Moria and the smouldering ruins of Europe’s humanity

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek in Lesbos

The refugees and migrants who survived the fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos find themselves in an even worse predicament as authorities repeat the same dire mistakes.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 8 October 2020

Safia R (not her real name), 17, from Afghanistan, was afraid: afraid for her future, her physical integrity, her ailing mother and her 12-year-old brother. After living on the streets and in the nearby forests following the devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, her family was forced to enter Kara Tepe, the replacement camp hastily constructed overnight on a former military shooting range still riddled with bullets.

“On 9 September, at around two in the morning, I was woken up by the screaming of my neighbours,” Safia recounted, her voice trembling. “They were banging on our container and screaming that a severe fire had broken out. They said we should just drop everything and run.”

It was traumatic for her to recall how the Moria camp, the symbol of Europe’s thoroughly dehumanising (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies, was reduced to an ash heap.

“So we just got up and ran, heading for the highest ground in the camp. Flames were raging everywhere we looked, and people were scrambling for their lives,” the articulate and bright young woman continued. “Right then, I really believed we were all going to die. Oh God, I was so scared… All I managed to grab before I ran was my mobile phone and the charger. Everything else was lost in the fire.”

Losing her father at an early age made her all the more exposed and vulnerable to the horrendous conditions on Lesbos. “I am one of those Afghans who’s never set foot in Afghanistan,” she went on in her excellent English, partly picked up at the local language institute and partly on the internet. »My parents were refugees from Mazar-e-Sharif. I was brought up in Iran. Losing my father so soon was the worst possible blow for all of us. My mother and I used to agonise over setting off for Europe or not. But in the end, we realised we simply had no other choice. There was no future at all for us in Iran.”

Fright night

Before she got coerced into moving into the new camp, Safia spent 10 days sleeping rough, with only what passing strangers gave her for sustenance. These, she winced, were the worst days of her life. The experience was even more frightening than the savage four months she spent in the murky side streets of Istanbul and Izmir, waiting for her passage to Greece.

Yes, there was the proverbial kindness of strangers in the wake of the Moria fire. But there was also humiliation, harassment and bitter invective. Toward the end of her ordeal, Safia was reduced to a quivering wreck.

Moving into the new camp, which could easily be dubbed Moria 2.0, didn’t do much for her mental state.

Her new reality is quite simply overwhelming. Tents without even remotely adequate flooring, a single meal each day and a dire shortage of drinkable water. In the entire camp, there are only 35 chemical toilets for 12,000 people and a few appallingly filthy shower stalls. Then there is the lack of medicine and medical staff and the pitifully inadequate quarantine measures for the almost 300 refugees already infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds of children and teenagers in Moria are without their parents. The horrible overcrowding is stirring up ethnic hostilities. All the war trauma and PTSD leads to countless acts of petty cruelty. Racism. Despair. Mounting police violence. The understandable rage of the local population.

The list goes on and on.

Given the conditions in Moria, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head – before the whole thing went up in flames. Yet it now seems clear the Greek authorities have learned nothing from the debacle.

The conditions at Kara Tepe are direct proof that the authorities learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past. The surreal squalor of Moria 2.0 is the final confirmation that the authorities in Athens are deliberately failing to invest into improving the living conditions for migrants, despite the European funds collected specifically for that purpose.

There is a twisted logic to the Greek authorities’ actions. After all, improved infrastructure could greatly contribute to Greece being rebranded as a ‘safe country’ in the eyes of the other EU members. And this could trigger the so-called Dublin II Regulation, which has been described as exceedingly unfair to the southern EU states – and rightly so. The northern states would then be legally able to send their asylum seekers back to the state of their first asylum application. And due to basic geography, the vast majority of them had first set foot on European soil in Greece or Italy.

The Greek authorities are, thus, doing everything in their power not to be deemed a safe country. And Safia, her mother and brother and everyone else in the camp, are paying the price.

No more music

“When the flames started to settle, I ran to our container,” Safia explained, now on the verge of tears. “There was nothing left… Nothing. Even my most treasured possession, a pair of guitars I’ve managed to hold on to – both were lost to the fire.”

She went on to share that she was a self-taught musician. In addition to the guitar, Safia also played the piano and used to regularly post her recordings on the internet. “Without my guitars and my singing, I simply do not feel alive.”

When one of the humanitarian volunteers helping the refugees learned of her loss, he gave her his own guitar. There is only one thing, she says, which could bring her even greater joy. And that is for her family’s asylum request to be granted, so they could finally resume their journey to Germany.

