Insidious as it has been in devastating the lives of millions globally, the virulence of Covid 19 has transcended political boundaries to reveal nascent and entrenched social and political inequalities–
plaguing not only developing countries, but also first world societies with facades exuding contemporary modernity.
From the cruel yet preventable deaths of the elderly, abandoned in retirement homes in Spain (BBC 2020),
to the ‘apocalyptic‘ scenes of front-line doctors and nurses in the Emergency Rooms of Elmhurst Hospital Centre in Queens, New York,
sickened or dying because of an apathetic, callous Federal government that deemed it unnecessary to supply adequate protective gear and ventilators to their health care workers ( NYT 2020) ;
From the hundreds of Stateless, desperate Rohingya children and their families , cast adrift at sea for more than two months, tossed overboard because of overcrowding, and refused sanctuary in Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh……
Victims of not just human traffickers, but Nations self-righteously invoking State securitization as their trump card, (as if that could absolve them of any moral responsibility for the dead and dying Rohingya)…..
Forgotten by that inter-governmental Economic edifice called ASEAN (that has been ‘too eager to hide behind its policy of noninterference regarding a member’s domestic affairs’-The DIPLOMAT 2020),
and left to starve to death or drown in the Andaman Sea ( NYT, 1 May, 2020);
To the two hundred thousand migrant foreign workers, denied minimal wages by that State boasting multi-millionaires (or billionaires?),–
cramped in repulsive squalid dormitories, which the BBC called ‘breeding grounds of the virus’ (South China Morning Post 2020) , ….that a government seemed to have forgotten about;
A situation that Alex Au, vice president of rights group, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) calls:
a ‘deliberate invisibilization of the foreign worker’ when ‘the whole machinery of state operates as though they don’t exist’. (The Washington Post, 2020)
This shocking rift between the artifice we call the political machinery of the State, and the people from whom the State derives its raison d’être has become more visible under the blinding glare of the Covid 19 scourge ….
revealing a world where citizens, non-citizens and Stateless individuals are increasingly marginalized, depersonalized and instrumentalized by State policy makers for their own self-interests….
”Who counts as human” is very often a question answered by State Officials; As
Costas Douzinas reminds us :
”Those of the wrong class, gender, colour or sexuality have always been left outside locally defined ‘humanity’ ” ( The Guardian , 1 April, 2009)
But, whatever happened to notions of equality, justice and fairness epitomizing democratic political societies existing for their people regardless of such superficial differences?
A political society after all, as defined by the philosopher John Locke, is one in which men and women enter voluntarily into a social contract,
in which ‘governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good’ (1632–1704) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2020).
Yet the glaringly unequal nature of such social contracts between States and their people is exemplified by some State governments refusing to introduce minimum wage legislation and health care benefits protecting the socially and economically vulnerable in society—
the vulnerable such as the uninsured millions in the United States without medical coverage for health care while facing the looming threat of a potentially fatal Covid 19 infection;
With the Trump administration now refusing to reopen Obamacare insurance marketplaces in 38 States, notwithstanding The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in 2020 to assist hospitals, —
relief funds may not necessarily be used or sufficiently allocated to fund the treatment of patients in those hospitals of ‘States hit the hardest’ by the virus. ( NYT April 3 , 2020).
To whom then would an uninsured Covid 19 patient turn to for life saving medical assistance?
The ‘Radical Intellectual’ Noam Chomsky, speaking in an interview with the Guardian, had this to say:
”Donald Trump is culpable in the deaths of thousands of Americans by using the coronavirus pandemic to boost his electoral prospects and line the pockets of big business”. (The Guardian , 11 May 2020)
”the US president was stabbing average American in the back”,
having ”cut government funding for healthcare and research into infectious disease for the benefit of wealthy corporations.”(The Guardian , 11 May 2020)
Aren’t Political Societies supposed to be just and fair in the way they treat their people?
How does a Society overcome institutionalized neglect of its most impoverished classes of people, the forgotten ethnic, racial minorities , the homeless, the Stateless …….the most vulnerable individuals?
John Rawls, a Harvard University philosophy professor, posited a liberal political theory, modifying the social contract theory in conceptualizing the liberal democratic state.
