Between survival and collapse
While the world observes Labor Day today, an occasion for “celebrating the working class and laborers across the world,” workers everywhere are finding that there is little or nothing for them to celebrate.
This is because the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected over three million people worldwide and killed over 200,000, it has also led to policies that have laid to waste prospects of continued or future employment for many.
Currently, studies say a staggering 81 percent of the global workforce of 3.3 billion have seen their places of employment shuttered with the real possibility of a permanent closure. “Social distancing” measures have led to “work from home” arrangements for a lucky few, while many more have no way of knowing if they will still have a job or source of income in the future.
“Workers and businesses are facing catastrophe, in both developed and developing economies,” says International Labor Organization director general Guy Ryder. “We have to move fast, decisively, and together. The right, urgent, measures could make the difference between survival and collapse.”
COVID-19 has been described as the “great equalizer” that threatens the health and life of anyone who is infected: rich or poor, patient or caregiver, young or old. And yet, as the New York Times points out, “In societies where the virus hits, it is deepening the consequences of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the losers of today’s polarized economies and labor markets.”
Camille Adle of Oxfam notes that “Poor people inordinately bear the brunt of economic shocks brought by this pandemic. Many informal, micro-, small-scale and even up to medium-scale enterprises will take the hit as compared to the larger and more established businesses.”
At the same time, people are just now realizing that certain workers are crucial to society’s survival. Top of mind would be our health workforce—doctors, nurses, medical technologists, x-ray technicians, even hospital sanitary workers—whom we often take for granted but are today hailed as heroes. With lockdowns in place, people are also seeing the necessity for public transport workers whose absence from the streets is creating hardship for many; likewise for sanitary workers since trash still needs to be collected; maintenance workers; staff in essential establishments such as markets, groceries, and pharmacies; even law enforcers. All of whom, we must point out, are poorly paid while putting their lives at risk.
Research suggests, says the NYT article, that “those in lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease, likelier to suffer loss of income or health care as a result of quarantines and other measures, potentially on a sweeping scale.” Indeed, the poor stand a greater chance of catching the disease and of dying from it. And even if they manage to steer clear of the virus, the conditions they must endure even without a quarantine make them vulnerable to “old” diseases like TB and dengue, to chronic (and often untreated) health conditions like diabetes or heart disease, and to malnutrition and even heat stroke.
If the COVID-19 emergency has taught us anything, it is that the basic inequalities of society cannot be papered over; it has in fact exacerbated them, putting them in sharp relief.
While doctors the world over are still baffled why some patients recover fairly quickly from COVID-19 or remain asymptomatic with little effect while others steadily worsen and die, one thing is clear: A person’s ability to fight off harmful organisms, one’s immunity, is developed through a lifetime. It’s not just a question of family income and background, but also of nutrition levels and access to health care, a healthy diet, enough exercise, clean air, sanitary surroundings, and stressors encountered in the course of a lifetime.
But, as the Oxfam piece laments, safe water, just to take one example, “is beyond the reach of poor communities because of access and cost barriers… The lack of access and the high costs of safe water puts the poorest and most vulnerable at risk since proper hygiene is a challenge.” Also, “many jobs have no paid sick leaves. Irregular workers, including those who are paid on a per output, takay, or pakyaw basis, are particularly vulnerable. Working from home is not an option for all workers, as in the case of jeepney drivers and service workers. Crowding cannot be avoided in mass transport systems…”
What can Filipino workers expect in the “new normal” post-COVID-19 scenario? Will previously ignored and downtrodden workers, their status elevated in the light of their crucial contributions during this crisis, be rewarded with better wages and working conditions? Or will we simply reboot and revive the old unjust order?
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