This is something she daydreams about. Every day, every hour, all the time. She is also working hard to learn the German language over the internet.

Five years after the historically unique but temporary refugee corridor through the Balkans toward Northern Europe was closed down, Germany is still considered to be the promised land for the vast majority of the refugees and migrants here. Roughly 70% of those currently stranded on Lesbos arrived here from Afghanistan.

“A month and a half ago, we were summoned for an asylum interview,” Safia recalled. “During the whole year we spent waiting for it, most of the other single Afghan women with children were allowed to leave the island. I don’t know why they made us wait so long. Anyway, the interview was perfectly pleasant – they were actually quite nice to us. They promised we would get their reply in two weeks’ time. But once again, nothing happened. And then the fire broke out.”

Safia shivered again, only to clear her throat and resume: “My greatest fear is that the calamity has sort of reset the entire process. And that we will have to remain here, in hell for a good long while. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me, watching my sick and exhausted mother and all the other broken-down people here trying to make it through another day.”

Penal colony 

It wasn’t hard to understand the naked fear on Safia’s face. The first major downpour was certain to demonstrate just how pitifully misguided the choice of location for the new camp was. Its ramshackle ramparts seemed vulnerable even to the wind.

Kara Tepe was being set up on the land of a well-known local member of the ruling New Democracy party. Ever since its opening, the entrance to the camp had been a very crowded place. Adding to the crowds was the commendably high number of humanitarian workers alighting here daily from all over the world to help reduce the inmates’ plight.

The humanitarians were quick to inform me that they are increasingly being targeted for attacks. Not only by the extreme right-wingers from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also by locals who had previously shown tolerance and understanding towards the refugees.

The locals were now truly starting to lose their temper, especially in the wake of the increased tensions with Turkey, which sent several thousand refugees and migrants over to Greece at the start of March. The people of Lesbos realised all too damn well that they – along with the local populations of Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros – had been sacrificed by Athens and Brussels on the altar of shameless political and economic opportunism.

It has to be said: the people of Lesbos have managed to hold out for an admirably long time. But now their empathy seemed to be running on fumes. And little wonder. Tourism, their main source of sustenance, was now officially dead. The agency buses have been replaced by police barriers, and the well-heeled travellers by desperate traumatised people on the run.

Possibly the greatest tragedy of all is how misguidedly the locals have started picking the targets for their justified rage. Once again, the most vulnerable and exposed are bearing the brunt of it. Humanitarian workers are also being increasingly punished for the cardinal sin of working around the clock to save lives, both at sea and on solid ground.

But the blame for sacrificing the island is of course not theirs. The main culprits why, in the words of brilliant British journalist Andrew Connelly, Lesbos has been turned into ‘a penal colony’, can be found in the governing chambers all over Europe.

The EU in its entirety has decided to look away. Granted, there is much talk about ‘a refugee crisis’, but at least in the bloc, there is no such thing. And there never was – not even in 2015 and 2016, when the European border was crossed by over a million of those fleeing war, abject poverty and the ever more devastating consequences of climate change.

Please allow me to repeat this crucial if direly under-reported point: there is and never has been no such thing as a refugee crisis in the EU. The 500-million-strong union has so far accepted fewer Syrian refugees than crisis-riddled Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million.

Nowhere to turn

As I entered the perimeter, the exhausted refugees and migrants were forming a long line in front of the new camp to wait for registration and a quick COVID-19 test. The choice they were facing was between moving to Kara Tepe or hunger and deportation. At first, while they still had some strength, many tried to resist. But then hunger and thirst broke their resolve, so they took their place in line.

Naturally enough, the Greek authorities are trying to frame the quick relocation to the new camp as a great success story. In this, they are greatly helped by the soft rhetoric of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is ignoring the dire conditions of the refugees in the new makeshift camp which are not very different to those that prevailed in the smouldering heap that was once Moria.

As the new authoritarianism spreads like wildfire all over the globe, both the international conventions and the international structures tasked with upholding them are crumbling fast. And the abject dehumanisation on Lesbos continues unpunished. The banality of evil is gaining momentum and the rights of asylum-seekers are by now nothing more than a threadbare joke.

“For ten days, we slept out in the open. Though we hardly slept… We were hungry. The children got very ill. They cried and cried all through the night. They need medical help, but there are so many of us, and most of us need help. I don’t know what to do, where to turn,” said a Hazara mother of four waiting to gain admission to the new camp.

