The COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating social and economic impact have exposed the fragility of the current economic system – a system that prioritizes private profit over people; and privileges corporate wealth over the public health and well-being of our communities. Over the past four decades, the privatization of public services and goods in the name of efficiency simply created more opportunities for private conglomerates and transnational corporations to expand their business and increase their profits, while governments stepped back from their constitutional obligations to protect the livelihoods, health and well-being of the people. Jobs, social protection, health care, education, housing went from being rights to aspirations. And now we’re paying the price.
The export-oriented growth model dependent on foreign investment created a fragile, vulnerable economic system that fell apart within weeks of the global pandemic. For most ASEAN countries, all of the economic growth since the end of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 will be wiped out by September. That’s two decades of growth wiped out in just six months. This is not just an indication of how severe the economic crisis is. It exposes how superficial, how shallow, the last 20 years of growth has been. Corporate wealth expanded, exports grew, GDP rocketed, but poverty and inequality also grew. Public services, social protection, permanent employment – all vital to a resilient economy – declined. With greater informalization of the economy, there was more flexibility but even greater fragility. Far from being resilient like bamboo, able to absorb shocks and bend with the storm, the fragile economy has shattered like glass.
The relentless push for ‘flexibility’ over the past four decades dismantled the social protection and labour protection so essential for economic resilience. Governments used the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index as a measure of progress. Moving up the Ease of Doing Business ranking meant introducing greater flexibility and re-regulation, pushing more working people into insecure jobs (through contractualization and outsourcing) and an unregulated informal economy. Thailand, for example, was viewed as a success when it rose from 34th to 21st in the Ease of Doing Business ranking. Yet at the same time the poverty rate rose to 10%, with another 2 million people pushed into poverty. More significant is the fact that people in the lowest 40% of income distribution in Thailand saw a decline in real wages and falling incomes. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis.
To ‘build back better’ we need to restore everything dismantled and abandoned in the name of flexibility. We need to nationalize key industries and services including health, energy, water, transportation and restore public spending to support education, housing, food & nutrition as well as social protection and job creation. We need to build resilience in the economy that matches the resourcefulness and resilience of our communities and fulfills people’s needs. We should recall that most of the temporary emergency measures introduced by governments in the COVID-19 crisis – including income assistance; employment protection; social protection; access to health care and housing) – are already constitutional obligations in most countries and are universal human rights in all countries. Human rights can’t be temporary and access to those rights can’t be sold back to us as electoral promises.
We need to reassert the constitutional rights and universal human right of all people to social protection, well-being and to ensure lives worthy of human dignity. To “build back better”, we need to build it for everyone – not just the privileged few. We need to build an ecologically sustainable economy that serves the people and protects the environment in which we live. To “build back better”, we need to do better than this.
August 26, 2020