Health Care and Social Protection: what strategy?

The silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis is, undoubtedly, the many lessons we can learn.

In the past, it was sometimes hard to convince people of the need for social protection. Too often, it is seen as paternalistic, reformist and old-fashioned. Today, people want to be free and decide for themselves. Or, solidarity cannot exist in a capitalist system, so, we first have to get rid of capitalism.

Let me give you this quote of Chris Hani, former chairman of the South-African Communist Party:

Socialism is not about big concepts or heavy theory. Socialism is about decent shelter for those who are homeless. It is about water for those who have no safe drinking water. It is about health care. It is about a life of dignity for the old. It is about overcoming the huge divide between urban and rural areas. It is about a decent education for all our people. Socialism is about rolling back the tyranny of the markets. As long as the economy is dominated by an unelected, privileged few, the case for socialism will exist.”

I think this is very clear and very true.

From this statement follow two things:

One, it is the political struggle for these social policies that make another world possible. The current COVID-crisis has made it crystal clear how the homeless, the migrants and asylum seekers, the informal workers, all the vulnerable people are the major victims of an illness that can be avoided by the rich and wealthy. The statements of some about health care as an opportunity for wealth creation are a shame. Health care should be available for all and should be affordable. It cannot be a for-profit asset. As Global Social Justice has been saying for years: what we need is free, public and universal health care. At least, if you take human rights seriously. The awareness of the transformative potential of health care is a first step towards a strategy for system change.

Two, one cannot fight for health care without fighting for water, for shelter, for income, for dignity. And one cannot fight for health care without fighting for preventive policies and for a healthy environment. It means we necessarily have to fight against the tyranny of the markets Chris Hani is referring to. Never before has it been so clear that all these different aspects, from health care to housing to the environment and to the financialisation of our lives have to be tackled simultaneously. This is, I think, the second major strategic element that has to be taken into account.

Never before, it seems to me, has it been so clear that politics are about life and death.

Health care and social protection are not only individual concerns, they are a common interest. It does not help to work for a COVID-free France or China or Mexico, if other countries have no resources to fight the virus and have access to vaccines. In the same way, the environment knows no borders. We are so interdependent that it should be clear to all that we are in this together, not in the same boat, certainly not, but in the same storm. We can only survive if we find solutions for the huge inequalities that to-day, make social life so difficult, if not impossible.

Add to this the necessary democratic procedures with a participation of all concerned people, men and women, rich and poor, North and South and East and West. That is why we talk about ‘social commons’, policies and achievements that are in the common interest and come about in a participatory manner.

Our social protection, then, is a very broad concept, it is not a corrective mechanism but a tool for change. It is very different from other advocates of ‘social protection’ who only think of markets and hide behind a discourse on ‘the poor’ they constantly ignore.

This is the strategy we have in mind: an awareness of the transformative potential of social protection, in the sense of Chris Hani, an awareness of the necessary linkages between social, environmental and economic policies. It obviously is incomplete, it is a long-term project that will have to adapt to national and local circumstances. You can call it socialism or you can call it something else. We think it is crucial.