A lesson for the future

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The most economically vulnerable are both compulsorily informal workers and those who are hostages to the promise of maximum freedom: without a boss, masters of themselves and their own time, but without any guaranteed rights.

By Filipe Campello*

The day after the announcement of the first death from the coronavirus in the United States, brothers Matt and Noah traveled more than two thousand kilometers through the states of Tennessee and Kentucky buying all the stock of hand sanitizers they could find along the way. The aim was to sell them at exorbitant prices as soon as the demand for these products grew. The more the number of infected increased, the more they would profit.

What exactly is the problem with this initiative? From the point of view of the free market (and its logic of supply and demand) apparently none. Judging that it would be selfish to make money from the growth of the pandemic depends on a moral value that, strictly speaking, is extrinsic to the defense of economic freedom. per se, the market is, so to speak, “amoral”.

But it is precisely in extreme situations, such as natural catastrophes or in the current coronavirus pandemic – what in philosophy are called hard cases – that we can better see the contradictions of a strictly neoliberal perspective as it was adopted there in the 1970s and which seems to persist even today, including in the belief of our Minister of Economy.

This type of impasse, generated from a unilateral perspective of economic freedom, becomes even more evident when we think about the means of containing the pandemic and its impact on people's lives and on the economy (just remember that, on the day announced the closure of US borders to the European Union, Donald Trump posted on twitter that the measure would not affect the US economy in any way, as it was prohibiting the movement of people only and not goods).

Although the virus obviously does not choose who is infected, exposure to it, especially in countries like Brazil, will largely depend on socioeconomic conditions. In its initial phase, cases of infection were concentrated in an income range that allowed travel to Europe, but the impact that could occur if the virus spreads among low-income people is still unpredictable. In addition to living in more precarious sanitary conditions, they do not easily have the option of simply not working.

Not everyone has the “privilege” of quarantine. While those who are protected by rights or by social protection policies will be able to stay more peacefully in their homes, for others, staying weeks or months without a form of livelihood means putting their survival at risk for reasons that go beyond contamination. For these people, reality is not singing from the balcony of their apartments. The quarantine, as an image that circulated on the networks said, cannot be romanticized.

The most economically vulnerable are the countless workers who work informally, self-employed professionals or who, under the growing model of uberization of work, are hostages to the promise of maximum freedom: without a boss, masters of themselves and their own time, but without no right guaranteed.

It is in situations like this that the logic of free market self-regulation shows its inability to offer solutions. On the contrary, only the State can offer social protection measures to those who cannot and should not leave home to work.

It is also at these times that we see the importance of a public health system that can meet demands that are far from being resolved by the private system (not by chance, Spain decided to nationalize all private hospitals for the duration of the pandemic). Furthermore, only public funding for research (recalling that it is in the public university that more than 95% of research is concentrated) can offer solutions that are not at the mercy of just what generates profit.

What the coronavirus pandemic has taught us is that there is no room for civilizational setbacks. It means defending the importance of science, the circulation of reliable information, the role of the State in offering social protection and effective public policies, in addition to expanding our political imagination to think of transnational means of dealing with problems whose impacts are not restricted to national borders.

Faced with situations like this, those who continue to believe unconditionally in the free market as a solution to all our problems seem not to be very far from gurus, flat-Earthers or those who are against vaccines. If, in the midst of this chaotic scenario, the pandemic can leave a lesson for the future of humanity, it is that betting on less State and more market is highly risky.

*Filipe Campello is professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Pernambuco.

An earlier version of this article was published on the blog southern horizons.

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