The woman refused to give me her name. But at least she was willing to talk to me. Most of her fellow sufferers did not do so. Covered with face masks, figure after passing figure declined to speak, using apologetic gestures to convey their utter exhaustion.

The ruins of civilisation

Like a David Lynch scene, the remains of the Moria camp are huge and frightening, dealing a rough blow to the senses. The smell of burning is exceptionally strong and soon sort of etches into the skin. In spite of the sun’s blaze and the blue of the Aegean sky above, the site seems strangely drained of colour, except for black, white and grey.

Burnt-out containers. The smouldering remains of what used to be a cot. A thoroughly blackened teapot. One half of a sooty teddy-bear. A shoe. Lots and lots and lots of charred metal. A number of olive trees braving this apocalyptic landscape like spent matches about to crumble. A clump of possibly still live electrical wiring. Fresh human excrement. Discarded face masks, a half-melted mobile phone, a trampled baby pacifier. A portable stove, a shard from what used to be a plate, heaps of refuse and blackened clothes. And among them rummages a playful and frighteningly trusting puppy with eyes of two different colours. Life had not yet kicked him in the teeth.

A number of local labourers were carrying off large chunks of metal and heaving them onto a truck. The process of recycling the former site into Moria 2.0 was already in full swing. A lone policeman was assigned to keeping vigil over the ash and dust. He seemed blissfully unconcerned by a pair of local teenagers combing through the site.

“Next week I’m going to have to close the place down. The fire put me out of business,” grimaced the owner of a local bar, who used to do quite well for herself before the fire.

The place itself was left untouched by the flames. Yet this made its red, blue and yellow plastic chairs and the advertisements for a famous Italian coffee brand seem only more surreal amid the cinders.

This was less David Lynch and more like Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Out of the Taliban frying pan, into the Moria fire

“Yesterday, my wife and me moved into the new camp. We got our quick COVID tests and then we got registered. Both of us are on our final legs: the lack of sleep is killing us. We want to go somewhere else – anywhere – just as long as we can go right now. But we’re stuck here,” winced Asif, 36, standing by the reeking exit of Moria 1.0. “Almost everything we had was burned in the fire. I suppose we’re glad to have survived. But the problem is that we now have to live.”

Asif is from the Afghan city of Helmand, a notorious Taliban stronghold. After we exchanged a few memories from some of the Afghan war’s bloodiest battle-fronts, he opened up.

“Two days before the fire, my wife and me, we finally got the asylum interview,” he said. “We told the Greek officials that we were fleeing for our lives. We said we were quite prepared to remain here in Greece. We kept promising that we really were fleeing horrible bloodshed, and that we weren’t out to steal anyone’s job. And then, after spending a year in Moria, we almost died in the fire. It was unbelievable. It was like nothing I had ever seen.”

Asif shook his head as he pushed a shopping trolley filled with sooty junk from the old camp to the new one. He was exhausted and might have been suffering from the initial stages of sunstroke. For the high UN and EU officials’ information, this is what ‘relocation’ really looks like on the island of Lesbos.

“The conditions in the new camp are even worse than in Moria,” Asif sighed and halted his progress, leaning onto his trolley to gather strength. “Perhaps the worst thing is the filth. We’ve been reduced to washing in the sea, but even the sea is now dirty. The people are so angry. Lots of fights break out during the night. I’m afraid we are about to see a lot more violence.”

On the concrete wall by the road to Kara Tepe graffiti reading ‘Welcome to Europehas been supplemented with the appropriate qualifier ‘Human Rights Graveyard.

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Lost in ‘know-ware’ land

 
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By Christian Nielsen

It is the cypher of the age, the new C-word that the know-ware machine must not detect lest it conjures up undesirable meanings, and undesirable consequences.

Wordless fragments orbiting an unknown Universe… whoa, that’s deep.
Image: ESO

Friday 2 October 2020

There are so many powerful things going on in the world right now that I should be writing about but I’m blocked. A few words keep popping into my head that act like beta blockers against all other themes. Isolation, containment, quarantine, tracking… Just writing them here, I wonder if I may have woken from a cryogenic sleep to an altogether different era, or perhaps planet.

My fingers hover over the keys that write these epochal words, unsure what should follow, somehow aware that true meaning is found in association and inevitably draws its own conclusions. More words appear like health, safety, protection, and wellbeing, and the four primal words are calmed. Doubts are archived in the ‘hardware of knowledge’. It is all for the best.

