Just published in the Economic and Labour Relations Review (ELRR), and available open access, is a paper looking at the early impacts of COVID-19 in Australia and internationally. Written by researchers across health, economics and labour, the article emphasises that the impacts of the current crisis are not equal — and that First Nations people, those in developing countries, women, migrants and young people are amongst those hit hardest. The article focuses on how economic globalisation and neoliberalism have exacerbated and compounded the health impacts of COVID-19, and in that sense is a valuable piece to read alongside Alfredo Saad-Filho’s ‘Coronavirus, crisis and the end of neoliberalism’ published on this blog in April.
The ELRR came into being in 1990 as a place for critical consideration of issues involving economics and work. A year later Australia was in a profound recession, which was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and up to today. Paul Keating called it the recession ‘we had to have’ to bring down inflation, which was at 13%. But recessions throw people out of work and unemployment went into double digits the following year causing hardship across the country. Many older workers who lost their jobs in that recession did not find work again, or were forced to move from ongoing roles with good conditions into more precarious positions.
This year ELRR is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and again we are heading into recession. The World Bank is forecasting a 5.2% decline in GDP globally this year, plunging most countries into economic crisis. Australia has not had a recession since 1991, and only three quarters of negative growth in the intervening years — escaping an economy wide contraction during the 2008 GFC. The official unemployment rate in Australian rose from 5.2% in March 2020 to 6.2% in April 2020, which is a record one month rise. The story is worse than this though, because when we add together those who are underemployed to those who are unemployed (whether officially recorded in the government stats or not) the figure is more likely closer to 22% of the labour force.
The decisions made on how to manage the spread of COVID-19 and its economic impacts, raise questions of civil liberties and, moreover, sharply reveal the underlying structures of a society. One way the ELRR paper considers this, is by examining the impact on First Nations people and migrants — in terms who is most at risk of getting it, who has access to high quality health care when they do, who can socially distance and who can’t, and who is most at risk in an economic downturn. These are structural social and political problems revealed by the shape of the health emergency. As Winston Morgan, Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry at University of East London, argues, the ‘evidence suggests that this coronavirus does not discriminate [in terms of biological susceptibility of different racial group but] highlights existing discriminations’. COVID-19 demonstrates that ‘in the absence of any genetic link between racial groups and susceptibility to the virus’ it is not race but racism that means people who are black, Hispanic and south Asian are more likely to die.
The article in ELRR is not proscriptive about possible ways to address the crisis, or how to reorient away from the sorts of policy making that have been dominant over the last forty year. Rather, it seeks to open up discussion and debate on how the crisis might be transformed ‘into an opportunity to reimagine the social contract, putting environmental sustainability, equity and humanitarian solidarity at the heart of a programme of reconstruction and renewal’. And as COVID-19 itself highlights, the necessity of such a global transformation could not be more urgent.
Image: International students queue for food vouchers outside Melbourne Town Hall (Getty)