News Covid-19: the return of the welfare state?

Covid-19: the return of the welfare state?

Grandstand. The partial confinement of Europe has revived the idea that capitalism is definitely a very fragile system and that the welfare state is back.

In fact, the flaw in our economic system revealed by the tragedy of the coronavirus is unfortunately simple: if an infected person is able to infect several others in a few days and if the disease has significant lethality, as is the case with Covid-19, no economic production system can survive without a powerful public service. Employees at the bottom of the social ladder will sooner or later infect their neighbors and the boss or the minister himself will eventually contract the virus. Impossible to maintain the anthropological fiction of individualism conveyed by the neoliberal economy and the policies of dismantling the public service which have accompanied it for forty years: the negative externality induced by the virus radically defies the imagination of the start -up nation shaped by the voluntarism of atomized autoentrepreneurs.

Everyone’s health depends on everyone’s health. We are all beings of interdependent relationships. Of course, some may hope that their privileges will make it easier for them to access private hospital services if the worst happens to them. But these have been requisitioned in Spain and should be requisitioned everywhere else. In any case, it would be a very risky personal bet on the part of the “first of the rope” to build an economic system on such a risk. Because this pandemic is by no means the last, the Big One that will not return for another century, on the contrary: global warming promises the multiplication of tropical pandemics, as the World Bank and the IPCC have been saying for years.

Without an efficient public service which makes it possible to treat everyone, there is therefore no longer any viable capitalist productive system during the coronavirus period. And therefore not more in the coming decades. The call launched by Medef on March 12 to “Make the productive tool more competitive” betrays a deep misunderstanding of the pandemic.

The state comes into play

What about the “return from the welfare state”? His ghost had reappeared in 2008. Experience has shown that the central banks’ monetary windfall reserved for private banks has not benefited the real economy. Even today, in Dublin, insolvent young people survive on the street after being expropriated from their apartment in 2010 by an Irish banking system whose debts were entirely taken over by the State – that is, say by Irish taxpayers themselves. In 2020, it is the productive apparatus that will be partly shut down in most of the major industrial nations. This will lead to various solvency crises and, possibly, a new financial crash. The central banks’ monetary windfall can artificially keep a number of banks afloat, but it cannot immunize humans. The stock markets are realizing it: the problem coming from the real economy, it cannot be solved by monetary policy alone. This is where the state comes in.

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To identify the possible return of a welfare state, it is useful to return to this graph which has already toured the world of social networks: without protective measures, the “peak” of cases of serious infections (in red) exceeds the horizontal line of the hospital system’s reception capacities; with protective measures, the “smoothing” of the curve (blue) allows it to be kept below the waterline.

Two types of public intervention can be sketched using this graph and, through them, two conceptions of the state. What sets them apart is their relationship to the horizontal line. The latter does not fall from the sky: it is the result of public health policies carried out during the preceding decades. In France, we have a resuscitation bed for 13,600 people. In Italy, 1 in 17,000. Across the Rhine, 1 in 8,300. If today, French people die from coronavirus, it is because three decades of budgetary austerity have reduced the carrying capacity of our public hospital system . In particular the Marisol Touraine HPST law, aggravated by the reduction of one billion euros in public spending for the hospital in 2018.

The neoliberal state, captured by the private interests of a few, regards the horizontal curve as “natural”, intangible data. He has no “magic money” to finance his hospitals, increase their capacity, save lives. It then only has to try to act on the only red curve by practicing, or not, various variants of confinement. Eventually, he squanders public money in search of a hypothetical “zero” patient, a futile task when several hundred thousand people are already infected.

The welfare state or, let’s say, a state that simply cares about its citizens, is one that not only tries to smooth the infection curve by confining its citizens but which acts on the horizontal right, invests in its public hospital , buys respiratory assistance machines and frees up public funds to set up emergency “countryside” intensive care services. Would it take too long? Today, northern Italy is requisitioning hotels to turn them into hospitals. Between the high-tech university hospital, which takes ten years to build, and a hotel room, there is a happy medium adjusted to the urgency of the circumstances. There lies the real return of the state today. The only way to save “the productive tool” but, above all, to save lives.

Gaël Giraud CNRS research director, Professor Ecole Nationale des Ponts Paris Tech ’, Jesuit



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