Pacific politics in the time of COVID.

Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

A recent article titled “We can’t allow Pacific leaders to use coronavirus as a cover for authoritarianism” highlighted how despite most of the Pacific remaining free from COVID infection, countries have nonetheless implemented emergency provisions. The authors argue “it is hard not to believe that emergency provisions and powers are being used for political purposes or to exert social control”. Subsequently, the authors conclude “Pacific islanders might find that this pandemic may have largely spared them, and infected their democracies instead.”

The point I wish to make here is rather than infecting our Pacific democracies, the COVID pandemic may well help us to find a cure for them.

While we can agree with the point that governments should not (ab)use COVID as a cover for enduring state of emergency powers, we should nonetheless insist that democracy in the region was already on its sick bed before the Pandemic. There are a range of symptoms of this infection that we can point to that show the failures of our democracies to protect and promote the wellbeing of our islands and our people. For example, the necessary and urgent action by Pacific governments to close their borders in response to the pandemic was not simply due to the threat of the virus but the threat posed by existing poor health infrastructure and systems. A recent analysis on health spending in the Pacific argues that “by the numbers, health systems across the Pacific were already stretched and underfinanced – and in some cases, such as Papua New Guinea, on the verge of breaking down completely”. Other symptoms of the failure of Pacific democracies to secure our wellbeing include the 25% of Pacific Islanders who live beneath the basic needs poverty line, a figure some analysts estimate could rise to 40 percent as a result of the economic impacts of Covid-19. We could also point to the unenviable statistics that the region has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, while also having the lowest rates of women’s representation in parliament.

Rather than a cause of democratic ill-health then, the COVID pandemic has exposed the existing sickness of our democracies. And like with any disease there are underlying conditions that promote infection and illness. As alluded to in earlier posts, the underlying conditions are provided by global neoliberal capitalism, which continues to warehouse the Pacific on the extreme periphery of the global economy. A transnational Pacific elite serve as the vectors for infection by parasitising on our vulnerability and perpetuating our chronic dependency.

Furthermore, this class of political and economic elite have no answers to the urgent challenges faced by our region other than to put their hands out for more money. Indeed, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown, represented this total closure of the socio-political imagination of Pacific regionalism recently when he called for “strengthened regional unity and innovative financing mechanisms in the face of unprecedented challenges”. Indeed, following Slavoj Zizek, we can make the claim all the authoritarian powers amassed by Pacific state apparatuses during the pandemic just makes all the more palpable their basic impotence.

Therefore, as we struggle against any creeping authoritarianism in the Pacific we should not do so in the name of a return to some reified democratic past. Rather we must move forwards towards new forms of regional political and economic organisation that will secure the wellbeing of Pacific islands and its people. The pandemic has something to teach us here too. For example, analysis by Tricontinental of the differences between capitalist states and socialist states in their approach to coping with the pandemic, shows socialist states achieving far better outcomes than capitalist states. Indeed, if we heed the warning of Bruno Latour that the pandemic serves as a dress rehearsal for the impending climate crisis, then the findings of the Tricontinental analysis become even more relevant and urgent for the Pacific.

More concretely and immediately, we should seek opportunities within the current conditions created by the pandemic for new forms of solidarity and organisation. For example, in PNG we witnessed 4,000 nurses threatening to strike over concerns that the country lacked the medical supplies and funding to handle a potential coronavirus outbreak. We have also witnessed unemployed workers taking their former employers to court, while others have sought refuge and resilience provided by a return to the village. It should be clear to us all that the plight of the health workers and the unemployed, as well as any threat of increasing authoritarian control, all stem from the same root causes – a decrepit liberal rules based capitalist order. Such conditions invite us to draw on the theory and practice of the former Vice-President of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, who recognised the opportunities for transforming state power by bringing together social movements, workers and indigenous communities in an ‘association of associations’. And why not extend such mobilisation to the regional level? Perhaps its time we recreate a contemporary version of the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre to serve as a ‘secretariat’ to such a regional movement?