COVID-19 crisis is a wake up call for system change
Friends of the Earth expresses its deep concern and solidarity as the world faces the COVID-19 crisis, which is already impacting so many peoples globally, especially those affected by structural inequalities. The heavy toll on human lives is profoundly shocking, in a world that was unprepared for such a disaster. This is a crisis that reaches well beyond the pandemic’s unfathomable health impacts, exposing systemic environmental, social-economic and gender injustices, and detrimental political causes and consequences.
This crisis is fuelled by the current political-economic system, which exacerbates its impacts and imposes significant obstacles to structural responses. The dire consequences of the coronavirus are the result of the ever increasing concentration of wealth and the imposition of a neoliberal doctrine that sacrifices the preservation of life. It is clearer than ever that the free market based economy is the problem, not the solution.
Neoliberalism has led to the privatisation and weakening of public health and social security systems and public services, the dismantling of workers’ rights and flexibilisation of labour, and increased exploitation of women’s work. It has given extraordinary powers and privileges to transnational corporations, while reducing the role and position of the State, leaving our world more vulnerable to the impacts of this crisis.
The pandemic is unveiling and aggravating the brutal inequalities of capitalism between and within countries. It is undermining our core human needs and leaving millions vulnerable to a sudden loss of access to a means of survival. Many people simply cannot self-isolate, practice physical distancing or stop working. Evictions will become the norm as people cannot afford their rent and mortgages. The hardest hit will be the rural and urban working class, Indigenous Peoples, women, peoples suffering from racism, migrants, refugees, peoples living in areas of war and conflict, and peoples in countries enduring economic blockades. We will continue to see increasing numbers of workers losing their jobs, and migrants facing a criminal denial of their human rights, as well as higher and longer walls.
COVID-19 is exposing the magnitude of the care crisis in our societies: a crisis that has developed over centuries through the failure of the patriarchal, racist, capitalist system to care for peoples, nature and territories, and its reliance on the work and bodies of women to make up for and fix the damage caused by the capitalist neocolonialist system of exploitation. Through the sexual division of labour, women have been and continue to be socially responsible for, and burdened with, care work. Working class women and families and single mothers are forced to choose between confinement in the home or working to feed their families, at the risk of catching the virus. This is particularly true for women suffering from racism. Front line health workers, of which women make up the majority, are facing even greater exploitation with inadequate financial compensation for the risks they take and the responsibilities they have for others.
The globalisation of the free market system, in which transnational corporations play a major role, has led to a devastating rupture between our societies and nature. The coronavirus crisis is unmasking the true extent to which corporate control of food, energy, forests and biodiversity is the primary cause of the destruction of ecosystems that is contributing to the spread of pathogens that will increasingly affect our health. Agribusiness and agrocommodities production is generating huge public health problems, via the destruction of natural habitats and/or livestock farming intensification. Those affected by respiratory and immunological conditions due to dirty energy and other polluting industries, are particularly at risk from infection.
The devastating impacts of extractive industries in the territories of Indigenous Peoples are making them increasingly vulnerable to COVID-19. Their traditional knowledge systems and practices, including health care, food production, storage and consumption, are being weakened. They have continued to be excluded from health care systems and culturally appropriate information about the crisis.
The pandemic is compounding the consequences of decades of both the inaction of rich countries in addressing climate change and their harmful policies. The eyes of the world are rightly on the current health crisis; but climate injustice related disasters, such as the recent cyclone that hit Vanuatu, continue unabated and must be addressed. Peoples in the global South hardest hit by climate impacts are now extremely vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19, and with a lack of access to robust health systems.
A major food crisis is looming, largely in countries that are import dependent and where lands have been grabbed for agrocommodities. As peoples lose their livelihoods and incomes, they will no longer be able to afford food, which is increasingly becoming an object of financial speculation. The closure of local markets in many countries is preventing peasant, family and artisanal food from reaching the population, while privilege is given to large corporations which prioritise profits over the right to healthy food.
