POPE FRANCIS – Our civilization needs to downshift, take stock and renew itself

– ROBAIRD O’CEARBHAILL

The pandemic is wrecking economies and lives but those who suffer most are the vulnerable old and young, the already ill and especially the extreme poor. All whom Christians are duty-bound to help. A core part of our faith and a guiding principle: love your neighbour. Pope Francis hopes for decisive changes during, and after the crisis, for a “humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre.”

   He prays, moreover, “that governments understand that technocratic paradigms (whether state-centred or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the center, united to heal, to care and to share. Our civilization – so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few – needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself,” he said.

   The Pope’s words were written to the World of Popular Movements, which he founded. “(WMPM)’s purpose is to create an ‘encounter’ between Church leadership and grassroots organizations working to address the ‘economy of exclusion and inequality’ (Joy of the Gospel, nos. 53-54) by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice,” states WMPM’s website.

The “disproportionate profits of just a few,” the top elites, and the immense gap between them and those at the bottom of the income streams, concerns the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined, according to the UN, in its 1995 statement of the World Summit for Social Development as: “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.” Appointed on 1st May is the current rapporteur, Professor Olivier De Schutter who strongly called for urgency to deal with absolute poverty.

   De Schutter called for immediate transformation from extreme poverty to more social security: so many in abject poverty and those now slightly above, will be heavily affected by pandemic job losses.  “The COVID-19 crisis is an urgent call for action. If we make the right choices now, it will be an opportunity to transform our society into a more inclusive and equal one.”

   “With a projected fall in per capita income in more than 170 countries, people without social protection will be worst hit,” De Schutter said. Worldwide, about four billion people have no social protection coverage and those in precarious employment, including the 2 billion workers in the informal sector, are often the first to lose their jobs”.

   The professor at Sciences Po, Paris Grande Ecole and Louvain University Belgium, in the press release of The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), said “social security programmes should be regarded as an investment, not a cost. ‘There are considerable benefits to society from investing in early childhood and social protection schemes that prevent low-income families from falling into poverty, if the recession is to be overcome.’”

   “The economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to invest heavily in a greener economy to create jobs and reduce inequalities.’’

   “In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, we must move away from a development paradigm that puts economic growth first, while hoping to wipe out the environmental damages and to compensate for the social impacts of increased inequalities afterwards. The model of growth itself should incorporate environmental sustainability and social justice from the start,” said the expert.

“In times of crisis of this magnitude, the pledge made within the International Labour Organization to implement universal social protection floors is ever more relevant and critical,” De Schutter said.

   “The UN expert said social security programmes should be regarded as an investment, not a cost. ‘There are considerable benefits to society from investing in early childhood and social protection schemes that prevent low-income families from falling into poverty, if the recession is to be overcome.’”

   “Moreover, the financing of social protection is affordable: ‘On average, the cost of financing a full set of benefits included in social protection floors represent 4.2 percent of GDP on average for 57 low-income and lower-middle-income countries. This is the best investment a country can make for its future,’” De Schutter said.

   “States have committed at least $8 trillion to defend against the economic impacts of COVID-19. This should be directed towards building a more inclusive economy based on the rights to work and to social security, as well as the rights to adequate housing, healthcare and education.”

  “Extreme poverty is not about a lack of income alone, or faults of individuals or families. It’s about political choices that exclude, discriminate and marginalize people,” De Schutter added.

    For months senior economists both in and out of academia predicted crashing national GDPs and international trade, leading to increasing unemployment are.

    Ironically a year before Covid, the last UN Special Rapporteur on poverty, Professor Philip Alston, spent two weeks studying many of the most underprivileged groups among the people in the UK decried the dire poverty among children and 20% of citizens in the UK.  Now it is worse. The British economy and poverty under pandemic conditions is not just faltering: it’s shrinking, as are the majority, if not all, of developed and undeveloped economies. He told the Guardian UK social welfare policies and cuts have pushed millions into dire poverty.

“The focus of this report is on the contribution made by social security and related policies. The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line. One, 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford essentials. Two,  the widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%.”

“For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”

   Alston, talking to the Guardian newspaper, also complained about expensive, for the very poor, access to security payments: “Users have to go online to keep their financial lifeline open, but computers need electricity – and with universal credit leaving a £465 (MOP 4700) monthly budget to stretch across the three people  family (about £5 each a day), they can barely afford it with the (electricity) meter ticking.”

   In the more recent Guardian interview Alston was shocked at the UK’s poor response to the corona virus: “Utterly hypocritical? The most vulnerable have been short-changed or excluded. The policies of many states reflect a social Darwinism philosophy that prioritises the economic interests of the wealthiest while doing little for those who are hard at work providing essential services or unable to support themselves,” Alston said, reckoning the crisis “could push more than half a billion additional people into poverty globally.” Part of that is unsafe working environments, which “forces them to continue working in unsafe conditions, putting everyone’s health at risk.” He warned that the virus was “poised to wreak havoc in poorer countries.” But in the rich UK cuts, privatisation of health and lack of political will to help the poor cannot be “undone.”

   “And of course, many of the worst and most damaging aspects of ‘austerity’ cannot and will not be undone. The damage caused to community cohesion and to the social infrastructure are likely to prove permanent.” In short, the British state health service after decades of funding cuts, and expensive infrastructure sold off cheaply to political allies. Proudly in 1948, it was the world’s first free national health service.  With the current population higher, and high demand for Covid cases, the NHS has around half of the hospital beds it had in 1948. 

The free market won.

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