But there is a flickering cursor of something else. Is it danger? Or is it just the workings of the unknown as different associations leach out of ‘know-ware’. Words like fear, paranoia, hysteria, anarchy, revolution… coerce the primal words towards a whole new lexicon, one that thrives in the modern world of instant information driven by poisoned semantics.

Yet another set of words awaits an Enigma machine to be deciphered; its readings privy to the few who deem themselves worthy, unlocking words like big brother, big data, dictatorship, and fascism. Words that for many come prepacked by history but take on novel forms in the information society of many characters.

There are those in this society who dream of other times, when these words – alone or aggregated – may have had simpler meanings.

There are those that use the words for their own bidding, and those who are affected by these actions – for better or for worse.

There are those who believe what they want to believe; and those who seek alternate meanings through the prism of prejudice.

There are those who see the primal words and feel that hope is somewhere else… another time, another place.

There are those who are energised by the words as a conduit for transformation, higher forces for the common good.

There are those who heed the words solemnly, others quietly, others acquiescently… awaiting the time when new words have their turn in the waves. 

There are those who rail against the encircling words, firing salvos and pushing for explanations that pierce the stated truths.

And there are those who struggle in other ways… to find the one ‘key’ word that makes sense of it all. 

That word sits behind the blinking cursor protected by myth, loaded by folklore – ‘speak not its name’ – as denizens skirt round the beta blockers. Wordless fragments orbiting around social niceties which  sometimes gravitate together but form no true covalence. The bond is missing. It is the cypher of the age, the new C-word that the know-ware machine must not detect lest it conjures up undesirable meanings, and undesirable consequences.

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Belgium’s endless identity crisis

 
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As it stumbles from one political crisis to the next, Belgium faces a profound existential threat. But can the slow disintegration of the Belgian state be reversed and, if so, how?

 

The caretaker government of Sophie Wilmès remains in place.
Image: Facebook page of Sophie Wilmès

Friday 25 September 2020

Back in 2011, Belgium made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the dubious achievement of going through the longest peacetime period without a government. Clocking in at 589 days, this was more than 200 days ahead of its nearest contenders, Cambodia (354 days) and Iraq (289 days).

This record appeared unbeatable… until now.

Last month, Belgium broke its own record. The country is still being run by a caretaker government because its squabbling parties have not managed to agree on a governing coalition. This is despite marathon negotiating sessions and a continuous stream of brave knightly politicians tasked by King Philippe to slay the dragon of political polarisation but who get their fingers burned instead.

Coalition negotiations have moved beyond the more common colour-coding conventions (purple-green,rainbow, etc.) to be dubbed the “Vivaldi coalition” in a nod to the Italian composer’s violin concerti Four Seasons.

Like Antonio Vivaldi, Flemish liberal Egbert Lachaert (who is the 12th politician to lead the consultations to form a coalition since the elections way back in May 2019), has had the unenviable task of composing an agreement that, while not music to the ears of any party, can at least get socialists, liberals, greens and Christian democrats on both sides of the country’s widening language divide singing from the same hymn sheet.

Just when it appeared that Lachaert may have hit the right notes and a full agreement, including the thorny question of who is to become prime minister, was expected to be sealed, COVID-19 struck, delaying the negotiations and throwing the situation back into disarray. This week, the king extended Lachaert’s mandate in the hope that differences between the would-be coalition partners could be ironed out.

Even if a coalition is successfully formed and takes over the reins of government, it is open to question whether such a broad alliance will be stable and survive till the next election, especially given the destablising effect of the deep socioeconomic crisis gripping Europe and the world.

If the government falls again, it will be the unfortunate culmination of Belgium’s second major crisis in less than a decade. This raises the question of what is behind this systemic failure.

One factor is the attempt to keep the far-right out of government. However, with the extremist Vlaams Belang performing strongly at the ballot box in 2019, maintaining this so-called Cordon Sanitaire (i.e. an exclusion zone around the far-right party) is proving harder than ever. The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which is one of the two largest right-wing parties in Belgium and part of the negotiations, has been openly questioning the Cordon Sanitaire.

Another major issue is the growing political gulf separating Belgium’s two main regions. Francophone Wallonia tends to vote for more leftist and progressive parties, while Dutch-speaking Flanders generally prefers more conservative and right-wing parties.

