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Coronavirus: lessons from a pandemic

What can we learn from the rapid global spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), now present in more than 100 countries and already having a devastating impact on IUF members and workers everywhere?  

We are paying the price of decades of enforced austerity. Few if any governments are equipped to manage an epidemic of this intensity because health systems everywhere have been battered by decades of cutbacks and privatization. In most poor countries, as in the wealthy United States, where the virus is spreading rapidly, public health care is limited or non-existent. Health care workers everywhere are overworked, underpaid and struggle with a lack of infrastructure and basic medical supplies. Sustained investment in basic health care is urgently needed to contain COVID-19 and prepare for the future pandemics informed experts have long warned of, and that investment must be made permanent.

Millions of workers in poor countries suffer from an acute absence of potable water; hand washing and basic hygiene as virus-containment measures are impossible in the absence of emergency provision on a systematic scale. They are also difficult to implement in sectors where the pace of work has become so infernal that workers have no time even for toilet breaks. Employers must be compelled to accept a reduction in ‘down time’ to allow for adequate sanitation measures, and they will not concede without a fight. Public authorities will have to intervene.

The massive casualization of work and increasing economic insecurity over the past decades ensures that many potentially exposed workers will continue working rather than voluntarily self-quarantine. Yet workers, as potential victims and as vectors for spreading contagion, remain outside the scope of planning for the virus emergency.

A joint statement on the tourism crisis by the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization calls for a response “involving every part of the tourism value chain – public bodies, private companies and tourists”. A March 11 statement salutes “the solidarity of the tourism sector and individual tourists.” In this scenario workers in tourism – a sector which accounts for more than 10 percent of global employment – are not even present. Absent from ‘the value chain’, they can be consigned to working in hotels converted into improvised quarantine centers,  a potentially lethal substitute for necessary public health measures. This is a recipe for ensuring further contagion, when the goal is containment.

Economic and social precariousness feeds the spread of the Coronavirus, yet is not being addressed, either by national governments or by the WHO. When containing the spread of the virus is paramount, no worker should be forced to choose between forgoing a wage or carrying on with the job at the risk of personal exposure and spreading the risk to others. Yet Republicans in the United States Senate have blocked a bill to provide sick pay for workers who are either sick or have followed the advice of the federal Center for Disease Control to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Funds to compensate lost income – universal sick pay – need to be made immediately available at national and international level. Unions must be involved at every level in developing and implementing their application if the programs are to be effective. And the WHO, as the global body responsible for protecting public health, must advocate for protecting jobs and income as essential public health measures.

A majority of workers in the IUF sectors are employed in small and medium enterprises. These are the least equipped to weather a major economic shock. For these companies, and the workers they employ, proposals to boost demand by reducing the cost of borrowing are largely irrelevant. Interest rates have never been lower. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, cheap money has only financed an asset boom for the rich, diverting investment from the real economy and meaningful action to combat the climate crisis, while public services and social security systems are hollowed out. Precarious finance, like precarious work, creates a fertile environment for propagating viruses.  

Governments and supra-national bodies need to act to ensure emergency financing to support incomes and employment is made available, maintain its flow as the virus is contained, and commit to supporting sustained public investment. Unions will have to organize and fight to make this happen.



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