By Raffique Shah
December 22, 2020
As we come close to the end of the year 2020, millions of people around the world who believe in God in one form or other will be praying to their deity that nothing cataclysmic happens in the dying days of what is probably the most tumultuous year in our lifetime. Really, after Covid-19 swept through planet Earth with a death-dealing ferocity that numbed the mind, what worse punishment could God conjure to hurl at man to teach him just who is who in the planetary pecking order? How much more adversity can tiny Trinidad and Tobago withstand, caught as it is in the cross-hairs of an economic meltdown multiplied by a migrant crisis that has damaged our reputation as well as strained our resilience?
As I try to make sense of our travails, I find writers’ solace in Charles Dickens’s famous opening sentences in his classical novel ‘A tale of two cities’, which, clichéd as they are from overuse ever since the master penned them in 1850, remain relevant: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the soft underbelly of the existing world economic order that is not dissimilar to what existed in Dickens’s Europe in the 18th Century. There are differences, of course. There’s no Marie Antoinette to respond, fatally, as it turned out, to the cries for bread from the empty stomachs of the peasants, she Trumpishly replied: then let them eat cake! She paid with her head, quite literally, when the masses went mad with hunger.
Today’s world might well be far advanced from what existed then, what with revolutions in industry and technology transforming the lives and lifestyles of most people, even the penniless peasants. Evidence of such advances can be seen in the mushrooming of mobile phones across the world, motor vehicle ownership, electrical appliances in just about every home, and so on.
But even as such wild consumerism suggests a stories of success in the current and, indeed, past economic orders—except for communism and socialism, both of which failed miserably—buried in them is evidence of a huge gap between rich and poor in just about every country in the world, which exposed its toxicity in the heat of the Covid-19 crisis.
Let me explain. When the pandemic first exploded, after the initial shock in China, it quickly ravaged much of Europe, storming the capitalist citadels of Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. In the most advanced exemplars of the free market system in that part of the world, people began dying like flies. ‘Lockdown’ a term that suggests imprisonment in one form or other, became a prime feature of these advanced countries, a feature that would soon envelop the entire world. A virus that is invisible to the naked eye served as the great leveler, bringing to their knees societies rich and poor, from First World to Fourth World. Also, economies that were huge and which controlled industry, manufacturing, and technology across the world were forced to halt production, bringing global trade and life as we all knew it to a screeching halt.
What followed was revealing. In the USA, the capital of capitalism, tens of millions of workers went on the breadline, a significant number never to return to jobs they held before the crisis. We discovered too, that approximately 100 million Americans from the lower and middle classes could not survive if they did not receive their wages and salaries on time. A new term surfaced: Living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. An inestimable number of Americans could not survive one day at a time if they did not get meals donated and served by charitable organisations. Tens of millions could not pay their rent or mortgages. Dreams of college education for many children vanished. Poverty stared them in the face. And other than dole out some temporary relief in the form of social security payments, the government of the most powerful nation on earth was rendered powerless in doing anything about the plight of its citizens.
Meanwhile, sitting atop their grossly inequal slice of the national income, four (4) billionaires raked in enough money to now be known as centi-billionaires-net worth more than $100 billion. All told, America’s 651 billionaires have increased their fortune by US$1 trillion thus far during the crisis. When this grim picture is superimposed on a national scale in which the mass of people are going hungry, it looks far from pretty. When it’s replicated internationally, the picture gets uglier, even as vaccines for the virus are rolling out of production lines further enriching the pharmaceutical overlords. I wonder where we are headed in relation to income-inequality.
What we are experiencing indicates that we live in a very dangerous world. It is the worst of times. Be afraid. Be very afraid.