Public Services and the Common Good — Rosa Pavanelli and Magdalena Sepúlveda

In these authoritarian times, defending and empowering public services also means defending democracy.

Rosa Pavanelli

Let’s face it: the impact of the pandemic is now sorely different, depending on where you live and how much money you have.

In Europe, the United States, China and a handful of wealthy countries, restaurants and bars are overflowing, gyms are reopening and people are starting to socialize fearlessly. For the countries that have monopolized most of the vaccines against Covid-19, there is hope that the page will be turned on the pandemic, once and for all. Elsewhere, in countries like India and whole continents like Africa and Latin America, the virus – and its variants – continues to rage, with its trail of deaths, hospitalizations, unemployment and poverty. .

public services
Magdalena Sepulveda

These two fiercely opposed realities are united by one thing: the constant rumble of calls for austerity being heard across the world. In London, Mexico or Cape Town, the arguments are the same: after the crisis subsides, the measures taken to support (sometimes barely) the most affected will have to be canceled.

This means following the well-known path of drastic cuts in hospital spending and social welfare benefits and wage freezes for public sector workers. It also involves the commodification and commercialization of water, health and education services, including the commodification of care and the exploitation of women’s labour.

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Lessons from Lombardy

It seems that the pandemic has taught us nothing. Have we already forgotten the images of Lombardy? The heart of Italian finance and fashion boasted of having the most efficient health system in the country, because the most privatized. It was even used in advertising: “Be healthy, come to Lombardy”, said a brochure. In March 2020, however, the region, one of the richest in the world, was overwhelmed, with a death rate of 5.7%, more than double the national average (2.4%). Neighboring Veneto, which had maintained a public health system, fared much better.

Have we also forgotten that in the United States the virus killed proportionately more low-income people, without health insurance, who could not get to a hospital in time to treat them? Similarly, in the poor suburb of Santiago, Chile, another model of privatization, 90% of the victims of the pandemic died at home, never having been able to afford to see a doctor. And have we also forgotten the 115,000 health and care workers and many more who died of Covid-19 while serving their communities?

Yet many jurisdictions, like in a suburb of Philadelphia, are considering privatizing water services — as if the pandemic hadn’t demonstrated the need for universal access to water, with entire communities being denied access. opportunity to wash your hands to protect yourself from the virus. Meanwhile, the growing reliance on private schools around the world, encouraged by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, helps explain why hundreds of millions of children have been out of school since the pandemic began.

Fair share

Fiscal consolidation, in the form of cutting public service budgets and handing control over to the private sector, is not inevitable. To compensate for the colossal sums disbursed during the crisis and finance the recovery, governments must look where the money is: in the accounts of multinationals and the wealthiest people. Big tech companies, which have seen their profits soar during the pandemic, must finally pay their fair share of taxes. This is not a radical decision: it is what the US administration under Joe Biden recently announced its intention to do.

Pushed by Washington, the G7 countries have just recognized the extent of tax evasion by declaring themselves in favor of a global minimum tax on the foreign profits of multinationals of at least 15%. It is a step in the right direction but it is not enough to generate significant income for the countries of the North and the South. Governments must act unilaterally to tax their multinationals at much more ambitious levels, like the United States which opts for a rate of 21%.

This will not happen without public pressure. As we mark United Nations Public Service Day, continued advocacy is essential for more resources for public service workers and recognition of the value they generate in our societies, providing services that the market is simply unable to provide. These are services founded and driven by the public interest and democratically managed, allowing everyone to live in dignity, and not according to their ability to pay, because that is their right.

An example of this mobilization is the global movement that launched the Care Manifesto, advocating a reconstruction of the social organization of care to fight against gender inequalities. It is through such mechanisms of solidarity that we can build more resilient and fairer societies, better able to react in times of crisis like the one we are experiencing.

Populist rise

It is also a political question. The more we lose control of our essential, underfunded and privatized services, while the richest organize a parallel system of health and education, the more the middle and working classes lose confidence in the State.

This breakdown of the social fabric, of which public services are the beating heart, largely explains the rise of populist and authoritarian movements and parties. Choosing to put schools or private clinics in competition, rather than guaranteeing quality public services for all, risks fueling the resurgence of the totalitarian regimes that we are witnessing throughout the world.


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Defending public services is therefore defending democracy.

health personnel, health workers, nurses, tax abuse, G20

Rosa Pavanelli is General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI) and Chair of the Council of Global Unions.

public services

Magdalena Sepúlveda is Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a member of the Independent Commission on International Corporate Tax Reform (ICRICT). From 2008 to 2014, she was the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.