Our leaders won’t fix the COVID inequality crisis – but we can

by Ben Phillips | Author
Tuesday, 20 October 2020 14:58 GMT

A resident picks up free groceries distributed by the Chelsea Collaborative's food pantry, in Chelsea, a city hard hit by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Massachusetts, U.S., September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Great leaders who tackle inequality are often celebrated, but progressive grassroots organising is crucial

Ben Phillips is the author of 'How to Fight Inequality'

Inequality was already a crisis. Covid-19 has turned it into a catastrophe. World Bank figures acknowledge that this year up to 115 million more people are being pushed into extreme poverty, forced to live off less than $2 a day.

Billionaires, meanwhile, have increased their wealth by more by 27.5% reaching a record high of $10.2 trillion. In a recent 16-country YouGov poll for the International Trade Union Confederation, 75% of people said their own income has stagnated or fallen behind.

The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. The policy solutions to tackle inequality have been detailed by non-governmental organisations, academics and the United Nations. They are overwhelmingly popular. They include health for all, an expansion of public services, an end to austerity, wealth taxes on the richest, wage rises, strengthened workers’ rights, and social protection; along with a global green new deal that will generate millions of high-quality jobs and ensure quality public transport and public infrastructure.

The problem is that our leaders are not rising to the challenge. At the UN General Assembly in late-September, despite governments’ rhetorical acceptance that Covid-19 vaccines must be a global public good, they did not touch the monopoly privileges of a handful of corporations. These monopolies force up prices and throttle potential supply, and so will leave most people unable to access the vaccine for years after it is found.

At the World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings in mid-October, leaders acknowledged the debt crisis that sees developing countries spending more on debt payments than on health, education and social protection altogether; but all they agreed was a few months more of a very limited suspension.

If leaders will not pull us out of the inequality crisis, who can? In my new book, How to Fight Inequality, I investigate the history of when, and how, inequality has been beaten before. I find that inequality never self-corrected, and was never resolved through the grace of those in authority, but was instead beaten by people power. Each victory began with people standing up and being labelled troublemakers, grew through organising and alliance-building, and was sealed by not only taking on individual policies but by creating a new story.

The big reductions in inequality in the 2000s in Latin America were all rooted in collective pressure. From landless workers’ movements in Brazil to indigenous people’s movements in Bolivia, building collective power was the key to securing change. As the coconut pickers I met in Brazil taught me about the victories they had won, ‘organizadas somos fortes’  or ‘organised we are powerful.’

So too, the progressive policies enacted from the 1930s to the 1970s in the U.S. They came from trade unions, black organisations, churches and other progressive grassroots groups coming together, in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.’

In the 1950s and 1960s, many countries who won independence took bold action against inequality, and while it is often the names of great national leaders that dominate how major steps to tackle inequality are remembered, organizing from below was key to their realization. In Ghana, organizing by cocoa workers not only led to the cocoa board protecting their incomes, but also led to the rollout of free education, first to cocoa workers and later to everyone.

The most important heroes of change have not been the few famous orators but the many patient organisers. Jay Naidoo, who founded the trade union coalition in South Africa which helped bring down apartheid, told me this: ‘It is not about how brilliant your argument is. What matters is the balance of power between your side, the people’s side, in the confrontation and negotiations with the other side, the side of the elite.’

In a crisis that can feed despair, the record of history provides many reasons for hope. It helps, too, in guiding us how to realise that hope. César Chávez, who organised U.S. farm workers, expressed our capability to win change so succinctly and so beautifully: ‘We don’t need perfect political systems. We need perfect participation.’

We’ve won the fight against inequality before. Even in – especially in – this crisis, we can win it again. And the current worldwide wave of protests shows, as the late John Lewis put it, that people are ready to get into ‘good trouble’.