Politics Opinion

COVID-19 demands a social democratic response, not a neoliberal disaster

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image by Dan Jensen)

Across the world, social democracies have fared much better than countries ruled by neoliberalism in combatting the effects of COVID-19, writes Rashad Seedeen.

SUCCESSFUL GOVERNANCE AND CONTAINMENT of COVID-19 has one common theme: social democracy.

Social democracy centres equality and the needs of society in the democratic processes of governance. Conversely, liberal democracy places individual rights and freedom ahead of all else.  

Social democratic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have included a well-funded healthcare system, high levels of testing, information campaigns, early lockdowns and welfare support to buoy society through the crisis.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s social democratic action has been considered by some to be the best in the world. She instituted a well-communicated early and comprehensive lockdown based on an elimination strategy, while also providing COVID-19 leave payment and wage subsidies to support workers and businesses experiencing economic hardship.

Recently, Ardern made the decision to put Auckland back into Stage 3 Lockdown and placed the rest of the country in Stage 2 following a return of COVID-19 cases in a family of four from an unknown source. Such a decision could only be made by a social-democratic leader who has put her people before the economy.   

On the far-left spectrum of social democracy, the Communist-led Government of Vietnam was praised by the International Monetary Fund for its response to COVID-19. With a population of over 100 million, Vietnam had only 352 cases and zero deaths by the end of June.

Despite its lack of wealth, the Government had a quick and comprehensive health response built around addressing the needs of the people and a communication campaign on how the public could do their bit. 

In comparison, liberal democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have endured high numbers in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Just recently, the United States recorded over 160,000 deaths and a single-day high of COVID-19 cases of 78,427. The UK recorded the highest level of excess deaths in Europe and has the fourth-highest death toll in the world at over 46,000.

U.S President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially downplayed the risk of COVID-19. Due to concerns for the economy, they resisted demands for lockdowns and continued with public appearances without wearing facemasks. Many citizens in these countries flouted or rejected social distancing and lockdown rules, prioritising their individual rights over the needs of their community.  

Australia’s COVID-19 response had a decidedly social-democratic bent. The welfare policies of JobKeeper, JobSeeker and fully-subsidised childcare were unprecedented for the conservative Morrison Government in its universal application to support Australians economically affected by COVID-19.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has applied a suite of social democratic policies to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Victoria was one of the first states to institute a statewide lockdown. He instituted a comprehensive testing program across the state, targeting hot-spot areas.

As journalist Peter van Onselen pointed out on Insiders, Andrews was the one that pushed for hotel quarantines when the Federal Government preferred home-stays. Just imagine the level of community transmission if this was followed.

Andrews has provided special hotel housing for the homeless extended until April next year. The Government provided rent relief for those struggling to make their monthly payments. He has also provided a special $300 COVID-19 payment and a $1500 hardship payment to help those missing out on work due to testing and isolation.   

However, the numbers of new cases have only gone up to the hundreds, recently getting as high as 725 in a single day.

So why has this happened? The answer lies in liberalism and its extreme cousin, neoliberalism.

First, let's look at the cultural problems. Culturally, Australians have expressed a strong sense of their individual rights (rightly or wrongly).

The Karens of the world, especially at Bunnings and police checkpoints have shamelessly twisted interpretations of individual rights whilst disregarding the health risks to the community.

The Murdoch press presented the lockdown as a violation of individual rights but quickly modified their criticisms inside out once it was exposed that the hotel quarantine in Victoria was botched.

Andrews has had to battle this cultural wall of criticism and selfish behaviour. It has been hard to cut through with a message focused on Victorians making behavioural choices based on their responsibility to their community.

The other challenge the Andrews Government has faced is neoliberalism.

Despite Andrews’ measured and considered response to COVID-19, one of his few mistakes was the use of private contractor security guards to manage the quarantine hotels instead of health workers and the police. As we witnessed, the press has absolutely hammered him on this issue.

These businesses provided little training to their staff and had a scarce understanding of how to implement safe practices in the management of such a grave situation. A number of these security guards contracted COVID-19, which became the leading cause for the community outbreak in Victoria.

These security guards and many other workers in Victoria are part of a large segment of society that exists in a world of casual and insecure work. They are another victim of neoliberalism: where labour is considered a fluid and unstable commodity.

18 of the last 24 years has seen Federal Coalition governments in Australia and it shows. Workplace laws have unduly benefitted employers and undermined job security, wages and workers’ rights. For example, over the last five years, wage growth has been stagnant and wage theft is rife. 

Our most vulnerable workers in hospitality, retail and aged care facilities are dependent on insecure shift work with inadequate sick leave entitlements driving many to work while sick.

Andrews has acknowledged that the “biggest driver of transmission’’ are people working while sick or while unknowingly infected. He has also recognised that insecure work and the subsequent spread of COVID-19 as “the structural weakness in our economy”.

Andrews has tried to address this gap by providing a COVID-19 payment of $300 dollars and a hardship payment of $1500. However, there are some problems with that, too.

First, access to this payment has been problematic for many, especially the hardship payment. By late July, 1,200 people had applied but only 120 had been approved. The time-delay of this opaque bureaucratic process is just too much for workers living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. Second, it does not address the long-term consequences of workers who are threatened with a loss of work after they recover.

As the COVID-19 cases have mounted, the move to stage four restrictions can be directly tied to these liberal attitudes and neoliberal conditions. What is even more concerning is the intellectual legitimacy of neoliberalism is rearing its monstrous head again as a method of economic recovery.

Economics professor Gigi Foster has advocated for the end of the lockdown in the name of economic revival. However, her assumption that the economy would recover while in the middle of a pandemic is just plain fallacious.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has described such advocates as cranks and cronies’  in the New York Times and has argued that re-opened economies in the U.S. experienced a short-term bump then ‘growth slowed or went into reverse soon afterwards'. Sick people can’t work or shop.  

Meanwhile, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg recently identified the chief architects of neoliberalism, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as personal heroes. 

Thatcher and Reagan oversaw high levels of unemployment, low wage growth and recession with a legacy that continues to plague their respective nations. For instance, since the beginning of the Reagan Administration, wages in the U.S. have declined steeply.

After surviving a global pandemic, neoliberal policies would ravage our already insecure and bruised workforce. Social democracy is our path out of this mess.  


Professor Gigi Foster contacted Independent Australia to advise that she is not a “neoliberal” and that although she advocated for the end of lockdown in the name of economic revival, this did not constitute a “callous disregard for loss of life”, as previously stated in this piece. We have adjusted the above paragraph accordingly.


Rashad Seedeen is a school teacher and a PhD candidate in International Relations from La Trobe University, Melbourne. He tweets at @rash_seedeen.

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