Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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16 Apr 2020 : Political Economies

Beginning the piece on the political economy of COVID for SPERI at Sheffield has given me a great deal to think about. Of course, there are all the sectoral dimensions (pharmaceuticals, medical technologies, even tourism and transport) that need to change, or will be changed. There are also bigger picture areas I’m starting to catalogue, such as profound market failure in almost every dimension of the COVID crisis. But what I’m increasingly concerned with is the poverty impacts, and the duration of these impacts. Unless the direction and course of the global political economy alters radically as a response to this crisis, and governance and policy shifts it or with it, then the poverty effects of this crisis will imprint themselves on future generations. They will wear the economic and social effects of COVID like a scar.

We face a choice here, which I am loathe to be pessimistic about (although that is mostly how I feel about the direction these things generally go in). Either we collectively regear production and accumulation in a manner that corrects incomes and opportunities, or we will have generational economic traumas. We will surely have to make huge corrections in any case. First, it is clear that there will have to be huge resources directed at health systems, the workforce, and wider societal systems for resilience. Will we tolerate at the national level such grotesquely stretched supply and value chains in goods that are essential to life and health? How do we reprogram life sciences research globally to correct evident market failure in medical R&D, and how will we fund collective and non-competitive research that leads to technologies that are not commodified? many answers already wait in situ as with medcial R&D. The need for huge-scale adjustments are always clear, but are starkly highlighted now.

Of course, COVID adds one transboundary problem to many, but the real standout crisis is of course climate change, heralding yet further massive adjustments to the political economy if we are to avoid long-term crisis. Climate change is slower burn as a crisis, but still completely an acute threat. Together with a potentially recurrent COVID adjustments are necessary and inevitable. As a species we have to move to long term ontologies and ways of thinking and organising. The alternative is that we forget things like who are actually the ‘essential workers’ and how do we revalue them, and simply damn the poor to a climate crisis where the effects of COVID double up to reproduce yet wider ill health outcomes, and through the basic vector that poverty plays in determining health.

To underscore these concerns, the economic news is consistently grim everywhere. As Bezos adds $24 billion to his tax-free fortune since the crisis began, economies and sectors are in meltdown. The UK economy is estimated to contract by some 35%, and Asian economies will see no or negative growth for the first time in 60 years, the Pacific and Caribbean tourism economies in tatters. American jobless figures are staggering. Equity movements out of ‘emerging markets’ continue at huge volumes, with destabilisation down the line as stocks are sold from under the feet of firms.

Beside all this this high-level impacts, the human level stories are even more profound. This disease is interacting aggressively with poverty and marginalisation. The NY Times carries a story of the outbreak of COVID amongst workers at a meat packing plant in South Dakota. Like many of these huge operations in states across the USA, the staff are almost all refuges and undocumented migrants. This workforce literally is the driving force of US agriculture and processing industries. There are 640 cases of COVID in the plant. Many now ill have lost their only source of income. Reports in the UK and US of high infection rates amongst the homeless, many with high rates of respiratory illnesses and ground down by winter on the streets will surely die. And in the UK we are now flying in workers from Rumania to pick crops. The flights are being chartered by Agri-combines and farmers desperate to get crops off the fields. I also see a sad story of an Indian man forced to carry his TB infected father to hospital on his back, no money for a taxi and certainly no ambulances. A frail pair of arms are wrapped around his son's neck in the press photograph. On arrival at hospital he is pronounced dead, having passed away on this journey. These stories will be lost, it is our condition to make them lost, but it stuck with while writing today.

Finally, the inevitable statistical roll call will be kept short in this post. NY State is undertaking the same recalculation a COVID-related mortality as in the UK. The grim pictures of firemen taking away bodies of many people who have died of COVID alone and at home. Ghastly. Added to this, the incorrect recording of cause of death and care home deaths just emerging. In all, they suspect an additional 60% plus deaths to be added to the total. In the UK a 28 year old heavily pregnant nurse died yesterday, the baby delivered alive by C-Section. Tragic.

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