This ideological divide, combined with growing animosity between Flemish nationalists and Francophone socialists, means that a coalition between the other largest party, the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the N-VA, is almost unthinkable.

Such a constellation would also likely be unworkable. This is partly ideological. The PS is social democratic, supports the EU and believes in climate action, while the N-VA is free-market neo-liberal, Eurosceptical and downplays climate change. They also disagree fundamentally about the future of Belgium, with the PS believing in a united Belgium and the N-VA seeking to decentralise the country out of existence.

This growing polarisation has placed almost unbearable strain on the model of consensual politics, known colloquially as the “Belgian compromise“, that has so effectively defused tension and stopped conflicts from spinning out of control since the country’s founding in 1830.

In fact, the Belgian federal government has become so hollowed out, with decades of devolution effectively making regional governments more powerful, that many view the gradual death of Belgium as almost an inevitability.

As a naturalised Belgian citizen, I find this simmering disintegration of Belgium a shame – partly because I appreciate the eccentric appeal of this small multilingual, multicultural country.

Besides, although many believe that a country bringing together three official language communities (Dutch, French and German) is bound to fail the test of time and fall apart, I am convinced there is nothing inevitable about Belgium’s slow-burning implosion.

In my view, the country is falling apart not because of irreconcilable differences between its communities but as a result of a devolution process that has gone too far.

Belgium has had neither national parties nor national media for decades. Education, too, has been regionalised, as has, bizarrely, foreign policy. Even its prized healthcare system, one of the best in the world, has not been unaffected by this regionalisation, with nine ministers holding health-related portfolios.

This, rather than fundamental differences between Flemings and Walloons, has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts and a rise in distrust.

In reality, the difference between Belgium’s two regions are far smaller than the divergence between states and regions in larger countries, such as China, India, Russia or the United States.

In some ways, Walloon and Flemish Belgians – who are, as much as one can generalise about national characters, understated, reserved and do not take themselves too seriously – have more in common with each other than with the people with whom they share a language across the border.

This explains why, if Belgium were to split apart, Walloons would not support becoming part of France and Flemings are opposed to joining the Netherlands, judging by the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years. Moreover, the two communities do not have pleasant historical memories of life under French or Dutch rule. In fact, Belgium was founded following a revolution by its predominantly Catholic population against the Protestant King William I of the Netherlands.

Instead, what is vastly more likely is that Flanders would become an even tinier independent state and Wallonia would keep the name Belgium and hope for future reunification.

The best way to halt the disintegration of Belgium and stop it from devolving into two irrelevant countries is to pursue a process of gradual reintegration that moves beyond the fossilised issue of language and looks towards the common interest of all Belgians.

A first step in that direction would be to reintegrate Belgium’s political system by reintroducing national parties. This would stabilise the volatile political system by making it easier to create coalitions, thereby reigniting the spirit of Belgian compromise.

Other steps would be to reintegrate the media, to help create greater awareness and understanding between the communities, and reform education so that every Belgian child receives full immersion in Dutch and French.

Belgium often strikes the outsider as quirky and surreal. But it makes no less sense as a country than any other and has, to its credit, avoided the kind of costly and destructive conflict that has brought other polarised societies to their knees. Let us hope that this sense of pragmatism and the country’s legendary capacity for “Belgian compromise” regain the upper hand.

___

This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 9 September 2020.

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Billionaires and the welfare of nations

 
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Occupy Wall Street protester in 2011.
Image: Glenn Halog Source: Flickr

The super rich are leaving only the scraps for everyone else to fight over, which is fuelling a mounting wave of intolerance as minorities and migrants are scapegoated for falling wellbeing. For the welfare of all, we must end these stark wealth inequalities before it leads to unmanageable social unrest.

Saturday 20 June 2020

Everyone has it tough during the COVID-19 pandemic and we are all in the same boat – this has been a common refrain throughout the crisis.

It is true that we are all aboard the Titanic together. However, some are riding first class, some are riding third class, and others are in the galley below rowing… Oh, and there are not enough lifeboats to go round.

In reality, the super rich are not only shielded from this crisis by their wealth, which enables them to shelter from the virus on superyachts or escape it on private jets, some are even enjoying an unprecedented bounty during these difficult times. This is especially the case in the United States.

During the coronavirus crisis, US billionaires accrued a huge windfall of more than $583 billion in the three months between mid-March and mid-June, according to the latest report by the progressive Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness. At a time when at least 45 million Americans are out of work, tens of thousands have died of the coronavirus (which has has killed black Americans at three times the rate of whites), and 265 million people around the world are at risk of dying of hunger, the United States minted 29 additional billionaires, according to the report.

