The recent death toll from the coronavirus across Europe is heartbreaking. The unpreparedness and insufficiency of health systems have shown us that the first world has invested more in financial systems, entertainment, stadiums, hotels and tourism than health care, as it is expensive and provides little returns. This pandemic has revealed this brutal reality at the expense of people’s lives. Sadly, there is little data to show if or how much the virus has spread in war-torn areas, such as Gaza, Syria or Yemen. The countries engaged in the Syrian civil war have no capacity to help the people living in camps amid very unhygienic conditions. We all know that the Syrian regime and its allies repeatedly targeted hospitals in opposition-held areas and, as the biggest-yet humanitarian tragedy of this century, the Syrian civil war could become a humanitarian disaster with the addition of the pandemic.
The crisis in decision making and strong leadership has become direr in this time of contagion. For example, U.S. President Donald Trump failed to show any decisive leadership before the few COVID-19 cases in the U.S. became thousands. Italians first, and then the Spanish, have blamed the EU for not showing solidarity and have levied open criticism at the bloc. The most irresponsible behavior, however, has come from the U.K. The British government’s first approach to fighting the virus was to wait for herd immunity after thousands became infected, many of whom would die. The U.K. thankfully stepped back from this policy, although this misstep allowed time for the virus to further spread.
Different countries’ reactions to this pandemic have also been in accordance with their daily politics as well. For instance, Israel developed an app to track those who are infected or under suspicion of infection. This kind of monitoring is nothing new to the Israeli state, although it has also been criticized by medical doctors who say it does not help track the virus and that it helps the state suppress individuals and their rights.
One thing is obvious: we are on the brink of serious economic, social and political changes. Far-right movements have been on the rise across Europe, and this pandemic will surely help them pursue more of their nationalistic policies. The far-right in Italy did not wait long to blame foreigners, migrants and refugees as the source of the virus. This crisis provided them with more fertile ground to spread their political rhetoric of shutting their doors and raising walls to protect their pure nation from outsiders. The upcoming days and months call for solidarity and cooperation more than we have seen in recent history.
This unfolding saga has not only highlighted the role of villains. Crucial to fighting the pandemic, health care workers across the board – medical doctors, nurses and technicians – should demand not only their due respect but also compensation, as they take dire risks and work without access to necessary personal protection equipment in underfunded hospitals, all while earning incomes well below celebrities, athletes and social media influencers.
One medical researcher in Italy tweeted that she was wondering why she earns 1,500 euros ($1,620) per month while a football star earns 1.5 million euros. The difference is telling: the footballer conquers hearts, but those in medicine only save lives behind the walls of hospitals.
States, of course, are also large institutions that want to secure their share in the post-pandemic future. They would like to establish more bio-political control over their citizens, using the excuse of establishing effective health care systems, protection, security and preemptive measures.
Countries like Italy and Spain, which were left on their own, need to question their neo-liberal economies and their relation to their social welfare systems that could not intervene in the market. They expected to be able to manage an enormous crisis like a pandemic and all the mess it brings.
The so-called success of China, Singapore and South Korea to contain the virus could lead all of us into a world populated with authoritarian regimes, just for the sake of preserving human life and society. This is the ultimate danger of a period of neo-liberal globalization in which goods and services travel freely but people do not. Will more control over individuals, monitoring and data recording solve our problems?
In contrast, as we have so far seen in this pandemic, recording more data in health care systems does not help. Individual records in online health care systems, as every developed country has, including people’s test results, prescriptions and bloodwork, have not helped detect at-risk groups or save their lives. Health care systems are merely one example that points to the one simple question we must ask: why do we need more records, control, data and details about ourselves if the data fails to protect us during a pandemic?
What we are seeing in Europe is not an even-keeled, all-knowing health care bureaucracy that is organized with well-kept documentation, but a mess, disordered, a great failure, and doctors crying helplessly as they are forced to work in a survival-of-the-fittest environment as they treat patients amid panic and fear.
We need to ask ourselves how we can fix all of these problems and the lack of organization. Do we need more investments, resources or payments for individuals after this pandemic comes to an end? Or do we need more data recording and more control over individuals? Is it the pandemic or the ensuing ideology we should fear?
[Daily Sabah, 2 April 2020]