Analysis: The Covid Stress Test

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stress test for societies at a global scale. The virus has been ruthless in exposing underlying fault lines and weaknesses in almost all countries, while also revealing strengths.

In China, the system’s authoritarianism allows for decisive responses to outbreaks, but appears to have hindered initial attempts to sound the alarm about the danger posed by the virus.

The US’s political, social, economic and racial divisions have been laid bare in an excruciating way, and the degeneration of its democracy into a brutal plutocracy exposed. The unhinged nature of its ideological conflicts is surpassed only by the apparently total disconnection from reason of most of the right. Even if Trump does accept the election result, he is likely to cause substantial harm before inauguration day on January 20. One example, which will likely not be widely reported, brings together the essences of Trumpism – disdain for those on the frontline of the pandemic, contempt for workers, racist nativism, and support for capital. In between election day and the calling of the result for Joe Biden, Trump’s Department of Labor published a rule to freeze wages for farmworkers working under a special visa category that allows them to work in the US for approved employers. These temporary visa workers have been essential to keeping Americans fed, especially during the pandemic, despite many outbreaks of Covid-19 amongst them. The attack on wages comes despite the Department of Agriculture forecasting farm sector profits increasing by 22.7 percent from 2019 to 2020.

In Britain, a government of hooray Henries and Henriettas has, like the dissolute youngest son of a family of fading aristocrats, been exposed as lazy, incompetent and deceitful.

In country after country – from Ethiopia to Thailand, Belarus to Indonesia – government failures to protect their people either from the virus or from the economic fallout of measures needed to tackle it have led to civil and political unrest. In other places – including Australia – governments have used the cover of the pandemic to attack worker rights and reduce regulations on business.

“The Covid crisis has exposed the great lie propagated at least since the times of Josh Frydenberg’s hero, Margaret Thatcher, that private business always does things better. “

Across the world, social media is confirmed as an existential threat to human civilisation almost as bad as climate change.

In this context, it is worth considering how Australia has measured up to its stress test.

On a positive note, it is reassuring that a sense of collectivism still exists for the majority of people, who have shown themselves willing to sacrifice self-interest for the greater good. Our public health system, despite considerable strain, has shown itself to be well-functioning and staffed by dedicated professionals. Perhaps surprisingly, most political leaders have shown themselves to be willing to be guided by experts in public health and epidemiology, a welcome deferral to scientific expertise that has been conspicuously absent in relation to action on climate change. The Morrison government’s readiness to abandon its obsession with economy-squeezing budget surpluses has been surprising but refreshing; however, there is every indication it intends to revert to the failed shibboleths about government fiscal constraints, and in the process prolong the harm caused to ordinary workers while ensuring bond traders and financial markets are well looked after.

As with other countries, the virus stress test has exposed Australia’s underlying problems and political and ideological prejudices. The second wave in Victoria has shown that the last forty years of workplace ‘reform’ shifted risk onto individual workers, with rampant insecurity of employment contributing to the spread of the virus, especially in aged care. The economic downturn resulting from lockdowns revealed how many workers live from pay to pay. We’ve also seen how tenuous and poorly paid many jobs in the post-industrial economy are, and how the Australian political and economic elite’s decision to throw all the eggs in the resource extraction basket has had long-term negative ramifications for the rest of the economy.

In response to the economic crisis, Australian business organisations have shown themselves to be typically devoid of new ideas, as they trot out the usual demand for tax cuts, wage restraint, and more workplace ‘flexibility’, code, as always, for further attacks on unions and workers’ rights.

The last couple of years - of royal commissions, other enquiries, and wage theft scandals – have shown how morally and legally bereft much of Australian business is. The Covid crisis has exposed the great lie propagated at least since the times of Josh Frydenberg’s hero, Margaret Thatcher, that private business always does things better. The crisis in private aged care facilities has shown not only how poorly elderly Australians are treated in general, but the problems of handing over vital care work to for-profit organisations. Covid-19 is demonstrating that, as with all major capitalist crises, it is always the state that has to rescue the system.

On a broader ideological level, the Morrison government’s decision to exclude workers on short-term visas from JobKeeper payments, and, in many cases, from any government support whatsoever, demonstrated how ruthless the Australian right’s nativism has become. Purging the workforce of as many foreign workers as possible is clearly the goal.

While there was, for a while, a welcome decline in petty party political point scoring, some worrying ideological trends have been exacerbated. The activist left has made almost no inroads into persuading ordinary Australians about the failures of capitalism during the biggest capitalist crisis in nearly 100 years. It is far too interested in identity and outrage politics to have any ability to connect with the majority of people. Meanwhile, the right, as in the rest of the world, is no longer tethered to reason and has demonstrated its willingness to risk lives for short-term political gain. The extent to which conspiracy theories, social-media-fuelled anger, selfishness, authoritarianism and bigotry have come to constitute the right around the world does not bode well.

It looks like Australia will come out of the Covid crisis better than many countries. But the weaknesses revealed by the Covid stress test show that we are not particularly well positioned to deal with the other big crisis facing us – climate change. The victory of Joe Biden in the US elections is, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says, a welcome brake on the freefall descent into hell, but we must guard against complacency that the US’s re-entry into the Paris agreement will fix the climate crisis. Biden’s climate change policy is more ambitious than we might have expected, but given the Democrats may face a hostile Senate, there is no guarantee it will be entirely implemented. It will require unions, workers and climate activists working in solidarity across the economy to build real momentum for climate action at the scale needed to avoid catastrophe.