This article was first published in Spanish in the newspaper Pagina12 on 10 May 2020. Read the original article
A window of opportunity is opening to reshape the organization of society, to take better advantage of new technologies and to make it more sustainable and more humane. Argentina, through its successive crises, has developed a unique capacity for resilience and civil society organization, which is one of its greatest assets in this situation.
The crisis caused by the coronavirus confronts us with several immediate challenges: the informal sector, SMEs, unemployment, debt payments, the rise in the dollar, inflation, among others. But these day-to-day challenges should not blind us to the future.
There are unavoidable questions that need addressing. This crisis is hitting hard and will hit even more the comfortable foundations (at least for some) to which we were accustomed. The scenario is very uncertain, but what is clear is that we will not be able to continue doing business as usual. For better or for worse, things are going to change and likely very drastically.
The downside of this new situation is uncertainty; the upside, the possibility of trying to reorient our response to the problems – of which there are many – in better directions. We were doing very badly on many fronts. This crisis is lifting the mask on our problems, but at the same time it is ‘hacking’ the established responses.
Perhaps in this chaos, when what seemed obvious, normal, unquestionable or impossible to change (what we call ‘path dependency’) has already shifted or is reeling from the earthquake, we could take advantage of what is emerging – and what we can only now imagine – to move in better directions.
We are talking from very micro issues, from those that occur in homes, to macro issues at the national level and that of the global order.
At the micro level, for example, in this social experiment that we find ourselves living through, without ‘domestic help’, it is becoming clearer than ever that it is women who bear most of the burden of household chores and childcare, whilst in many cases fulfilling all their work obligations at the same time.
This not only affects women’s situations, spirits and ambitions, but also the overall productivity of the economy (33 percent of jobs are occupied by women). An unavoidable question then is: Are we going to take advantage of this evidence that is now hitting us in the face, and think about new, more gender-transformative policies, such as equal paternity leave or other possibilities, or are we going to just leave everything the same?
In relation to how we organize our productive and innovative activities, compulsory social isolation is showing that we can carry out many more tasks than we imagined remotely through teleworking.
Will we then keep commuting in the same way as before to carry out all our work, or will we be more selective and do it only when strictly necessary?
And just as importantly, if internet access becomes such an important working tool, shouldn’t we be thinking about policies for universal access?
In the same way, it seems obvious now – as we face the urgent problem of finding a vaccine for coronavirus – that when it comes to generating innovation effectively, free movement and access to knowledge is essential.
Researchers and research institutions from around the world, from both the public and private sectors, are sharing their progress in real time, while many scientific journals are opening their publications. International organizations like UNESCO and WHO are requesting national science and technology authorities to open up their research studies. Those who show signs of wanting to impose a logic of exclusive appropriation and extraordinary income extraction, on the other hand, are quickly being questioned.
Based on this evidence, will we continue letting the logic of appropriation (versus the free circulation of knowledge) prevail as an incentive for innovation? Or are we going to take the opportunity to escape the pressure from large companies, and seriously think about what kind of intellectual property system is the most appropriate to encourage knowledge generation and innovation?
At the macro level, with the public policy emergencies that this crisis is generating, a great majority of people now recognize, although with nuances, the importance of the state and of national industry.
The State not only has to take care of us, make sure that the spread of the virus does not collapse the health system, and assist marginalized sectors of the population, but it also has to save companies and guarantee that all the goods and services necessary for our survival are available on time.
We need a national industry with the capacity to produce ventilators, medical supplies, and sufficient food, among other things, to ensure that basic needs are met. So again, a crucial question we should be asking is: Will we take advantage of this new clear evidence of the need for the state to re-legitimize it and revisit its functions? Or will we continue waiting for it to fulfil its multiple functions, without sufficient resources to finance itself and without the real instruments for intervention?
At the same time, we should ask ourselves: Will we continue to support the idea that we should only produce what we can do efficiently, with a logic of comparative advantage, or will we seriously discuss what we should produce from a long-term strategic perspective?
Finally, from a global perspective, this crisis is making it clear that our relationship with nature, with the environment and with our peers are broken. How many videos have we seen of animals wandering freely through previously congested areas, of lakes and rivers that are now crystal clear? These images are very likely to be imprinted in our memories.
We also face the fact that the vast majority of humanity is in mortal danger due to problems of access to healthy conditions and minimal livelihoods. Will we then continue supporting the same production technologies that are dominant today, based on the intensive use of resources and products with high health risks, or will we encourage and support alternatives? In the same way: will we leave to their fate the enormous population that today have no resources to satisfy their basic needs, or will we seriously discuss possibilities such as universal income?
Everything seems to indicate that we have a window of opportunity – to reshape our future, change it to take better advantage of new technologies and to make it more sustainable and more humane. Taking advantage of this opportunity, however, requires ambitious policies that use the short-term shock to redirect ourselves on to more inclusive and environmentally friendly long-term trajectories. If we focus exclusively on discussions about new market opportunities for what we produce, or on how to reactivate what already existed, assisting companies and workers to continue doing what they already did, we will lose this opportunity.
Facing the path of transformation, however, requires acknowledging the enormous tensions that will be generated. We can expect strong struggles between the defenders of the establishment, of current privilege systems, and those who promote transformations.
The voices of the establishment, in fact, are already working full-time, mobilized at the smallest signs of change, to defend the status quo. The most effective instrument for this, due to their appearance of neutrality, are so-called accurate ‘forecasts’ of the future. Several ‘experts’ are already saying what will happen if we do not take the ‘correct’ measures.
A different response calls us to acknowledge tensions. It also invites us to recognize that the future is not determined, but is negotiated day by day. This has always been the case, but the present moment shows it more clearly than ever, and is therefore a perfect time to debate profound transformations. It is not, however, a matter of delegating all authority to the State. Our experience shows that a State that concentrates all power is not the way. Rather, it is about generating institutions and mechanisms for debate and negotiation, for resolving tensions by including civil society. Argentina, through its successive crises, has developed a unique capacity for resilience and organization of civil society. This is probably one of our greatest assets in this situation. It would be strategic to use it now.
Today we face the coronavirus, but just around the corner are many other challenges that will be generated by the climate crises that we have been experiencing. It is very likely, then, that with the greater challenge posed by the climate crisis, countries that take advantage of this opportunity and change direction will in a much better position. Those who do not, run the risk of being violently excluded from the system, or left in the worst position in the international division of labour – a position which Argentina already knows too well.
About the author
Anabel Marin is based at Conicet / Cenit-School of Economics and Business, UNSAM, and a member of Steps America Latina.
Read more articles about coronavirus and the politics of pandemics.