy which makes no distinction on the basis of skin colour, religion, caste and ethnicity.
The crisis has also exposed the limits of populism. Several governments, including the federal government in Pakistan have preferred arrogant rhetoric over saving lives; peddling dangerous half-truths and lies disregarding scientific and medical consensus; folding at the sight of tough decisions. The people of Pakistan deserve better than this. The people of Pakistan deserve and have the right to have a government which cares for them, their lives, the lives of their loved ones and their livelihoods.
Many governments, including the Pakistan federal government have admitted to their complete failure by saying that the choice that they can offer its people is between “starvation” and “infection.” The federal government of Pakistan has admitted that it can neither feed its people nor protect them from this life-threatening infection. The Prime Minister of Pakistan continues to admit that he does not have the competence, capacity, or the will to protect the people of Pakistan.
There are several challenges stemming from COVID-19. The immediate ones are pooling in global resources to develop a vaccine and effective treatments; no country can do this alone, at least not as quickly as the crisis demands. One major priority for all states should be protecting the most vulnerable groups, including low-income workers, women, children and minorities from a disproportionate impact of COVID-19. The long-term global challenge is to build a world where people don’t die waiting for medical health to arrive, where people don’t have to be buried in mass graves, where no one dies because there isn’t a hospital bed, ventilator or medicine available. These are high ambitions but nothing short of this would be sufficient. Governments have to rethink public spending to invest in social security nets and protection, healthcare, sanitation, medical research and technology: the world has more weapons than it needs but nearly not enough hospitals.
Income inequality should be fought on war footings. Economic disparity between countries needs to be addressed, at least, so access to life-saving drugs and healthcare is not denied to the people of low-income countries. Global debts need to be restructured to allow breathing space to countries hit by both the pandemic and a looming recession.
The lesson of this pandemic has also been of common humanity. Populists and demagogues around the world want to isolate us from each other, to create hatred and mistrust and emphasise small differences. The pandemic makes no such distinction. Neither does climate change, extreme poverty and food insecurity. Our challenges are common and the only viable solutions will come from working together with empathy and trust.