WINNIE BYANYIMA: The scale of COVID-19 outbreak is man-made


COVID-19 is a disease which is killing people. However, the scale and the consequences of the pandemic are man-made.

The thousands of lives already lost and the millions of livelihoods that have been destroyed were not inevitable. They are the result of the extreme inequality that is hard-wired into our global economy.

The steepness of the mortality curves, the depth of the economic losses and the social upheavals in different countries are the consequence of our policy choices, a function of the economic model that we have created.

COVID-19 has pushed the world into a recession. The International Monetary Fund is reporting that the “Great Lockdown” is going to be worse than the global financial crisis of 2008. According to the International Labour Organization, COVID-19 is expected to wipe out the equivalent of 195 million full-time jobs.

As we know from the HIV epidemic, which we have fought for 25 years, epidemics wreak havoc in an unequal world. They feed off existing inequalities and hit the most vulnerable and marginalized the hardest: those who have no access to healthcare, those who have no social safety net, those who have no rights to sick leave or no water to wash their hands. The people whose right to health is denied. They are the ones who are hit first and hit hardest.

When governments prioritize privatized health care systems over publicly funded universal health care they are making a choice, they are saying that the right to health becomes a privilege for the few who can afford it. When an epidemic hits, that choice translates into a decision about who will live and who will die. Those with the privilege of healthcare live, those without, die.

When governments fail to invest in universal social protection, they do the same. In poor communities around the world, we are hearing the same, ‘if we cannot work, we will die of hunger before we get sick from corona.’ This is a choice no one should have to make. This health crisis is rapidly becoming a food crisis.

And across our economy, we see business models which rely on work forces that are not protected. It is designed to exploit the workers and the suppliers, not to support them or to protect them.

The climate crisis is another consequence of our rigged economic model, exploitative of the ecosystems on which we depend. And again, it is the poorest, those least responsible, that are hardest hit. Right now in the Pacific, people are not only struggling against COVID-19 but are recovering from the aftermath of Cyclone Harold.

None of this is an accident. It is by design. Earlier I said we are living with man-made choices, and in many ways, they are MAN-made. It is men still dominating corporate board rooms and the corridors of political power, while it is women taking the biggest burden of care. Women who must look after sick relatives in a pandemic, or who walk further to find drinking water.

But the story is not all bleak. We are seeing some silver linings; some lessons are being learnt. We are seeing more awareness of the importance of health and social protection. This means that if we are to recover, we must reset, we can’t go back to where we were.

We are seeing some countries imposing what they are calling solidarity taxes on the big businesses and on wealthy individuals. We are hearing cancellation of student debts, waiving health fees including user fees, and more support for carers. This is a new agenda.

However, we are seeing other countries moving in a different direction, tax cuts for the rich, bail outs for big companies, without any guarantee that these bailouts are going to translate into supporting the workers and suppliers on the ground. So we are seeing different signals.

We are also seeing many saying that health spending and social protection must be increased. This could be the basis for rebuilding and not just patching up with bailouts.

We must come out of this crisis differently with a determination to change the economic model. We need a Global Green New Deal where the stimulus is invested in people and in the planet.

A new economic model that expands universal health coverage and universal social protection to all. That boosts decent work and pay decent wages where the rewards are distributed across the whole supply chain and every stakeholder benefits equitably.

Where unpaid work, which is done mostly by women, is fairly rewarded and shared between businesses and governments, and in households between men and women. And where the model is in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

We have a chance to make different choices and I am praying that world leaders will decide to make different choices. 

About author: Ms Winnie Byanyima is a Ugandan aeronautical engineer, politician, and diplomat. She is the Executive director of UNAIDS based in Geneva, Switzerland

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