The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic globally has drawn back the curtain on the extent of global inequality across a variety of axes, including race, nation, gender, class and disability.
As some of the contributors in our edited book COVID-19 in the Global South (out now and available Open Access – download for free here) note, the rhetoric that ‘we are all in the same boat’ or that we are ‘all in this together’, while true at one level, rings hollow at another, given the massive differences in risk, exposure, impacts and mortality across geographies and class divides.
While Arundhati Roy (2020) has noted that the ‘pandemic is a portal’, it is also a mirror which enables us to reflect on the nature of the global society which we have collectively constructed, based largely on market mechanisms of coordination – creating often highly distantiated, commodity- and monetarily mediated social relations. This structure has been rocked repeatedly in the last decade by the North Atlantic financial crisis and now by COVID-19. It will continue to be further disrupted by biodiversity decline and potential climate departure in the near future. There are a variety of potential responses to this, which the contributors discuss in the book. These include ‘doubling down’ on current social structures which produce both wealth, poverty and environmental degradation through securitisation, or greater mobilisation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The virtual United Nations’ SDG review meeting of 19 September 2020 exposed some home truths on the state of global development, with COVID-19 acting as a reminder of where inaction and disregard has brought us. As noted by Malala Yousafzai and others, we are not remotely on track to meet the Goals. The climate crisis – which as described in the book is interrelated with the pandemic – remains largely unchallenged, with approximately 50 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted in the last 25 years. Even if we implement all the actions to progress the Goals as they stand, the Social Progress Index estimates that it will still take until 2082 to bring us to any point of global sustainability. Hence the imperative of renewed commitment and solidarity during this ‘decade of action’ to bring the Goals to fruition.
International development and development studies have always had something to say about the neglect of a sustainable environment and human interdependence. Field practitioners and research academics have, for a generation and more, fed into the discourse on a spectrum of issues pertinent to pandemics, conflicts and climate disasters. Indeed, the discipline flagged up the possibility of another global pandemic as early as the SARS outbreaks of the early 2000s, and during the more recent Ebola, Zika and MERS epidemics. The inevitability of an occurrence could have been anticipated and the lack of preparation and inaction, and indeed disregard, has led to mortality rates in many countries not seen outside war.
Oxfam has highlighted the pandemic as a driver for further global inequality as the Global North consolidates its power as it tries to mitigate the damage, scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE) and find a marketable vaccine. We even see some states enforcing protective monopolies around pharmaceutical and medical goods. Key global leaders, such as US President Trump, are expressing openly that they will not countenance solidarity in providing medical and attendant economic support for all. Free healthcare for the sick at the point of need is still a utopian ideal.
In an era of ‘fake news’, pervasive social media and a plethora of widely accessible information and misinformation, societies face new challenges in how people can access, understand, prioritise and reflect on pertinent issues to inform policy responses and social action. As a digital ‘rapid response’, our publication reflects a refreshed impetus and imperative, a challenge even, for traditionally slower-moving institutions of academia, research, publication and policy to continue and become increasingly more open, dynamic and agile in response to urgent global challenges and new digital realities.
Beyond the vagaries of the pandemic, management, mitigation and response, we need a sense of purpose and optimism, an obligation of educators in particular. The search is now on for sociological answers, and indeed political and economic answers, which can help us understand and respond to the potentialities, both positive and negative, of this critical moment in human history. Now is the time to re-engage with the currently disrespected ideas of solidarity and community action and kick-start a new social contract for a post-COVID world. We hope COVID-19 in the Global South is a modest contribution in this regard.
Pádraig Carmody is Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg.
Gerard McCann is Senior Lecturer in International Studies and Head of International Programmes at St Mary’s University College, a college of Queens University Belfast.
Clodagh Colleran is Administrative Co-ordinator at Development Studies Association of Ireland (DSAI).
Ciara O’Halloran is Communications Officer at Development Studies Association of Ireland (DSAI) and also works on communications for Civic and Community Engagement at University College Cork.
COVID-19 in the Global South: Impacts and Responses edited by Pádraig Carmody, Gerard McCann, Clodagh Colleran and Ciara O’Halloran is available Open Access on the Bristol University Press website here.
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