When the coronavirus moved from being a novel event in a faraway region in China and mutated into a global crisis like no other, some wrongly characterised it as a great leveller.
This was based on its apparently non-discriminatory nature. Unlike other outbreaks, it seemed to have no care for a person’s class, racial or national background, or position. Just this week, French President Emmanuel Macron became the latest leader to be infected, joining the UK’s Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in the US. SA’s superstar soccer coach Pitso Mosimane has also tested positive, his Egyptian club Al Ahly confirmed.
But in reality, the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been anything but equitable. Instead it laid bare the inequalities that blight the world, between nations and within countries, something that should hopefully galvanise policymakers around the world to right the injustices.
On the same day the World Economic Forum issued a report that showed the pandemic was set to push between 88-million and 115-million more people into extreme poverty in 2020, a report in the Financial Times noted that savings rates by households — the amount earned but not spent — reached record levels across the richest countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
That is partly due to a normal phenomenon during recessions where a lack of confidence causes consumers to refrain from spending. But it also shows how workers in richer countries, shielded by generous furlough schemes, were able to maintain their income levels, and savings levels increased because lockdowns meant they could not spend.
As we know from SA, where more than 2-million people lost their jobs in the second quarter and others had their wages cut — except for public-sector workers, of course — this has not been the case for poorer countries.
Much has been written about the explosion in debt levels as governments raced to invest in health systems and provide stimulus to their economies. That process has also been marked by massive inequality as richer nations were able to borrow at historically low levels.
These countries were able to boost borrowing in the knowledge that when economies recovered and it was payback time, they could count on GDP growth rates being well above the rates at which they had borrowed. And their central banks, printing hard currencies such as euros, dollars and yen, have been able to pursue aggressive quantitative easing.
All of this has led to a perverse outcome where the bulk of the relief to counter the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns has largely flowed to the wealthy, who were already better placed to cope. Instead, poorer countries have been left to flirt with bankruptcy and fiscal crises.
The unfairness of the global financial architecture has long been highlighted, and may this crisis be the catalyst that finally pushes leaders to genuinely seek reform. The world’s push for vaccines is showing a similar trend, with rich nations buying up the bulk of the doses that will start becoming available in 2021.
In countries like SA, the disproportionate effect on the poor and vulnerable manifested itself in many ways. In education, children from wealthier households with access to tablets and other digital platforms were able to carry on with at least some of their studies. Workers in higher paying, office-based jobs were able to to fulfil their duties remotely and thus maintain their ability to earn an income. Not so for those who work as gardeners, cleaners and waiters at restaurants and pubs.
The pandemic exposed both the bad and good in our society. The sheer resilience and innovation it unleashed is testament to individuals’ and companies’ ability to adapt. It also showed how far SA still is from building a more just, fairer and therefore more sustainable society.
SA’s leaders have given us enough reason to be sceptical that they are up to the task. But if they are going to make a new year’s resolution, it should be that they will put the country first and work towards an economy that delivers the long promised “better life for all”.
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