14 April, 2020

International solidarity in times of corona

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc and makes no distinction in race or class. In Europe, it was brought home by middle-class families returning from their ski trips. It was not refugees, migrants, or Eastern European workers that brought this pandemic upon the Flemish people. In Belgium, authorities managed to take short-term drastic action with accompanying social measures. In other countries, the population is worse off. International solidarity is needed now more than ever. Today, tomorrow and the day after.

Stay in your slum

On March 25th, the markets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, were closed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. A logical decision for us, but a catastrophe in a country where only expats have supermarkets and 80% of the population lives from the informal economy and the sale of food. This is causing a disruption in food supplies and the complete loss of income for a large part of Burkinabe families.

In Bangladesh, the army will ensure that the population complies with the government's measures. But how do you quarantine if you have to live with a family of seven on an area of 28 square meters? Even here, complying with lockdown measures is already a lot harder for a family in a small apartment than for those who live in a spacious villa with a large garden. If you live in the slums around a metropolis with millions of inhabitants, these difficulties are taken to another level.

Social movements at work

ACV, CM-MC and the aligned socio-cultural organisations are undertaking various  solidarity initiatives to support and give hope to specific groups in our society during these trying times. Social movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America are also fulfilling their role to the fullest during this global crisis.

Our partner GK (Gonoshasthaya Kendra) in Bangladesh has developed a test kit to detect the coronavirus. A kit that is not just affordable for the poor population, but also gives quick results through a simple blood test, without requiring lab-analysis. GK hopes to be able to offer the kit for 200 taka (2 euro).

In the Dominican Republic, our partner MOSCTHA has developed a prevention campaign aimed at providing correct information even in the most vulnerable areas and providing care for infected persons where necessary. MOSCTHA mainly assists Haitian migrants, undocumented migrants and other vulnerable people in precarious living situations, who are difficult to reach through the government campaigns.

Together with many other partner organisations of WSM, these social movements organise themselves in the Network on the Right to Social Protection, which is active on a national, continental and international level. In addition to capacity building and exchanges around the various aspects of social protection, the network also advocates for universal social protection, as provided for in a number of international standards adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Gaps in social protection

Shahra Razavi, director of the ILO Social Protection Department, told the South African weekly Mail & Guardian that nearly 40% of the world's population has no health insurance or access to  national health services. Approximately 800 million people spend at least 10% of their household budget on health care each year, and 100 million people end up in poverty as a result of medical expenses each year. This means that many people simply do not have the means to get treatment when they are ill. Not even if that disease is called COVID-19.

In addition, for a significant part of the world's population there is a structural lack of income and therefore no buffer for crises such as this one. This concerns all the people who are looking for work, but also the working poor who are over-represented on the, mostly informal, labour market in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

WSM, ACV and the partners of our network have fiercely supported the discussion in the ILO on formalising the informal economy, leading to a new recommendation in 2015. The extension of social protection is seen as an important strategy to facilitate this transition and to pull people out of the informal circuit.

Universal social protection overcomes every crisis

At present, all authorities are trying to contain the coronavirus as much as possible and to manage and mitigate its consequences. It goes without saying that this is more successful in countries with strong social protection that is supported and organised by the government and civil society.

Humanitarian aid will certainly be needed to ensure that a number of countries are able to cope with this crisis in the short term and to get through the next period in terms of health, social and economic issues. At the same time, we hope that this crisis can bring about a turnaround in structural international cooperation and solidarity. Internationally, the conviction has grown in recent years that universal social protection must be a common goal of all actors.

In 2016, for instance, the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection was launched, an initiative of the ILO and the World Bank with the support of several countries. The World Bank's support for what is now known as 'USP 2030' is encouraging and will hopefully continue to bear fruit in repairing the damage caused by COVID-19 in the years to come. The World Bank and IMF have already declared that they will provide funds to support developing countries during this crisis and are also calling for debt repayments to be halted.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, hit the nail on the head when he says: 'We must now work together to pave the way for a recovery leading to a more sustainable, inclusive and just economy, guided by our shared commitment - the sustainable development agenda for 2030'.

Belgian international cooperation

Once this pandemic has passed, we ask, as a large majority of the Belgian House of Representatives already did in a resolution in 2016, to give social protection a more central place in Belgian international cooperation.

The texts on which a Belgian policy can be based to strengthen social protection in developing countries are ready. And they are widely supported by all the actors involved. However, due to our own political context, they do not have the status of an official Belgian vision, which is necessary so that Belgian representatives in the partner countries and international organisations know what principles they have to defend.

WSM and the Multi-Actor Network on the Right to Social Protection that it coordinates hope that this coronacrisis will be a game changer, bringing about structural and collective change that puts universal social protection centre stage.

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