In these authoritarian times, defending and re-empowering public services is also defending democracy.
Let’s face it: the impact of the pandemic is now cruelly different, depending on where you live and how much money you have.
In Europe, the United States, China and a handful of wealthy countries, restaurants and bars are overflowing, gyms are reopening and people are beginning to socialise without fear. For those countries that have monopolised most of the vaccines against Covid-19, there is hope that the page has been turned on the pandemic, once and for all. Elsewhere, in countries such as India and whole continents such as Africa and Latin America, the virus—and its variants—continues to rage, with its trail of death, hospitalisations, unemployment and poverty.
These two starkly opposed realities are united by one thing—the steady rumbling of calls for austerity making itself heard across the world. In London, Mexico City or Cape Town, the arguments are the same: after the crisis abates, the measures taken to support (sometimes barely) those most affected will need to be reversed.
This means following the familiar path of drastic cuts in spending on hospitals and social-protection benefits and salary freezes for public-sector workers. It also implies the marketisation and commercialisation of water, health and education services, including the commodification of care and the exploitation of women’s labour.
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Lessons from Lombardy
It seems the pandemic has not taught us anything. Have we already forgotten the images from Lombardy? The heart of Italian finance and fashion boasted of having the most efficient healthcare system in the country—because it was the most privatised. It was even used in advertising: ‘Be healthy, come to Lombardy,’ said one brochure. By March 2020, however, the region, one of the richest in the world, was overwhelmed, with a mortality rate of 5.7 per cent—more than double the national average (2.4 per cent). Neighbouring Veneto, which had maintained a public healthcare system, pulled through much better.
Have we also forgotten that in the US the virus killed proportionally more low-income people, deprived of health insurance, who could not get to a hospital that would treat them in time? Similarly, in the impoverished suburbs of Santiago, Chile—another paragon of privatisation—90 per cent of the victims of the pandemic died at home, never having been able to afford to see a doctor. And have we forgotten too the 115,000 health and care workers and many others who died of Covid-19 while serving their communities?
Yet many administrations, such as in a suburb of Philadelphia, are considering privatising water services—as if the pandemic had not demonstrated the need for universal access to water, with entire communities denied the ability to wash their hands to protect themselves from the virus. Meanwhile, increasing reliance on private schools around the world, encouraged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, helps explain why hundreds of millions of children have been out of school since the pandemic began.
Fiscal consolidation, in the form of cutting public-services budgets and handing over control to the private sector, is not inevitable. To compensate for the huge sums disbursed during the crisis and to finance the recovery, governments must look to where the money is—in the accounts of multinationals and the richest people. The big technology companies, which saw their profits soar during the pandemic, must finally pay their fair share of taxes. This is not a radical move: it is what the US administration under Joe Biden has recently announced it intends to do.
Driven by Washington, the G7 countries have just recognised the extent of tax evasion by declaring themselves in favour of a global minimum tax on the foreign profits of multinationals of at least 15 per cent. This is a step in the right direction but it is not enough to generate significant revenues for countries in the global north and south. Governments must act unilaterally to tax their multinationals at much more ambitious levels, following the example of the US, which is opting for a 21 per cent rate.
This will not happen without public pressure. As we celebrate United Nations Public Service Day, continued mobilisation is essential, in support of more resources for public-service workers and recognition of the value they generate in our societies, providing services the market is simply unable to deliver. These are services underpinned and driven by the public interest and managed democratically, allowing everyone to live in dignity, not according to their ability to pay, because that is their right.
An example of this mobilisation is the global movement that launched the Care Manifesto, advocating a rebuilding of the social organisation of care to tackle gender inequality. It is through such mechanisms of solidarity that we can build more resilient and just societies, better able to respond in times of crisis such as we are experiencing.
This is also a political issue. The more we lose control of our essential services, underfunded and privatised, while the wealthiest organise a parallel system of health and education, the more the middle and working classes lose confidence in the state.
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This breakdown of the social fabric, of which public services are the beating heart, goes a long way to explain the rise of populist and authoritarian movements and parties. Choosing to put private schools or clinics in competition with each other, rather than guaranteeing quality public services for all, risks fuelling the resurgence of totalitarian regimes we are witnessing across the globe.
Defending public services is thus defending democracy.