The crisis of the coronavirus was dangerous and it will have a serious aftermath. But it also has a silver lining, at least for those who are willing to open their eyes. This crisis was indeed a moment of truth.
After years or even decades of neoliberal policies, with deregulations, privatisations, private public partnerships and cuts in social expenditures, almost all national governments were unprepared to tackle the pandemic. Even worse: they had no clue on how to do it.
In many countries of Western Europe, one of the richest parts of the world, there were no masks to protect health workers, there were no ventilators to care for the sick, there was no protective clothing for the doctors, many public hospitals lacked beds in their intensive care units while several private hospitals refused to open their doors.
While clear guidance had been given by the World Health Organisation and several national public health services on how to prepare for and tackle a pandemic – after outbursts of SARS, MERS, Chikungunya… – Ministers and their staff did not even know about the requirements.
Add to this, in a country like my own, Belgium, health competences are with 7 (seven!) different ministers. If ever evidence of incompetence and ignorance was needed, here it was.
While the stock markets continued to flourish, the real economy collapsed, because lockdowned people only buy what they really need!
Informal workers, homeless people, asylum seekers, the poor and vulnerable lost their income and assistance and were left to charity.
Old people living in homes for the elderly were not taken care of. A large proportion of the dead in Western Europe died in places where they paid a high price for getting get help and protection.
Again, if evidence was needed to show how unfit our economic, social and political systems were to protect people, here it was. Markets were not willing to provide what they promised.
A common interest, a societal concern
What then is the silver lining?
For those living with their eyes open, it is crystal clear that health is not just an individual concern, but a common interest. Viruses live in society, they do not know borders and they know no classes. They can hit every unprotected person.
Secondly, a profit-seeking market cannot take care of a pandemic. As obviously care should be at the forefront, this is opposite to the profit objective of private health institutions. Once again, the role of the State or public authorities becomes crucial.
Thirdly, the people who sustain societies and take care of the sick, should be central in our social organisation: doctors, nurses, health workers but also drivers of public transport, cashiers in supermarkets, garbage collectors… But precisely these people have wages and working conditions that are among the worst. They deserve better.
Fourthly, if ever a vaccine becomes available, it should be widely available and affordable. In other words, patents should be considered a global public good and should not be appropriated by the private sector.