While frontline workers risk their health and lives to keep society functioning and care for the sick, the biggest financial winners by far were America’s top five billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) who saw their wealth grow by a total of $101.7 billion, or 26%.  Bezos and Zuckerberg saw their combined fortunes grew by nearly $76 billion, or 13% of the $584 billion total, according to the IPS study.

Whenever anyone, including myself, criticises the obscene wealth of billionaires, there are those who rush in to defend them, arguing that critics are just envious and that billionaires deserve this success and earned their vast fortunes.

But is this actually the case?

Like a superhero origin myth, there is a typical narrative that surrounds billionaires, especially those in the tech industry. It goes something like this: X, working in their bedroom/garage/dorm, came up with a brilliant idea, against the odds, brought it to market and is now enjoying the fruits of their brilliance.

It is true that quite a few billionaires started off with nothing (or at least with a more modest fortune), and many did exhibit inspiring brilliance in their early careers. However, is the acumen of these entrepreneurs really worth so much more than everyone else’s labour – combined?

Unimaginably, it would take an American household earning the mean $60,000 a year nearly 2.5 million years to accumulate the estimated $147bn which Jeff Bezos is estimated to be worth… if they did not spend a penny. A low-paid Amazon worker on the shopfloor would take more than 4 million years of saving their entire income to assemble their boss’s fortune.

And these are workers in the world’s richest country. Now try to imagine how long it would take a poor worker in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa to make this kind of money.

It goes without saying that nobody’s ideas or work ethic or vision is worth thousands or even millions of years of everyone else’s labour. This notion is particularly insulting in this time of crisis, when the people society depends on to function are not tycoons, top CEOs or hedge fund managers but nurses, doctors, emergency workers, care-givers, supermarket staff, delivery people and utility workers.

Moreover, there is almost inevitably an ugly and underexposed underbelly which casts serious doubt on the idea that billionaires “earned” their unfathomable fortunes. While there are certainly “good billionaires” and “bad billionaires”, there are no billionaires, as far as I can ascertain, who made their billions fair and square, without employing some ethically dubious practices.

These practices may include underpaying or overworking staff, monopolising the productivity gains delivered by their workers by keeping the financial gains to themselves and automating jobs, exporting  jobs, stifling competition, and even exercising monopolies or near-monopolies.

One area where the billionaire class and large corporations have been laughing all the way to the bank, and where the rest of society has been crying in misery, is taxation. While ordinary wage earners in advanced economies, especially those with a robust social safety net, disproportionately bear the burden of taxation, corporate tax rates and taxes on high incomes and capital have hit historic lows, with a de facto regressive tax system increasingly becoming the new normal.

The results of this skewed, unjust system are clear to see. The fattest cats in America, for example, saw their wealth bloat by over 1,100% between 1990 and 2018, according to the Institute for Policy Studies report, yet their proportional tax obligations decreased a spectacular 79% over the same timescale.

Meanwhile, the rest of society is left to fight over the scraps, which has fuelled ugly identity politics and the massive resurgence of racism and xenophobia as minorities and migrants are incorrectly blamed and scapegoated for the corrosion of the majority’s welfare which was largely caused by the gluttony of the super rich and large corporations, not just in America but in many other parts of the world.

Over and above this, the unprecedented mobility of capital and wealthy individuals, facilitated by decades of deregulation and the absence of a global tax regimen or coordination of tax policies, has enabled many corporations and billionaires to transfer their profits to tax paradises, allowing them to dodge their tax burdens and, with them, their social responsibilities. This has also forced a race to the bottom between countries fearful of losing out to tax havens.

Even though corporate tax rates are at an all-time low, the IMF estimates that governments are deprived of up to $600 billion a year in corporate taxes at the reduced rates due to the kind of clever bookkeeping that has been made possible through decades of financial deregulation and walks the fine line between legal ‘tax avoidance’ and illegal ‘tax evasion’. Economists calculate that 40% of the profits of multinationals are artificially transferred to tax havens from higher-tax countries, especially in Europe.

To add insult and injury, not only has deregulation devastated the welfare state, but also among the biggest recipients of state welfare are, paradoxically, the richest, who benefit the most from the rescue packages designed to pull us out of crises, especially in the US. This occurred during the Great Recession following the financial meltdown of 2008-9 and is happening again during the current coronavirus crisis.

