COVID-19 reveals and deepens inequalities; where is the Economy of Life?

by Athena Peralta last modified 31 March 2020 08:30 PM
COVID-19 reveals and deepens inequalities; where is the Economy of Life?

Photo: Gregg Brekke/SixView Studios

31 March 2020

Television, FaceBook and WhatsApp chats bring news from Manila, much of it disheartening. In the early stages of the pandemic with nearly 1,500 cases as of this writing, the Philippines has already lost 12 frontliners to COVID-19 (comprising one-fifth of total fatalities), one of them a young Methodist doctor. This is disastrous for a country that has only 1.3 doctors per 1,000 people (in part due to the exodus of medical professionals to “greener pastures” abroad).

The lack of protective equipment, hospital capacity and testing kits – a consequence of decades of neoliberal adjustment and erosion of public health funding – compounds health workers’ vulnerability.  Around half of those who lost their lives to the viral infection received their test results after they had passed on, delaying treatment and endangering others.

On the other hand, precious resources were spent on the country’s political and economic elite. Tested despite not showing symptoms, politicians, VIPs and their families collected test results within 24 hours, a whistleblower revealed. This is what inequality looks like in a time of pandemic.

Amidst the police and military-imposed lockdown in Manila and other cities in the Philippines, many are losing their sources of sustenance as much as their democratic freedoms. Heavily hit are the urban poor whose already hand-to-mouth existence depends, for instance, on hawking food and motley goods and services in now-empty malls, markets and streets. Once choked by traffic, main thoroughfares are barred by checkpoints and closed, except to private cars (likely ferrying boxes of panic-bought groceries). This is what inequality looks like in a time of pandemic.

Admittedly these uncomfortable observations are made from the filter of a laptop screen and in the confines of an apartment in Geneva. Here, one has the luxury to monitor, with some apprehension, the soaring rates of COVID-19 cases in Switzerland – 10 times higher than the reported infection rate back in the Philippines where testing like many other necessities are scarce. But this apprehension is allayed by the luxury of proper shelter where one can “practice social distancing” and “work from home”; the luxury of clean water to observe the constant admonition to “wash your hands”; the luxury of hard-won public health and welfare systems, if under increased strain, that offer hospitalisation and unemployment assistance in times of need. The latter social benefits, however, would certainly be unavailable to the estimated 76,000 undocumented workers and immigrants who are particularly at risk in this wealthy European nation.  This is what inequality looks like in a time of pandemic.

“Inequality kills,” an old placard reads. This has never been truer. As an ecumenical movement, churches have prophetically spoken out against death-dealing economic systems that have converted fundamental human rights – the rights to health, water, food, education, and other economic, social and cultural rights – into luxuries. That is: expensive commodities accessible only to those who can afford to pay. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008 which threw millions of people into homelessness, unemployment and impoverishment, the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies held on to Jesus’ promise as expressed in John 10:10 – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” As the COVID-19 virus ravages the world, churches are called again and always to uphold the vision of an Economy of Life for all.

So what would the Economy of Life look like in a time of pandemic? It would prioritise the protection and sustenance of life by ensuring mass testing now; radically ramping up spending for public health, water and sanitation facilities; and developing innovative schemes that guarantee job security, living wages and basic income. In a spirit of solidarity, it would finance the aforementioned measures and redistribute wealth through debt cancellation and progressive taxation so that the (likely gendered) costs of the pandemic do not fall so weightily on the shoulders of the socio-economically vulnerable. In the longer term, it would mean investing deeply in the key sectors that feed, nourish and care for the wellbeing of our communities while protecting and sustaining the health of our ecosystems that are the very base of economic activities and life itself.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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