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Five Ways in which Global Educators can respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Five months ago, 9,000 nurses from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) went on strike in the north of Ireland for the first time in the union’s 103-year history.   Seeking pay parity with their colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales, the RCN estimated that nurses’ pay in real terms had fallen by 15 per cent over eight years and they’d ‘had enough’.  Going on strike was a last resort, but staffing shortages and low pay had created ‘unsafe’ services for patients.  Fast forward to the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, COVID-19, and we see nurses and other frontline health workers feted from their windows and doorsteps by a grateful public in lockdown.   The nurses’ strike was one local example of how ‘development’ had moved too far in the direction of the market and away from the social needs of citizens.   

The ‘tyranny of GDP’ 

The coronavirus pandemic has placed an absolute premium on public facing occupations that the market economy’s yardstick of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) under-values and poorly remunerates.  The ‘tyranny of GDP’ results in a moral vacuum which considers ‘speculation, pollution and gambling as being good for the economy’ because they turn a profit.  In 1968, US presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy said this about GDP:  

“It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.  

If GDP dictates what our talent deserves, then what price now should be put on the labour of a nurse, a carer, a driver, a bin man, a supermarket worker or a cleaner, all of whom have been indispensable to our surviving coronavirus?  An Oxfam report published earlier this year calculated the monetary value of unpaid care work globally for women aged 15 and over at $10.8 trillion annually.  Using the GDP metric, this labour holds little or no monetary value and, yet, it is priceless to the elderly, sick and disabled across the world lacking social care.   

Rethinking ‘Development’ 

The COVID-19 pandemic should represent a line in the sand where we resist and rollback the marketisation of services that have no business in private hands; healthcare, education, utilities, and transportation.  At the same time, we need to invest in jobs that make these services central to our lives and wellbeing.  The phoney neoliberal mantra that a rising sea of prosperity raises all ships has been cruelly exposed in the worst possible way as health sectors across the world, hollowed out by neoliberalism, have been overwhelmed by the scale of the pandemic.   

So, here are five short- and long-term measures that global educators can take in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  1. Campaign for Debt Cancellation: 

There is an immediate, practical and hugely beneficial step that development practitioners and NGOs can take to support low income countries lacking the capital and health infrastructure to tackle the COVID contagion.  More than 200 civil society movements from the global North and South – including twelve from Ireland - have called for the cancellation of external debt payments in 2020 for 69 Low-Income Countries.  This would retain $19.5 billion within those countries that could be used to tackle the spread of the pandemic. The development sector should support this call.   

  1. Challenge the myths of coronavirus 

One of the great myths of coronavirus is that we’re all in this together. It goes something like this; coronavirus is a great leveller that has plunged rich and poor into turmoil, insecurity and isolation.  We are all equally susceptible to contracting the virus which doesn’t distinguish between its victims in terms of class, race and occupation.  The reality is a lot different.  The better-off may actually increase their savings during the crisis as spending on forbidden activities falls.  But poorer households spend much more of their limited income on necessities, leaving them vulnerable to sudden falls in their incomings.  So, the development sector should challenge this ‘sickly myth’.   

  1. Let’s talk about Neoliberalism 

It’s striking how much of our work in global learning is invested in the SDGs and how limited is the discourse in the sector on neoliberalism.  Monbiot suggests that neoliberalism is ‘the ideology at the root of all our problems’ so shouldn’t we at least discuss it as a sector? As Mahon and Bergin argue: ‘We cannot write about social justice without working for its everyday implementation. We cannot critique neoliberalism and return to neoliberal practice behind our office door’. 

  1. We need to reset development 

Sachs suggests that ‘shaping our destiny beyond development is the task that lies ahead of us’.  With that in mind, civil society groups, governments and international NGOs need to look beyond the short-termism of overseas aid, emergency appeals and public ‘clicktivism’ to focus on the long-term needs of humanity.  Economies, to function properly, need to be put at the service of society’s needs, not the needs of the market.  That means critically interrogating the concept of ‘development’ in the light of coronavirus to debate what it means in a future that is likely to be clouded by recession, increased inequality and an ever looming climate crisis.   

  1. Climate and COVID-19 

Owen Jones has posed a prescient question: ‘why don’t we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as coronavirus?’  Yes, the coronavirus is amongst us as a terrible and immediate threat but we still tend to present the climate crisis ‘as an abstraction whose consequences are decades away’.  The response to the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that government resources can be mobilised and public behaviour can be modified in an emergency.  We need to respond to the climate emergency in the same way.