More enlightened billionaires have arrived at the realisation that such vast concentrations of wealth are not only bad news for society, they are bad for the wealthy. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are both advocates of higher taxes for the rich, but the rates they consider fair are nowhere near enough to bridge the inequality chasm that has emerged, rebuild our tattered social safety nets, lift the world’s poorest out of poverty and heal the environmental devastation caused by such extremes of wealth.

Another solution is for billionaires to voluntarily divest. Buffet and Gates have not only pledged to give away their money, they have established the so-called Giving Pledge, where they encourage other tycoons to also part with their fortunes. However, the response to the initiative among the mega rich, or what I like to think of as wealth extremists, has been lacklustre at best, representing a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the total wealth billionaires control. Meanwhile, those who have signed up to the pledge are generally seeing their fortunes grow far faster than they are giving them away.

Besides, philanthropy is no substitute for taxation and social justice. Not only does it demean people by turning what should be their rights into acts of charity and largesse from the rich, it also puts what should be a collective decision-making process on societal priorities in the hands of unelected individuals, who may or may not be concerned about the greater good.

Moreover, this gigantic concentration of wealth gives billionaires the kind of political clout that makes a mockery of the one person, one vote foundation of democracy. We are used to the business class representing a powerful oligarchy in authoritarian and autocratic regimes, such as in Russia or the Arab world. In democracies, the massive lobbying power, both direct and indirect, of the billionaires and corporations erodes democratic governance and undermines the will of the electorate.

What we need are not half-baked efforts to make being a billionaire undesirable – we must make becoming a billionaire impossible. This requires a collective, global effort to introduce “equanomics“.

This can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms, from a coordinated taxation system so progressive that there remains no incentive or possibility to build up such vast fortunes, to enacting an actual cap on wealth and incomes.

This will both narrow inequalities and enable societies around the world to repair and expand their social safety nets, as well as to better reward those working in neglected vital sectors. Moreover, it will enhance the incentive for constructive, socially beneficial innovation because people will feel that the fruits of their labour are not just going to make fat cats fatter.

Failure to take corrective action will lead to greater social unrest and conflict as people’s welfare is further degraded. While minorities are currently paying, and will continue to pay, the heaviest price for this inequality, the super wealthy, as history has shown repeatedly, are not immune to the wrath of those they impoverish.

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This is the updated version of an article that was first published by Al Jazeera on 26 May 2020.

 

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Robust health systems are society’s first line of defence against pandemics

 
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Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional and failing state, yet its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly functional and successful. This highlights how effective healthcare acts as society’s immune system.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 6 May 2020

With its chronic, record-breaking inability to form governing coalitions and its crumbling federal government, Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional failure. Although the country is regularly described as a “surreal state” or the world’s most prosperousfailed state” in the foreign media, citizens have become increasingly resigned to the deadlock and the Byzantine machinations of the political elite, often joking that the country works better without a government.

When a COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Italy and threatened to spread across Europe, there were serious concerns that Belgium’s polarised parliament, fragmented government (the country has nine federal and regional health ministers) and minority caretaker government would prove ill-equipped to deal with the acute public health crisis hurtling towards the country.

Despite the political crisis paralysing the country, most of the squabbling parties decided to put public health above partisanship, exhibiting the pragmatism that Belgium used to be famed for. The parliament awarded acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, along with the National Security Council, enough emergency powers to tackle the looming crisis.

Wilmès, who was appointed to head the caretaker government in October 2019, has been thrust centre stage of the greatest crisis for generations. Her cool-headed, understated, calming and inclusive performance, which contrasts starkly with the erratic and bombastic style of her British counterpart Boris Johnson, has won plaudits, including from the normally sober and reserved Financial Times, though she has faced some domestic criticism for allegedly being too absent from the public eye.

The Belgian response has been so decisive and, to date, effective that it has taken many by surprise, not least the Belgians themselves.

So, what is behind Belgium’s relative success in handling the epidemic?

One important factor was the speed and timeliness of the response. Despite some early dithering, Belgium went into lockdown just in the nick of time. The unfolding calamity in Italy at the time focused minds and helped decide the undecided.

Another, and possibly the most crucial factor, was Belgium’s highly developed healthcare infrastructure, which, like a collective immune system, has bolstered society’s ability to fight off the virus.

