World Bank Group president David Malpass and IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva at a March 3 press conference addressing the economic challenges posed by COVID-19. Image: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr/Simone D. McCourtie

In the U.S., politicians and the media continue to prattle about the economic stimulus needed to counter the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They frame help for desperate people not as relief or “social protection” — the term the development organization Oxfam uses in a new report — but as a boost for business’ bottom line. 

Capitalism is not merely a way of organizing economic activity in the U.S.; it is a secular religion. The god which American opinion leaders and politicians, of all stripes, most devoutly worship is not the Judeo-Christian or any other religion’s god; it is the god of greed. 

The two U.S. houses of congress are now on the verge of belatedly passing one such stimulus bill, just as unemployment insurance for millions of Americans is about to expire. They have yet to agree on the many details, and we can never know what the always unpredictable outgoing president might decide to do. 

While this is happening, a new and well-documented report from Oxfam details the highly unequal distribution around the globe of COVID-19-related social protection. By social protection Oxfam means income supports, unemployment insurance, pensions, health care, and other transfers and services  .

The report is called “Shelter from the Storm”. It analyzes data on social protections during the pandemic from 126 low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Oxfam finds that there have been some success stories, such as Bolivia and South Africa, both of which show that “a lot can be done by providing unemployment benefits, child support and pensions on a nearly universal and long-term basis.”

But it also notes many more stories of failure, such as those of Samoa, Laos, Angola and Zimbabwe, all of which have only managed to cover less than five percent of their populations with emergency pandemic-related social protection measures. 

Oxfam starts out by sharing the stark fact that more than two billion people “have had no support from their governments in their time of need.” 

As well, it adds that “none of the social protection support to those who are unemployed, elderly people, children and families provided in low and middle-income countries has been adequate to meet basic needs.”

Almost half of government support in the countries studied was in the form of a one-off payment, Oxfam says, and, worse, “almost all government support has now stopped.”

Oxfam observes that most of the human race has spent this past year trying, but barely managing, to “survive the COVID-19 induced economic chaos.” 

It notes that “many have been unable to pay their rent, have gone into unsustainable debt, sold their crops or assets cheaply, or skipped meals. Many are struggling to care for their children, especially those who remain out of school.”

A focus on women

Importantly, as we have seen even in wealthy countries such as our own, Oxfam tells us that “women are paying the highest price.”

The report focuses on what it calls “informal workers” in low-and middle-income countries, such as people who clean houses or do casual agricultural labour, most of whom are women. 

During the first month of the pandemic, these workers “lost an average of 60 per cent of their income. By 2021, an additional 47 million women and girls will be pushed below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day.”

As well, Oxfam says, it has seen reports from multiple sources that violence against women has risen, while “women are carrying the increased burden of unpaid care and domestic work.” 

In the face of this unacceptable reality Oxfam recommends what it calls a “gender-transformative” approach to providing social supports and services.

Part of that approach would be to allow women to access universal social payments as individuals, not as part of family units. As well, Oxfam proposes vastly expanded contributory social programs such as unemployment insurance — which, it says, should also cover under-employment — and “expanding social transfers to all informal workers.”

The report goes further: “As women are less likely to hold ID cards, own mobile phones, have personal bank accounts or be mobile in the public arena, specific consideration to ensure equal access for women must be the first priority in the design of social protection delivery.”

And there is more. For women with children, Oxfam recommends something we have yet to achieve in Canada: free access to childcare services. That, and access to skills training, Oxfam says, “are of particular importance to allow women equal access to the labour market during the economic recovery.” 

Finally, the report reiterates that “women experiencing domestic abuse must be supported, and access to sexual and reproductive health should be guaranteed to all women.” 

There is much more in this exhaustive and thorough report. 

For instance, countries such as South Africa or Indonesia that had fairly robust social protection programs when the pandemic started were better able to ramp up and expand those programs in response to the pandemic. 

In South Africa, the suite of programs was broadly-based, including pensions and unemployment insurance. Indonesia is notable as one of the very few countries in this group that is in the process of building a universal health care system similar to that in Canada, the U.K., France and the Scandinavian countries. 

World Bank’s conditions on loans hobbled developing countries’ social programs

Oxfam’s broad observation of the state of social protections in the countries it studied is scathing. And it does not spare the western-controlled agencies, such as the World Bank, that helped create that situation.

“For decades, most countries pursued a failed model of social protection, often with the support and advice of the World Bank. Instead of learning from the history of now-rich countries, which rebuilt their societies after World War II with universal benefits, they have pursued a path more similar to Europe in the 19th century.”

Oxfam finds it to be problematic in the extreme that government support in these countries is often based on means testing of “who is ‘poor’ and who is not.” It says that practice, “leaves out large numbers of people in need of support … and stigmatizes people who are poor.” 

The result of what Oxfam calls these “insufficient support systems,” is that most of the 126 countries in the study “were completely unprepared to support their citizens when the pandemic hit.”

Now, Oxfam says, we must urgently change course and invest in universal social protection. 

For affluent donor countries such as Canada, Oxfam has specific and practical suggestions. 

For starters, we should “significantly increase the quantity of international aid in support of social protection.” 

Rich countries, Oxfam explains, “have only increased their aid for social protection to lower-income countries by US$5.8 billion,” which is “the equivalent of less than five cents for every $100 raised to tackle COVID-19.”

The wealthy family of nations should also cancel a significant portion of low- and middle-income countries’ debt. 

Oxfam shares startling research which shows that if “resources saved from debt relief were channelled into social protection, 26 countries could provide a six-month public transfer to everyone above the age of 60 at a level able to cover basic needs, and provide support to every person with disabilities and every child.”

Finally, Oxfam calls on the two global financial agencies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to give immediate loans and grants to countries in need, “without imposing conditions on future social spending.” Most notable among those conditions is the World Banks and IMF’s favourite: coerced austerity.

The overall impression one gets reading the Oxfam report is that we, the wealthy, have held the whip hand when it comes to the sort of social and economic development policies poorer countries pursued. We didn’t think such policies were good for us, but we foisted them on billions in the developing world.

Canada and other western countries are talking, these days, about a great reset, about building back better at home, by pursuing new and different approaches based on social equality and sustainability. We’ll see how that all works out. 

We have yet to talk much about how we could broaden this new approach to include the rest of the world. This Oxfam report shows that it is time we did so.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...