COVID-19: solidarity as counter-narrative to crisis capitalism

By Christiane Kliemann | EADI/ISS Blog Series

The absence of serious measures to protect citizens from the COVID-19 virus in countries such as India and Brazil, as well as vaccine grabbing by countries in the Global North, have created much avoidable suffering, mainly, but not only, in the Global South. Nearly a year and a half after the outbreak of the pandemic, hope for transformative change rests mainly on the countless practices of solidarity by local communities worldwide. It therefore comes as no surprise that all speakers at the opening plenary of the EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 conference were torn between pessimism and hope when taking stock of solidarity in times of COVID-19.

Solidarity for survival

Brazil and more recently India are two countries on opposite sides of the world that felt the effects of the pandemic most acutely in the last months. In both these countries, the failure to implement adequate measures has led to a skyrocketing number of infections and related deaths. In the face of such adversity, communities have banded together to try to survive.

Sreerekha Sathi from the ISS, who discussed how the pandemic was navigated in India, and Patricia Maria E. Mendonça from the University of São Paulo, who brought in perspectives from Brazil, pointed to the many encouraging solidarity practices among local communities in both countries. “What we see in Brazil are people connecting to each other, helping each other without expecting anything from the government,” stated Mendonça. In India, on the other hand, Sathi recounted how “we sacrificed many lives, mostly from marginalised sections of society such ad Dalits and migrants”. But solidarity could be witnessed among ordinary people.

Indian leadership, as Sathi put it, can well be compared with that of Trump and Bolsonaro, who “followed a similar response to COVID in many ways, framing it as a flu and promoting unscientific and ineffective treatments”. In India, the system failed particularly during the second wave, when people in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh were even struggling to bury those who had lost their lives to the virus and its mismanagement.

Mendonça connected the situation in Brazil to the broader Latin American history of extreme inequality and shrinking civic space:

“The legacy of extreme inequality is a mark of the continent, and these inequalities are now rising, as Latin America largely depends on the informal economy, which is most effected by the pandemic. And so, we see inequality in access to health, education and food”.

She and her colleagues explored initiatives in urban peripheries in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities, where communities “not only found ways to increase mutual support and to channel donations to those who needed them the most, but also to fight fake news, which is a big issue in Brazil”.

Sharing vaccines will impact global development

To build more global solidarity, Sathi sees the wide and equal distribution of vaccines as a central element, stressing that access to vaccines in countries with large populations such as India and Brazil will have a tremendous impact on global development. And the other way round, “we in our countries need to figure out how to make our democracies work in a better way, and then globally, to look for more solidarity in vaccine and other resource sharing”.

Sowing seeds of hope…

Although it might seem cynical at the first sight to view the pandemic as a catalyst for positive change, there are also good reasons for cautious hope. According to Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, the pandemic has the potential to set the seeds for transformative systemic change:

“Many of us have been spending decades saying, we are all in this together, we have common threats and challenges, and are one humanity who needs to build on solidarity. In some ways, there has been nothing in our collective history that comes close to this pandemic in making us feel we are all in this together.

To have solidarity, you need to have some sense of community or proximity, some sense of familiarity, and the optimist in me thinks that this is the moment for our generation to build back very differently on this basis. Wherever you look, there are really worrying signs, but there are also seeds of something really transformative that could look very differently in years to come, and I do think historians will look back at this era of humanity and judge us by whether we grabbed the opportunity to do things radically differently”.

…or amplifying differences?

Melissa Leach, Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) (University of Sussex) held a different view. Leach admitted that the conditions for the cautious hope she had expressed in a paper almost a year ago on ‘How and why COVID-19 requires us to rethink development’ have now changed:

“On the contrary, instead of people-to-people sharing, we see COVID amplifying differences and inequalities across place, across race, across gender and class. Some people have thrived. Others have faced worsening health and other intersecting precarities. We see COVID exposing these long-term forms of structural violence as cracks in the systems we all depend on. While doing little to mend them, we see it giving reign to authoritarian politics and backlashes from the UK to Uganda, Brazil, India.

And instead of human-nature solidarities, we are seeing a whole range of new climate and biodiversity deals, which are emphasising national, market-based targets and mechanisms. We are actually exporting responsibility for restoring ecosystems or offsetting the degradation via the market to others, often undermining indigenous and local solidarities with nature”.

‘Vaccine apartheid’, ‘regressive’ solidarity, and crisis capitalism

On top of this comes the new ‘vaccine apartheid’ and something she calls ‘regressive’ solidarity, which Guy Standing has described as “the virulent global solidarity of the rentiers, the plutocracy, and globalised finance”.On the other hand, the pandemic has not only seen ‘crisis capitalism’ at work, as described by Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and – as a counterpart – the many practices of solidarity as just described, but also according to Leach “an unprecedented moment of reflection and imagination about alternative futures, and in a way this very conference session is an example of that”. But, she wondered, “Can these local solidarities from the margin globalise? Can we see progressive global solidarity building from the bottom up that can challenge the regressive solidarities of crisis capitalism?”

Moving past stereotypes

Sathi argued that the pandemic has also taught us some lessons on rethinking the usual North-South clichés. For example, while people in so-called ‘developed’ countries such as the US were hoarding sanitiser and toilet paper, people in ‘developing’ countries were setting up community kitchens from scratch. She also mentioned that in the early stages of the pandemic, when the Indian state of Kerala provided better virus protection that the US, for example, citizens from the Global North who wanted to extend their visa there suddenly found themselves in the same situation as people of colour usually do in countries of the Global North.

A return to normal – but one that we cannot accept

The seeds of transformative change may be visible to some, and in some places, but they need to be sown before it’s too late and we return to the world of inequality and suffering we lived in before the pandemic emerged. It’s up to us to find these seeds and to help them sprout and grow.

Sriskandarajah in his concluding remarks hit home:

“When left unchecked, the pandemic will simply reinforce almost all of that which we worried about pre-pandemic, whether that’s climate vandalism, vulgar levels of economic accumulation and inequality, deepening of gender inequities and injustices in our societies, and so on.

But I can also see, like in any system change, the little threads you would like to pull at, the sort of peripheral solidarity or disruptive solidarities that could undo the whole system. If I had a wish list of what I would like to see in 10 or 20 years’ time, that list would include things like social protection for every human being, a fundamental rethink on how we frame growth, and a reframing all those measures we have been using and abusing in the recent decades”.

Watch the recording of the session

Christiane Kliemann does communications at EADI. Besides, she writes on social-ecological transformation, degrowth and postgrowth

Image: Parzeus, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of a series launched by EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on topics discussed at the 2021 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It will also be published on the ISS Blog