Not only does Belgium’s health sector rank among the best in Europe, vitally, it already possessed a very high concentration of hospital beds and critical care units, enabling it to handle the huge growth in patients requiring intensive care with relatively few adjustments.

In fact, unlike quite a few other countries whose health systems are overwhelmed by the pandemic, Belgium has had plenty of spare critical care capacity throughout the crisis, even when the epidemic was at its peak.

The major weak point and failure has been nursing and residential homes for the elderly, where an initial shortage of testing kits meant too many cases went undetected. Of the nearly 8,000 deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 over half have been in care homes for the aged.

The way in which coronavirus casualties are recorded has placed Belgium near the top (for now) of the global league for COVID-19 deaths per million. However, as experts have explained, Belgium is the only country which currently records suspected deaths outside hospitals, which represent 82% of the recorded deaths in care homes. This inflates the death rate in Belgium compared with other hard-hit countries.

Other factors at play include the country’s high population density, its relatively old population and comparatively low levels of testing compared with the most successful countries like Germany and South Korea.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Around the world, lockdowns and social distancing are proving the most challenging measures to implement. Although Belgium has implemented what has been referred to as a “lockdown light”, crucially, it involved the closing down of all but the most crucial economic activities, which was not the case in Italy until late into the crisis.

It also allowed people some time outdoors, which appears to have been more successful than in some countries which imposed a full lockdown. This could be partly because allowing people to go out and exercise or walk responsibly is not only good for their health, but also gives them the chance to let off some steam, enabling them to stick to the other restrictions with greater ease.

And this has largely been the case. Despite some early reports of occasional “lockdown parties ” and some people escaping restrictions by crossing into neighbouring Holland, the public has generally and spontaneously abided by the social distancing rules with minimal need for policing, although the Easter weekend saw a spike in violations, raising fears at the time that this could lead to a new peak. That said, the public was sometimes ahead of the government, with many businesses and shops shuttering before the government officially ordered it.

Even though Belgium was already a society in which personal space was respected, seeing how quickly people have integrated social distancing into their daily routines is impressive. In the few shops that remain open, people were already standing and queuing well apart from each other before markers were put down on the floors. In open-air public spaces, people were also generally distancing themselves from other pedestrians.

Employing good democratic governance, persuasion and consensus-building, rather than coercion, has helped this widespread compliance, even if the far-right and Flemish nationalists have been making unhelpful noises. This has also been accompanied by a cross-partisan commitment to following scientific advice.

While certain politicians in other countries, such as US President Donald Trump, have tried to upstage or contradict scientists, effectively politicising the crisis, the Belgian government’s measured response has not only been led by science, but also relevant experts have often been given greater prominence in the media than political figures.

The daily press briefings delivered by virologist Steven Van Gucht of the National Crisis Centre have become essential viewing for ordinary Belgians. Fellow virologist and epidemiologist Marc Van Ranst has become an almost daily fixture in evening current affairs programmes, where he has explained the reasoning behind each new measure and discussed possible future developments.

Another essential ingredient in the success of these restrictions was the fact that Belgium is an affluent society with a decent, albeit worsening, social security and solidarity system.

The Belgian state, along with many businesses and organisations, decided pretty early on that preserving human life and preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus was worth taking a major economic hit. Although this is causing hardship for many vulnerable people and smaller businesses, the shock is being softened by an emergency aid package that includes the deferment of tax, mortgage and bank payments, as well as giving workers in vulnerable sectors temporary unemployment benefits.

These efforts appear to be paying off gradually, with epidemiologists confirming that a downward trend is now in motion, leading to a gradual loosening of restrictions, which has proven a challenging undertaking that appears to be favouring restarting the economy over reviving social contacts, especially for children.

However, success still hinges on how well the population continues to stick to the rules, experts emphasise.

The situation in Belgium highlights the critical importance of investing heavily in healthcare and social safety nets in good times, not just during emergencies. One only hopes that once the pandemic is over, politicians, including in Belgium, will recall this lesson and boost investment in these increasingly neglected areas, despite the inevitable economic crisis which will follow.

What the case of Belgium and other wealthy European countries also underlines is that such a robust response to the pandemic is a luxury which poorer countries cannot afford if and when they are hit by this coronavirus.

This raises the urgent need for global solidarity. It is imperative that a global COVID-19 fund is established to help poorer countries deal with the medical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as a mobile rapid response “army” of medical professionals that can be sent to coronavirus hotspots as and when they appear.

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This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 13 April 2020.

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