Covid-19 can open new paths to more equitable and just societies

Emmanuel Koro:Journalist

THE Covid-19 pandemic has already begun to shape the world we will inhabit, once we get to the other side of the disease.

Just think of the many ways we have to do things now that are likely to stick with us long into the future.

People in many countries have already begun to learn to work from home, skipping the time-consuming and energy-sapping daily commute. That means a need for fewer cars, less petrol, fewer tyres, reduced need for mechanics, better health with less pollution, more open space with land no longer needed for parking, and so much more.

Working from home has accelerated the trend towards dressing more casually, which means less money devoted to new purchases, cleaning needs, and tailoring requirements. It means fewer retail shops, fewer shopping malls, and new ways to use urban land.

We are wearing masks, avoiding hugging or shaking hands, staying distant from one another as we negotiate in crowded spaces.

Will we go back to the old way or continue on the current path?

The pandemic has forced people to adopt to new ways to shop, new ways to be entertained, and new ways to be educated. These may well become the standard for the future.

The importance of essential workers — the ones serving you in stores, stocking shelves, handling orders, cleaning and disinfecting equipment, teaching school as well as new skills, tending to your medical needs, and on and on — has at last been recognised. Their value to our wellbeing has been recognised by everyone and should lead to less disparity between the highest and lowest paid workers in the future.

If all of these changes can influence the way we will live our lives in the years to come, should not we also think about whether the economic models that have dominated our societies for the last 150 years will be adequate to our needs in the future?

In Africa, Western ideas of how to organise economies for the welfare of the vast majority of people seem to have fallen short. Socialist ideas, however tweaked to meet the circumstances of various African states, have left many countries struggling to stay afloat. Look at the near collapse of Zimbabwe’s attempt at socialising its economy and you need not delve any further into problems experienced by other neo-socialised African nations.

Capitalism, too, has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and left the vast majority of populations on the edge of poverty.

No one can claim that South Africa is a successful capitalist state with an unemployment rate that has long been well above the 25% level.

A Los Angeles-based former instructor in political science and comparative government in the United States, public policy specialist and ex-staff member of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, Godfrey Harris, has an idea for organising economies in the aftermath of Covid-19 that he calls Sharism.

He describes Sharism as follows: “The new system is a way of including whole populations in sharing a nation’s national wealth. It is a system where every person living in a country is given a participation in the country’s gross domestic product.

Depending on socio-political decisions to be made by each society, the government may be directed to award more shares of the GDP to those who are impoverished or unfairly treated in a previous system. The society may want to use extra shares of the GDP to right a wrong, to compensate victims of a serious breach of acceptable human behaviour, or to re-balance the socio-economic conditions within a country.”

Harris notes in a paper he has written on Sharism that dividends would be paid each year to each shareholder on his or her birthday in an amount that will depend on how much the GDP has grown in the intervening year. The dividend can be taken in cash or reinvested in bonds of the country. Harris also notes that the money a citizen could receive by selling all or part of his shares back to the Nation’s treasury is designed to pay for any major investment within the country that the citizen might want to make — buy a home, launch a business, get an education or cover a medical expense. GDP shares could not be sold to any entity other than the government and could not be pledged or loaned to anyone else. Families, however, could pool their shares to facilitate a larger investment or to meet a larger need.

Would Sharism, as an economic concept, improve either Zimbabwe or South Africa, I wonder?

If I cannot answer that question by myself, I ought to at least provoke media debate on Sharism. This led me to write this article just to start a discussion on whether or not governments, including those from Africa, should consider re-organising their economies in ways that ensure that nobody is left out from sharing annually in the economic benefits that their societies generate.

It might even act as an incentive for people to produce more for their benefit.

After all, ensuring that nobody is left out is the catchy motto of the United Nations in its drive towards ensuring the achievement of sustainable development goals by 2030.

We have only 10 years to go. This suggests that as we head towards the 2030 deadline for achieving sustainable development, those now behind in health, education, poverty, gender inequality, environmental degradation, non-potable water, living in informal settlements and on the streets need help in catching up with others.

The United Nations has challenged its 195 member nations to address the needs of its people, children, and families in ways that help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yes, Sharism could contribute towards the achievement of SDGs by pointing societies toward a more just and equitable peace in a world at war in so many places. It could make life better by providing a mechanism that could begin the process of ending hunger, generating affordable and clean energy, promoting industrialisation, innovation, and infrastructure, creating sustainable cities and communities, gender equality, responsible consumption and production, climate action and reduced inequalities.

Do not get me wrong, I am not attempting to promote communism. Sharism is vastly different from communism. The classless society of communism has never been achieved; communism, in fact, has never existed. It approached its goal during the Stalin era of the Soviet Union. Its economy was dedicated to common ownership of the means of production and central control of the economy. But the classless society was a myth.

Those in power never intended to give up the power they attained or the control they exercised over the instruments of government. Moreover, the command economies that communist countries sought to perfect were never able to deal with either the complexity or the speed of change of Western economies.

l To be continued next week.

Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa for the past 26 years.