In my April column for Canadian Dimension I raised doubts about notions of post-pandemic prosperity and increased social equity. I suggested that the years ahead are far more likely to be defined by a bid to impose the burden of the crisis on working class people. In the last few months, danger signs have accumulated lending more weight to the conclusion that social peace is not on the agenda and that we are now facing the urgent question of how to build resistance.
Before we even consider what kind of post-pandemic reality is looming, however, it would be ill-advised to assume that the worst of the global health emergency is now behind us. Biden’s empty gestures regarding a patent waiver notwithstanding, the poor countries of the world are still living under a regime of “vaccine imperialism” which compromises their ability to immunize populations simply to protect the intellectual property rights of Big Pharma.
During the week of July 26, COVID deaths in Africa soared by an appalling 43 percent among unprotected communities. Meanwhile, the 12-month period that led up to May of this year saw $26 billion in dividends delivered to the shareholders of Pfizer, Astra Zeneca and Johnson and Johnson. For this same amount, it would have been possible to ensure that the whole of Africa was vaccinated. As pharmaceutical companies make obscene profits, poor countries are turned into “variant factories” out which could come strains with vaccine escape qualities far more lethal than the dreaded Delta variant.
The neoliberal decades have seen a reordering of the global workforce, with a great rise in low wage precarious employment, including here in Canada. Behind their breezy rhetoric and empty promises, the Trudeau Liberals are working to intensify exploitation for workers. The enhanced income support that was provided during the pandemic lockdowns is being withdrawn, though subsidies to employers will continue. This is taking place even though the government understands perfectly well that many of the jobs wiped out by the pandemic aren’t coming back at the same rate of pay. This speaks, as Mitchell Thompson puts it, to “a post-pandemic austerity regime in which employers will impose a new regressive standard on working people across Canada, leading to widening inequality and rising precarity in the labour market.”
Similarly, in the United Kingdom, “Tory spin that austerity is over” is being called into question and, as MP Claudia Webbe points out, referencing a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report, “from April 2022 the Tory government will spend up to £17 billion less on a range of public services than they were planning to before the Coronavirus pandemic.” In the United States, the much heralded turn of the Biden administration to economic stimulation and greater social and infrastructure spending is hardly the bold change of direction for US capitalism it has been presented as. The limited measures of stimulation being pursued by governments in various countries are more likely to lead to a “sugar rush” recovery than to any sustained economic upturn. The Trudeau government’s measures to benefit employers foreshadow the likely face of the future.
While economic supports for hard-pressed working class people are being wound down in short order, funds for global rivalry and military aggression are being freed up with unbounded enthusiasm. The progressive Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is campaigning against plans to purchase 88 new fighter jets, at a likely cost $77 billion over their life cycle, for the purpose of participating in future US and NATO wars. This vast sum of money could be used to strengthen public healthcare systems or ensure a massive expansion of social housing. The choices being made herald a post-pandemic future that puts the capacity for global violence ahead of the needs of communities.
It’s abundantly clear that the greatest threat of all to our well being in the next period is an ecological catastrophe that is rapidly intensifying. Recent weeks have brought this home in ways that seem to defy belief. We have seen the heat wave that hit western Canada and the US, the raging wildfires that followed this, as well as flooding in Europe and China. Our lives will be adversely affected by ever more unstable and severe climatic conditions.
Judging from the responses to the pandemic, it is also readily apparent that governments and state institutions are simply not ready to handle the consequences of the climate crisis. A report from the UK details the shocking lack of preparedness those in power even as “moderate British weather is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.” Here in Canada, after hundreds died in the recent BC heat wave, NDP Premier John Horgan encapsulated this failure to be ready for what lies ahead. Though he was forced to retract it, his comment that “fatalities are part of life” was frighteningly indicative of a widespread lack of readiness for what is now unfolding.
It has long been clear that the rich will be able to purchase protection from the worst effects of climate change, the poor who have the greatest exposure to climate and extreme weather events have no such options and will bear the brunt. Just as unrelenting neoliberal austerity put hundreds of millions of people at greater risk from to COVID-19, so too has it accentuated their vulnerability to ecological catastrophe.
In recent weeks, Toronto City Hall has been deploying police to drive out homeless people who, largely under the impact of the pandemic, have sought shelter and safety in public parks. This is being done to ensure that visible destitution is removed from sight in the interests of upscale urban redevelopment and business profits. That such brutal operations are underway in the largest city in Canada speaks to the kind of recovery we face. It reveals the grim future in store if left in the hands of those with political and economic power.
The official line that the pandemic is a temporary disturbance that will soon be behind us and that we will all build back better in its wake is tired and discredited. This is a time of unprecedented crisis and the question before us is who will be made to pay for it. Trade unions are going to face a major test as employers try to impose the burden on workers. Their ability not only to defend their members but also to bring in currently unorganized workers will be vital. A post-pandemic austerity regime will demand new and bold forms of organizing. Similarly, as extreme weather becomes more common and intense, the defence of communities left in harm’s way will require a whole new level of audacity and solidarity.
Those who hope for solutions from on high will be very disappointed. The plans being laid in corporate boardrooms and around cabinet tables are not acceptable. If we want a future, we are going to have to fight for it.