Today, on World Public Services Day, PSI is launching “Behind the Mask” - an interactive online documentary that reveals not only the links between the personal lives of workers and the political choices which exacerbated this crisis; but presents as well the deep policy changes needed to improve conditions and prepare for future challenges.
Every single one of the 6 million lives lost so far to Covid-19 is a human tragedy. Yet there are countless more lives which have been saved thanks to the selfless efforts of our frontline workers, especially in health and care services, where working conditions caused many needless deaths among staff.
These brutal conditions are not inevitable – they are the direct result of government policy choices: to underfund health systems, under-resourced hospitals and understaff our frontline services. To honour their sacrifices and ensure history does not repeat itself (as it did with Ebola), we must ensure that frontline workers help shape Covid-19 recovery plans at the local, national and global levels.
That is why today, World Public Services Day, PSI is launching “Behind the Mask.” This interactive online documentary reveals the links between the personal lives of workers and the political choices which exacerbated this crisis – as well as the deep policy changes needed to improve conditions and prepare for future challenges.
The first of the stories, available now, follows Trish, a Zimbabwean nurse who is jailed for organising a protest against the lack of PPE at her hospital. She is just one of hundreds of thousands of workers who have taken action to demand a fairer system which respects their rights.
Yet across the world, political leaders who once clapped for workers like Trish are pursuing policies which will make their lives even harder. Over 80 countries are set to implement austerity measures in the coming year, exposing over 2 billion people to the brutal socio-economic consequences of cuts to public services and undermining pandemic preparedness.
Meanwhile, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Commission have completely derailed the proposed World Trade Organisation (WTO) patent waiver on lifesaving vaccines and supplies.
In the coming year, 80 countries are set to implement austerity measures
This waiver, backed by over 100 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the world’s health workforce, would have helped ramp up production and end vaccine apartheid. In the words of George Poe Williams, a nurse from Liberia, “their decision to prioritise the monopoly profits of pharma corporations means we health workers will have to wait even longer to get our communities safe.”
The WTO’s failure to find a meaningful solution on vaccine patents demonstrates how major health issues cannot be safely governed by an organisation dedicated to the promotion of free trade. This is why we must turn our attention to the WHO’s emerging Pandemic Treaty process. This represents a real chance for workers to have their voice heard in shaping new global health norms and a stronger system of global governance which prioritises people and planet ahead of private profits. Working with unions from across the world, we developed five health worker demands for the Pandemic Treaty process. Each of these policy points is essential to ensure we learn the lessons of this pandemic:
1. Universal Public Healthcare
Governments must provide quality healthcare to all as a public service, regardless of ability to pay. This is vital for pandemic preparedness and keeping us all safe.
2. Better staffing, better conditions
Rapid training and employment of more health staff is fundamental to building safer workplaces. Better salaries and employment conditions are needed to scale up employment in the sector and reduce the loss of trained professionals from developing countries to the Global North.
3. Stronger health stockpiles and supply chains
Governments must build better stockpiles of essential health equipment and supplies, including by promoting local production and reforming global supply chains.
4. Suspending patents on lifesaving supplies and medications
All governments must be assured the right to suspend intellectual property rights on lifesaving supplies in times of health crisis, so that patents do not hold back production.
5. Reshaping the global economy to serve health outcomes
Governments must bolster public health budgets by working together to end corporate tax avoidance. International Financial Institutions must forgive odious debt and end conditionalities on development loans which restrict investment in quality public services.
Another world is possible
Despite these changes being essential, urgent and - in many cases - obvious, winning them will not be easy. Many among the global elite have made an absolute killing through this pandemic and are hoping that the public will move on from this crisis and ignore its root causes. They are also benefiting from the carbon economy which drives the climate crisis. The neoliberal system they depend on deepens social inequality and fuels violent conflicts across the world.
More and more, public emergency workers are called on to work in increasingly difficult circumstances. These workers also need more staff, better tools and training
The global pandemic has pushed millions into extreme poverty and the growing climate crisis is exacerbating this dangerous trend. More and more, public emergency workers are called on to work in increasingly difficult circumstances. These workers also need more staff, better tools and training, and stronger public services to coordinate, anticipate and respond.
Things do not have to be like this. Well-funded and universally accessible quality public services, including universal health care can be achieved. But this requires far-reaching reforms of global systems, including rules on tax and trade, on global supply chains of production and consumption, and more.
But those benefiting don’t want to see changes to our tax system which might require them to pay a fair share on their pandemic profits or a minimum global corporate tax to fund health services.
They don’t want governments to challenge their monopoly patents over lifesaving vaccines (most of which were publicly funded in the first place).
They don’t want a world where we workers are able to shape the policies that affect our working lives.
They don’t believe another world is possible. We do.
But we can’t do it alone. You clapped for frontline workers. Now we need you to act for frontline workers, and the planet. It’s time to tell our politicians to listen to the voices which matter the most: those who have given the most. By ignoring frontline workers, we will repeat our mistakes. By listening to them we can make this healthier, safer, fairer world a reality.