Covid-19 is a wake-up call. It is a loud and costly reminder of the world’s lack of preparedness. One of many crucial questions this deadly pandemic is confronting us with pertains to the true definition of human development, of true wealth and real power.
When militarily powerful and rich countries, like the United States, find themselves in the unenviable position of leading the world in terms of the Covid-19 overall cases and deaths, then it is only befitting to ponder whether wealth and power, in their current form, are convincing indicators of development.
While the US scrambled to contain the spread of the virus, much poorer countries like Cuba, Vietnam, and even Rwanda continue to lead the way in combating the deadly disease.
Unhindered capitalist growth
Other countries, like India, which have for long been celebrated as models of unhindered capitalist growth, are reeling under unprecedented devastation, too. Covid-19 is ravaging India to the extent that this populous Asian nation has broken global daily records of reported coronavirus cases for several days in a row.
How is one to make sense of all of this?
While the US no longer possesses the amount of wealth it once had, if compared, for example, to its share of global wealth following World War II, it is still a very wealthy nation. To put this into perspective, the average American GDP per capita is estimated to be 10-fold as that of Cuba, and 20-fold as Vietnam. Yet, while the health care system in the US was quickly overwhelmed — and, in some cases, collapsed — under the weight of Covid-19 cases, Cuba was sending delegations of top doctors to help other countries cope with the pandemic.
Seeing Cuban doctors arriving in northern Italy, to provide critical aid to the beleaguered and dying people of Lombardy and other regions, was not only a testament to the spirit of human solidarity, but to the need to revisit our view of wealth and poverty altogether.
Rwanda, an East African country that has risen from the ashes of its 1990-94 civil war and subsequent genocide, is an African success story. From the very start, this poor nation managed to control the number of Covid-19 cases, thus keeping the death toll to a minimum.
Time to revisit
In an interview, published by the global health care knowledge website, BMJ, last December, Agnes Binagwaho, the architect of the country’s health care system, had a strong message. Rwanda’s former health minister said “Covid-19 has shown that the Western world and the global north are not the best at doing everything. It’s time to revisit why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
The woman who successfully navigated through Rwanda’s collective health care crisis, also successfully diagnosed the ailment afflicting Western societies. “The culture of individualism,” she said, “the lack of solidarity — it is losing trust with the people. And it’s making people sick.”
Unhinged capitalism has indoctrinated some to believe that money equals success, that wealth equals development, that military power equals strength. But nothing could be further from the truth. Covid-19 is teaching us that there must be alternative ways of deciphering success, appreciating development and understanding strength.
There is no fixed universal criterion that provides agreed-upon indicators of human development. Some put much emphasis on gross domestic product (GDP), gross national product (GNP) and GNP per capita.
Others, like the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), rightly place much value on a combination of factors, ranging between health, education and standards of living. Even then, numbers can be deceiving, simply because it is not possible to create charts and to provide an objective statistical analysis of such values as community, solidarity and true equality.
Only the latter, equality, can be, to a limited extent, partially demonstrated through numbers. We often speak of America’s wealth and India’s ‘economic miracle’ but rarely do we pay much heed to the massive inequality that exists within these societies. According to The Washington Post, citing the work of famed economist Edward N. Wolff, “the top 1 per cent of (American) households own more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent combined.”
Disturbing inequality patterns
India, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, is registering similar disturbing inequality patterns. According to the International charity OXFAM, the richest 10% of the Indian population controls 77% of the total wealth of the nation.
In order for these numbers to be comprehended in real-life situations, they have to be placed within relevant contexts: for example, education, health care, mortality rate, proper housing, etc. It should come as no surprise that Covid-19 has hit poor communities much harder than rich ones. The same is as true in the US, as it is in India and all over the world.
Wealth, when unevenly distributed, is not an indicator of development. Only when wealth benefits all and is accessible by all members of society, can it be seen as a measure of true success.
Individualism might be the right approach to accumulating money and power for the individual, but only equitable distribution of wealth can benefit the community as a whole. And, as Covid-19 has taught us, that is true development.
— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor. He is the author of five books.