Heloise Weber

28 April 2020

I struggled to start this reflection on the COVID-19 experience as I so wanted to begin with ‘these are unsettling and difficult times’ and yet did not want to!  As I pen these lines, I am also at an NTEU meeting, hearing about potential job losses (and other constrictions) in the university sector in Australia, and no doubt elsewhere in the world. The magnitude of suffering related to COVID-19 is all too apparent globally. It reinforces the urgency of addressing the politics and political economy of inequality under more normal circumstances.

It is clear that the suffering related to COVID-19 is not limited to those who are subjected to enduring vulnerable social and economic livelihoods. However, it has been the poorest who have been hit the hardest. As one commentator noted, to talk about social distances in slums dwellings in India is unconscionable, as is the degree of affluence that accompanies such deprivation globally. To this observation, we can add further ones on the intersection of race and class, including migrant workers, whether in the US or UK who have had to endure much suffering. 

This takes me to the politics of development. The current crisis is an opportunity to rethink and return to calls for a humanism premised on sustaining ecological integrity. It would heed the sensibilities put forward by Fanon and others. A politics of development must move beyond a focus on ‘human output’ (Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, [1990]78), ‘what matters is to stop talking about output, and intensification, and rhythm of work’ (253). It may seem like an odd statement to make in the context of writing about job-losses and economic deprivation. Yet here is an unprecedented moment to see and process the glaring inequalities –  material, social and cultural – globally. The latter are sustained by a global development project routinized as ‘normal’, even apolitical. It is, of course, far from that. 

As a politically sustained project, here is an opportunity to embrace the fact that the fate of humanity cannot be contained by national territorial boundaries; nor should we accept a modernizing project that does not value ecological integrity. A social – and ecologically grounded relational sensibility must inform our politics, as also reflected in Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks. Instead of aiming for economic growth we should work towards the sensibilities of cooperation not for profit but for socially necessary needs to live lives of dignity. 

The limits and perils of liberal capitalism are stark. Yet, ethical prerogatives persist. Doctors from Cuba are heading to provide assistance to South Africa. In some parts, the slower pace of the economy has revitalised ecological life. 

I share a link to an important statement by Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on poverty.

Heloise Weber is a senior lecturer, School of Political Science and International Studies, the University of Queensland, and an IPCS member.