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Political economic responses to the coronavirus crisis

Frank Stilwell

“Communist Vegans” by Eli Christman (Flickr CC, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This article has arisen from a new issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy which focuses on the political economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. It contains articles each showing how political economic analysis can deepen our understanding of what has been happening. Many also reflect on what can now be done to pursue a more progressive agenda – for more secure jobs, less inequality and a more sustainable environment.

The current coronavirus pandemic is, at root, a health crisis. The sudden onset of COVID-19, its ready transmission and potential to kill, and the current lack of a vaccine to counter its effects has been traumatic. However, the broader Global Coronavirus Crisis (GCC) that it has precipitated has many further dimensions – economic, social, political and environmental.

The economic dimension is most evident in the unemployment rates that, in some countries, have quickly risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression. There have been widespread business closures – some temporary, but many likely to be permanent. The volume and value of international trade have plunged. Both public and private debts have escalated. Bouncing back from these economic conditions cannot be easy.

The social dimension of the crisis is similarly problematic. Much has been made in the media about how the crisis has fostered social solidarity and mutual support – and particular instances have been heartening – but other behavioural responses to the crisis have been significantly more troubling. A short list would include an upsurge of nationalist and racist scapegoating, the heightened incidence of domestic violence, workers forced to work in expos- ed conditions without proper protection, aggressive panic-buying, and harmful personal behaviours such as excessive gambling and drug-abuse.

Politically, a crisis of governance may be observed, partly arising from the limitations of some current international organisations, and partly from inconsistent and sometimes incoherent responses by some national and sub-national governments. There is a human rights dimension to the crisis too, because many governments have taken the opportunity to collect people’s personal data beyond what has been normal practice and to extend social controls that curtail civil liberties.

Some talk of a crisis for neoliberalism, as they did when the GFC emerged in 2008. Certainly, this crisis – indeed, both crises – have exposed the inadequacies of political economic arrangements based on the interests of capital and policies primarily serving those interests. However, the failure of the GFC to be a major turning point, other than intensifying the politics of austerity, is salutary. Is it similarly unwise to read the death-rites this time? Could there be adaptation, even intensification, rather than demise?

The current crisis also has some global characteristics that differ from the GFC. The three T’s of ‘trade, travel and tour- ism’ are tottering, not to mention international student enrolments on which universities have increasingly come to depend during the last couple of decades. While the incidence of these problems varies significantly between regions and nations, the concerns have global reach, particularly as COVID-19 spreads throughout the nations of the Global South.

Perhaps most fundamentally, there is an ecological dimension to the crisis. Indeed, looking at the GCC from a holistic, ecological perspective creates deeper understanding of its significance. Contrary to narratives presenting the COVID-19 pandemic as exogenous to an otherwise functioning system, critics have sought to demonstrate the structural origins of the virus in the dynamics of capitalism – especially those relating to industrial agriculture and global sourcing. The fragility and unsustainability of existing political economic arrangements and processes are all-too-evident, exposing deep vulnerabilities and lack of resilience.

These are the various dimensions of the current crisis with which the authors of the new JAPE are concerned. But the topics of the articles are yet broad- er, also reflecting on the implications for industrial relations and Australian aid in the region, for example. There are also articles on the experience of particular countries and the Global South where the interaction with ongoing problems of poverty is even more deeply troubling.

The current crisis is likely to be regard- ed, for decades to come, as a major rupture and turning point, bringing into sharp relief many of the tensions and contradictions deeply embedded in the prevailing economic, social and political arrangements. The questions about causes, consequences and responses will resonate for a long time to come.

Source: Prog. Polit. Econ., 9 June 2020

The latest issue of The Journal of Australian Political Economy contains 26 articles on the coronavirus crisis, looking at its dimensions – health, economic, impacts on inequality, and its implications for industrial relations, trade, aid, etc. – as well as alternative policy responses. It is freely available online at the new home of JAPE on the Progress in

Political Economy website at:

Frank Stilwell is Professor Emeritus in the Dept of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and Vice President of the Evatt Foundation, and is an ERA patron.

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