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Putting people before profit: How Covid-19 is changing our view of development and power

May 10, 2021 at 9:34 am

A medical worker inoculates a woman with a dose of the Covaxin vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Mumbai on May 9, 2021 [INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images]

Covid-19 has been a lengthy wake-up call. It is a loud and costly reminder of our lack of preparedness. One of many crucial questions this deadly pandemic is confronting us with pertains to the real definitions of human development, wealth, and power.

When militarily powerful and rich countries, like the United States, find themselves in the unenviable position of leading the world in terms of the number of overall Covid-19 cases and deaths, then it is only befitting to ponder whether wealth and power, in their current form, are convincing indicators of development. While the US scrambled to contain the spread of the virus, much poorer countries like Cuba, Vietnam, and even Rwanda continue to lead the way in combating the deadly disease.

Other countries, like India, which have for long been celebrated as models of unhindered capitalist growth, are also reeling under unprecedented devastation. Covid-19 is ravaging India to the extent that this populous Asian nation has broken global daily records of reported coronavirus cases for several days in a row.

How are we to make sense of all of this?

While the US no longer possesses the amount of wealth it once had, if compared, for example, with its share of global wealth following World War Two, it is still a very wealthy nation. To put this into perspective, the average American GDP per capita is estimated to be ten times that of Cuba and twenty times Vietnam’s. Yet, while the healthcare system in the US was quickly overwhelmed – and, in some cases, collapsed — under the weight of Covid-19 cases, Cuba was sending delegations of top doctors to help other countries cope with the pandemic.

Seeing Cuban doctors arriving in northern Italy to provide critical aid to the beleaguered and dying people of Lombardy and other regions, was not only a testament to the spirit of human solidarity but also to the need to revisit our view of wealth and poverty altogether.

Rwanda, an East African country that has risen from the ashes of its 1990-94 civil war and subsequent genocide, is an African success story. From the very start, this poor nation managed to control the number of Covid-19 cases, thus keeping the death toll to a minimum.

Coronavirus spreading in the Middle East - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Coronavirus spreading in the Middle East – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In an interview published by the renowned British Medical Journal (BMJ) last December, Agnes Binagwaho, the architect of Rwanda’s healthcare system, had a strong message for Western governments and societies. “Covid-19 has shown that the Western world and the global north are not the best at doing everything,” wrote the former health minister. “It’s time to revisit why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

The woman who successfully navigated through Rwanda’s collective healthcare crisis, also successfully diagnosed the ailment afflicting Western, capitalist societies. “The culture of individualism,” she said, “the lack of solidarity – it is losing trust with the people. And it’s making people sick.”

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Unhinged capitalism has indoctrinated some to believe that money equals success; that wealth equals development; that military power equals strength. But nothing could be further from the truth. Covid-19 is teaching us that there must be alternative ways of deciphering success, appreciating development, and understanding strength.

There is no fixed universal criterion that provides agreed-upon indicators of human development. Some emphasise gross domestic product (GDP), gross national product (GNP), and GNP per capita. Others, like the UN Human Development Index (HDI), rightly place much value on a combination of factors, ranging between health, education, and standards of living. Even then, the numbers can be deceiving, simply because it is not possible to create charts and provide an objective statistical analysis of such values as community, solidarity, and real equality.

Only the latter can be, to a limited extent, demonstrated through numbers. We often speak of America’s wealth and India’s “economic miracle” but rarely do we pay much heed to the massive inequality that exists within these societies. According to the Washington Post, citing the work of famed economist Edward N. Wolff, “The top one per cent of [American] households own more wealth than the bottom ninety per cent combined.”

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India, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, is registering similar disturbing inequality patterns. According to the International NGO OXFAM, the richest ten per cent of the Indian population controls 77 per cent of the total wealth of the nation.

In order for these numbers to be comprehended in real-life situations, they have to be placed within relevant contexts: education, healthcare, mortality rate, and proper housing, for example. It should come as no surprise that Covid-19 has hit the poor and their communities much harder than the rich. The same is true in the US as it is in India and the rest of the world.

When distributed unevenly, wealth is not an indicator of development. Only when it benefits all and is accessible by all members of society, can it be seen as a measure of real success. Individualism might be the right approach to accumulating money and power for the individual, but only equitable distribution of wealth can benefit the community as a whole. As Covid-19 has taught us, that is genuine development.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.