A now common phrase that has come with the global Covid-19 outbreak has been that ‘things will never be the same/normal again’. It is one laden with many attendant questions as to its full meaning.
Key among these would be, ‘What was normal in the first place?’ Another being, ‘What is actually happening?
Even if we fail to get a satisfactory answer to the foregoing we will also still have to ask ourselves a third question which comes in two parts: What will change and what should change?
The first question is perhaps the easiest to answer. Before the outbreak of Covid-19 there were multifaceted ‘normals’ in our various countries. Largely by way of class.
The rich could normally expect to get sick and get the best medical treatment. The middle classes while still aspiring to be rich could enjoy the consumerist lifestyles that come with neoliberal economics: purchasing cars, small properties, having access to private health care, education, fast food, movies etc.
The working class (urban and rural labour) in both their formal and informal indenture had a normal that was characterised by job losses, low incomes and lack of access to adequate basic social services like health, education and affordable public transport. All with the continued dangling of a neoliberal populist carrot claiming that the free market works for everyone. When in reality it does not and was never designed to do so.
In considering what was normal before Covid-19 it is fair to argue that it was not an equitable or just state of global or economic affairs. A point that may be lost to many of us in the global south because once again, we are going to be subjected to a barrage of ‘solutions’ as defined by the global north.
The other critical question that needs to be answered relates to what is obtaining in the pandemic moment. This is specifically with regard to the fact that what occurs now will have a tremendous impact on a post Covid-19 ‘normal’.
The global shutdown of capitalism has not necessarily meant it is dead or dying. Instead, what is apparent is that, with the help of government ‘stimulus’ packages, it is gearing up for a more robust return. Be it in the airlines, mining, manufacturing and financial markets.
In our African contexts, a number of governments’ have adopted a corporatist approach to Covid-19. Courting private capital, they are functioning within the parameters of corporate social responsibility. While we need all hands on deck we should be cautious that we do not let our government lead us to an unpalatable “disaster capitalism”. The latter being a system in which private capital takes complete advantage of a crisis to gain a foothold on social services for profit.
Or the decimation of the informal sector in the name of restoring ‘urban normalcy’ (read as elite normalcy) to trade or economic activities.
Private capital has also begun downsizing and laying off workers particularly in the tertiary sectors. The issue being that because of weakened unionism, the workers have no choice but to be furloughed with the promise of potentially getting their jobs back if things return to ‘normal’. A highly unlikely development. Even if companies get ‘bailout’ from central governments, the likelihood that the money received will be for workers’ wages or livelihoods in the short or long term is limited. We saw that in 2008 with the global financial crisis.
The final question has an analytical and a normative part: What is likely to happen and what should happen for a new progressive normal?
What is likely to happen where Covid-19 is globally contained is that initially private capital will try and cash in on it. Debates on hospitals, medical equipment will become the main lexicon of many countries for fear of a return of Covid-19.
Furthermore, there will be an increase in digital surveillance. Again as technically proposed by the major telecommunications companies with their high tech equipment (including your mobile phone). The right to some sort of digital privacy will be sacrificed at the altar of assumptions of the public health interest.
And what should happen in a return to a ‘new normal’? Those of us on the left think that the state must return as the primary guarantor of all public/social services such as health, transport, education, access to water and free expression. I deliberately mention free expression because that is always in the public interest. At the moment it remains controlled either by state functionaries or media oligarchies. Globally.
Post Covid-19, we will still be faced with the historical challenge of ensuring the rights of all human beings to a life of dignity and equality. In the midst of lock-downs, we must sharpen our ability to pursue these values in their organic universality. All I know for now is that Covid-19 may not be an equalizer in its occurrence. But either way, we have been and will always be all equal as human beings in our response to and recovery from it.
Takura Zhangazha is a Zimbabwean media professional. A longer version of this contribution was first published on his private blog: takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com