Rawls perceived justice primarily as fairness, arguing that
‘justice is the first virtue of society’ (Cohen, p.685) —
a claim that intuitively resonates with one’s idea of any society comprising of people guided by ethical and moral rules underpinning social solidarity…
To the legal positivists then, who argue that the positive laws of a Sovereign state derive their legitimacy solely from the norms enacted by their legislature, —
one may respond by invoking the Rawlsian assertion that:
“Laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well -arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” ( Cohen. p.685)
The fact that laws legally enacted by the legislature of a Sovereign state may be unjust, discriminatory, racist, outright cruel and lethal in the treatment of individuals point to their lack of justifiability;
one has only to consider the legalized and institutionalized use of technologies of pain infliction on the human body employed by Sovereign States:
‘torture , trial by detention, operation of migrant refugee prisons, exploitative work conditions and wages , incarceration of millions of ethnic minorities labelled as terrorists solely because of race or ideology’
all this done by both liberal democracies as well illiberal States…
The eminent political theorist, Hannah Arendt considered the nature of totalitarian rule in States such as historical Nazi Germany;
the rule of such states –
‘‘far from being ‘lawless’ …goes to the sources of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate recognition …
far from being arbitrary ..is more obedient to these superhuman forces than any government ever was before, —
and that far from wielding its power in the interests of one man,
it is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what it assumes be the law of History or the law of Nature.” ( Cohen, p. 548)
Thus the laws of a Sovereign State may be in the guise of positive laws, legitimately created by a State, invoking superior forms of justice–
that are argued to transcend the interests of individuals and have their source in a ‘higher form of legitimacy’. (Arendt quoted in Cohen, p.548)……
the legitimacy of such positive laws, however, devoid of any respect for humanity in no way guarantees their justifiability or their infallibility …….
Rather, the effect of repressive, economically exploitative, nationalistic policies imbued within such State laws promulgating ethnical, linguistic, racial, political superiority of privileged groups of people —-
goes against the first virtue of any society – Justice ( Rawls) …..
justice for the migrants fleeing violence in war torn countries —
for the over 5000 children and minors languishing in Greece’s refugee camps, some orphans whose parents were tortured and killed by ISIS in Syria (US News 2020)
justice for forgotten minorities, for the homeless , impoverished, vulnerable individuals –facing the malevolence of the Covid scourge, but treated as second class citizens or outsiders….
How is such a democratic equality among individuals in society achieved?
Rawls argues that “democratic equality is arrived at by —
combining the principle of fair equality with the difference principle ….
the higher expectations of those situated are just —
if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.” ( Cohen, p.694)
in this analysis we observe an inextricable link, drawn by Rawls, between the treatment of the privileged, wealthier individuals, and that of the economically and socially vulnerable in society.
As Rawls states:
”The intuitive idea is that the social order is not to establish and secure the more attractive prospects of those better off —-
unless doing so is to the advantage of those less well off.’ ( Cohen p.694)
One reading of Rawls’ Difference principle is to perceive it as a correspondence principle…
making it imperative that State policies improve the status of the politically, economically and socially privileged in ways that also have a corresponding beneficial effect on all other social classes of society,—
alleviating the plight of the homeless, racial and religious minorities, foreign immigrants, elderly, young…..
with for instance-
tax cuts to corporate business owners accompanied by tax incentives for the working class to be businesses owners or entrepreneurs;
wages of politicians pegged to increasing minimal wage legislation, protecting the vulnerable in society from the ravages of poverty, illness, illiteracy…….
Alas, such political altruism infused with a healthy dose of moral ingenuity is sorely lacking in an imperfect world of State policies existing to enrich political establishments, furthering their interests and brand of political morality,—
all the while steepening the disparity between social classes by institutionalizing poor health care and housing needs,denying educational and legal rights to large segments of the population, and perpetuating or ignoring racial stereotypes and discrimination of minorities;
”Donald Trump’s horrendous failures in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis are clear and painful.
But one of the reasons the crisis is doing so much harm to black populations is that many of these black people have pre-existing health conditions, conditions that predate Trump.
Many of these conditions are a direct result of racially discriminatory housing, employment and public health policies, either as a causal factor or an exacerbating factor.
When the Affordable Care Act was passed, many states with the highest percentages of black residents refused to expand Medicaid under the plan. ” (NYT May 13, 2020)
Who counts as ‘human’?, The Guardian, 1 April 2009.
States Keep Failing Black People, NYT, 13 May 2020.
‘Trump is culpable in deaths of Americans, says Noam Chomsky’, The Guardian, 11 May 2020.
‘Trump Says Hospitals Will Be Paid for Treating Uninsured Coronavirus Patients’, NYT, 3 April 2020.
”SINGAPORE LOST CONTROL OF ITS CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK, AND MIGRANT WORKERS ARE THE VICTIMS”, The Washington Post, 21 April 2020.
”Coronavirus: is electioneering to blame for Singapore’s teetering pandemic response?”, South China Morning Post , 5 May 2020.
”ASEAN Must Do More to Help the Rohingyas”, 9 March 2020.
”Hundreds of Rohingya Refugees Stuck at Sea With ‘Zero Hope’’, NYT , 1 May 2020.
”Nurses Die, Doctors Fall Sick and Panic Rises on Virus Front Lines”, NYT, 30 March 2020.
‘Coronavirus: Spanish army finds care home residents ‘dead and abandoned’, BBC, 24 March 2020,
Brown, C. (2002) ‘The Construction of a ‘Realistic Utopia’: John Rawls and International Political Theory’, Review of International Studies, 28:1, pp. 5-21.
COHEN, M. (2018). Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts from Plato to Populism. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN 1948. Online: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/