Covid-19 Is Deepening Postcolonial Global Inequalities

The Covid-19 pandemic reveals global inequalities that are a consequence of European colonialism. At the same time, Europe's increasing reliance on foreign-trained and foreign-born medical staff amounts to a second colonial drain.

This essay was first published in the free digital pamphlet 12 Perspectives on
the Pandemic: International Social Science Thought Leaders Reflect on Covid-19.

The inequalities that sit at the heart of our societies have been highlighted during the pandemic as borders close and countries heavily rely on foreign healthcare workers.

From its emergence in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus spread around the world primarily carried in the lungs of the global elite and European travellers. ‘Travel from and within Europe,’ according to Joe Penney, ‘preceded the first coronavirus cases in at least 93 countries across all five continents, accounting for more than half of the world’s index cases.’ The closing of national borders has been a common response by countries seeking to contain this spread. In the process, the inequalities that structure our world have been further revealed. These require urgent address.

TRAVERSING EUROPE

Europeans had travelled with ease, carrying the virus to many parts of Africa and Latin America, only now for their travel to be stopped. Europe itself has long been closed to the reciprocal movements of others — except, of course, those deemed to be high net worth or in some way useful to European societies, such as doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

Fortress Europe has been justified by scholars and commentators from across the political spectrum. They associate a projected demise of the welfare state with a rise in (racialized) inward migration, arguing that this has led to the breakdown of the national and class solidarities necessary for the maintenance of social welfare.

As such, claims about ‘white replacement’ and questions about who is legitimately entitled to a share in the wealth of European nations have come to play a major part in political debate across the continent, fuelling right-wing populism rather than answering it.

“From its emergence in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus spread around the world primarily carried in the lungs of the global elite and European travellers.”

NATIONAL WEALTH?

Fundamental to these arguments is that the national patrimony available for distribution is precisely that — national. That is, it is wealth which has been generated through the activities of citizens over time and whose use and distribution ought to be regulated for ‘the people’ whose contributions and efforts it represents. It should not be available for ‘invaders’, to use the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck’s dispiriting term for those he considers outsiders.

“Although presenting itself as a cosmopolitan continent of nations, Europe’s history is, in fact, one of national projects buttressed by colonial endeavours of appropriation, coerced labour, and the repatriation of income.”

That national patrimony, however, also derives from what Indian economist Utsa Patnaik calls a ‘ colonial drain’ and the labour and taxes of the forebears of those seen as ‘invaders’. Although presenting itself as a cosmopolitan continent of nations, Europe’s history is, in fact, one of national projects buttressed by colonial endeavours of appropriation, coerced labour, and the repatriation of income.

Colonial settlement, involving the movement of populations, has been one of the most important ways in which Europeans have established structures of inequality across the globe. Across the nineteenth century, more than 60 million Europeans left their countries of origin to make new lives and livelihoods for themselves on lands inhabited by others. By the twenty-first century, most routes into Europe, for those displaced, dispossessed, and disenfranchised by Europeans, had been closed down.

The global inequalities and injustices that structure our world are a consequence of European (and US) colonial and imperial histories. These inequalities provoke some to choose to move rather than to stay in conditions of limited opportunities and despair.

Those who are able to move most easily are those with skills in short supply in Europe. Many European states are beginning to rely in greater numbers on foreign-trained and foreign-born doctors, nurses and medical staff to maintain the health of their national populations and healthcare systems. This amounts to a second ‘colonial drain’.

Many European states are beginning to rely in greater numbers on foreign-trained and foreign-born doctors, nurses and medical staff to maintain the health of their national populations and healthcare systems. This amounts to a second ‘colonial drain’.

ADDRESSING INEQUALITY

European states don’t have to pay for the training of medical personnel at the same time as the poorer countries from which these doctors come lose vital expertise at home. This situation will be exacerbated as Covid-19 spreads to Global South countries whose basic infrastructure is likely to be poorer as a consequence of historical colonial subjugation and whose trained medical personnel are now working in Global North countries.

I would question academia’s failure to address colonial histories as constitutive of their societies and as constitutive of every aspect of their possibilities of being. Perhaps the explanation for this omission rests in the fact that colonialism directly led to the betterment of European societies at the expense of the lives, livelihoods and environments of others and people don’t wish to reckon with the consequences of opening up this debate.

This asymmetry is starkly revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic and it requires ever more urgent address. Europe is the wealthiest continent on the planet. Its wealth is an ‘inheritance’ that derives from the very same historical processes that have left other places impoverished. The only effective solution to issues of global inequality, and the only way to effectively address the pandemic, is to acknowledge and address these inequalities through forms of global reparative justice.

A properly critical social scientific analysis would offer us the possibility of better understanding our shared past so that we could more appropriately construct a world in which all of us could live well. As is commonly stated, the virus cannot be defeated nationally without also being defeated globally. If Europe is not willing to pay reparations as a matter of justice, perhaps it might nonetheless address the issue out of its own self-interest.

[Title Image via Getty Images.]

Gurminder K. Bhambra

Gurminder K. Bhambra

Gurminder is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Previously, she was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and also Guest Professor of Sociology and History at the Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies.

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