This Tuesday, UN Public Service Day, workers stand on the brink. After a decade of brutal austerity, pay cuts and deteriorating conditions, Covid-19 has put staff around the world through the ultimate stress test.
While public funding has poured into private coffers to keep economies afloat, public service workers have been giving their all to save lives, keep societies functioning and restore normality.
Of course it’s good to see their efforts recognised through the applause of millions around the word. But presenting workers as heroes, expected to perform superhuman and dangerous feats under harsh conditions, is not solidarity. It is not enough to acknowledge them during a crisis. Instead, let’s recognise them as vital professionals and join their struggle to ensure public services are truly valued.
There is no time to lose. Corporations and special interests are already seizing the pandemic as a chance to undermine progressive change and entrench their outsized power even further. Publicly, they present themselves as part of the solution and too many leaders at all levels accept this. Yet in reality, these organisations want a new normal where they can get away with paying even less tax, trade deals restrict government action even further, and privatisation is promoted as the best recovery tool. They want the public-funding tap on full blast when it suits them, yet starved dry when it comes to vital services.
This agenda has, sadly, been promoted or even imposed by many global institutions. New analysis released by Public Services International and Action Aid shows that in the lead up to the Covid pandemic, the International Monetary Fund told more than a third of countries identified by the World Health Organization as facing critical health worker shortages to cut or freeze their public sector employment funding.
But this is not inevitable. These institutions must ditch punitive budget cuts and the pipedream that private finance will fund the UN sustainable development goals and instead support a new global tax system to ensure corporations and mega rich individuals finally pay their fair share to support public services.
On Tuesday, I will tell the UN secretary general and other global leaders that unless governments expand public funding and ditch the broken and brutal austerity policies that have undermined development and produced fertile ground for the far right, then the whole world faces the existential threat of fascism re-emerging.
I wish this were an exaggeration. But rightwing leaders are already using the crisis to trample over democracy and human rights. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has created the basis for extraordinary and unlimited government powers. The failure of a pan-European response to the pandemic is fuelling nationalist tendencies. In the US, Donald Trump’s Justice Department has asked Congress for the power to indefinitely detain without trial and deny the right of asylum to those who test Covid-19 positive.
To stop this call for a positive vision of revitalised public services that address the deep inequalities on which division breeds and that provide the means to promote gender equality and build social cohesion.
Workers in health, social care, water and sanitation, education, transport and beyond are the backbone of our societies.
The governments that understood this in the lead up to the pandemic will fare better, not just in health terms, but also economically. Compare New Zealand, where healthcare funding has increased significantly since the global financial crisis, with Italy, where the health budget was slashed. Germany has led the way in remunicipalising failing public services. In Canada, health spending is roughly half what it is in the US, but is provided through a universal public system that delivers better outcomes – and with higher general labour standards.
There are many factors that influence a government’s ability to respond to crises. But years of research have demonstrated the positive effect of quality public services on economic growth. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, could not be more right in saying that when times are hard, you don’t cut – you invest.
Everything is on the line. We must fight to ensure public funding, services and workers are the key forces shaping the world that emerges after the pandemic.