We face this pandemic in a context in which democracy is already under attack, with the manipulation of elections through corporate control of our data and the media and even coups d’état in some countries. The rise of the extreme right and neofascism and their misogynist, xenophobic, militaristic and racist discourses and policies is leading to a direct attack on the rights that have been hard won by popular classes and the feminist movement. Many governments have already started silencing voices that defend true democracies and peoples’ power and participation, by criminalising and trying to dismantle social organisations and movements.
Women are enduring a brutal rise in violence and femicide across the world. Directives to stay at home are trapping many women and their children in unsafe homes alongside aggressors and perpetrators with nowhere to go and no avenue for help.
We face even larger threats of increased criminal attacks against Defenders of the Territories and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the imposition of new detrimental corporate projects, at a time when public scrutiny and capacity for mobilisation and protest is reduced. Countries with little or no sovereignty in the production of many key supplies are vulnerable. The risk of corporations generating profits from this crisis is huge – through control over health and food systems and medicines. Added to which is the very real danger that public expenditure will be used for corporate bailouts, such as climate and biodiversity wrecking fossil fuel corporations.
To address this crisis and its root causes, Friends of the Earth International joins feminist, peasant, trade union, Indigenous Peoples’ and other social movements in demanding that governments immediately end repression, drop austerity policies, stop evictions and expand public budgets, tax justice and income distribution. We echo the call for the cancellation of foreign debt.
The centrality of life and care work must be recognised, with stronger environmental regulations, an end to the sexual division of labour and a systemic response to the crisis framed in environmental, social, gender and economic justice and a feminist economy.
Governments must ensure that fundamental rights to health, social security, housing, energy, water, education, transport, food and care work are guaranteed through public services by the State. They must support the working classes and communities financially. Any public money must be used to put workers, the climate and the long-term health of our planet and peoples first.
National governments and international economic and financial stimulus and recovery packages must aim to create millions of decent jobs that will help power a just transition away from capitalism and the fossil fuel driven economy, and to secure women’s autonomy. Governments cannot offer unconditional bailouts to big polluters, such as fossil fuel companies and airlines. We cannot return to business as usual after this crisis. We must lay the foundations for a better world. We cannot afford another cycle of aggressive capitalism and neoliberal policies that destroy the lives of people and our planet.
Governments must strengthen local food systems, decentralised local markets and direct public procurement programs that can guarantee sales for peasants, family and artisanal production and make food available to those that need it most. Existing public programs for children, people with disabilities and all those going hungry must be dramatically improved and expanded.
The ongoing trend of increased corporate power, benefits and impunity must be reversed immediately, including an end to all trade and investment negotiations that further empower transnational corporations, and securing a legally binding treaty on human rights and transnational corporations at the UN.
The Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms that enable transnational corporations to sue governments for taking actions to protect lives, arguing that such public interest actions are discriminatory or an indirect expropriation of their investment, must be urgently abolished.
The medical means for tackling the coronavirus, including a future vaccine must be accessible for all, with an immediate global waiver of all Intellectual Property Rights with regards to medical supplies, devices and treatments, including drugs and vaccines.
Our actions now will shape what comes after this crisis. Friends of the Earth International and our allies know the way forward. We must use this opportunity to fight for and build system change, through the dismantling of patriarchy as well as other systems of oppression and corporate power. We need to strengthen our efforts to advance peoples’ sovereignty and environmental, social, gender and economic justice.
This is a moment to reaffirm hope, by nurturing and strengthening new emancipatory and ecological paradigms, centred around justice and the sustainability of life, and a new relationship with care work.
Internationalist solidarity across movements and borders is key, as we build our collective response to this crisis, organising and mobilising our communities, organisations and movements to strengthen our own initiatives and fight for our demands.
Our member groups are building and joining local solidarity committees to support those most affected. They are joining social movement policy platforms together with trade unions, peasant and feminist organisations to fight for the right systemic responses to this and the multiple interrelated environmental, climatic and social crises we face. We will continue to stand united with our allies to fight the injustices exposed and compounded by the coronavirus and build the world we need.