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The Olympic-sized disparities of the pandemic

By Rajpal Abeynayake 

According to a poll that was conducted by a mainstream Japanese newspaper, 62% of the Japanese people wanted the Olympic Games postponed or cancelled. That’s because, as people everywhere seem to be, they are sick and tired of the rich and the powerful having their way amid the Covid pandemic when others are told that they should not move around or engage in pursuing their livelihoods.

When it concerns powerful interest groups, Covid restrictions really don’t matter. We see that even doctors are not averse to seeing teachers protest against the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence University) Bill as the protests favour their own cause, which is to keep medical education restricted and non fee-levying. A physician I know has taken to chiding fellow doctors on Facebook for being so obviously in favour of protests by teacher unions when they had been calling for strict lockdowns a few weeks earlier.

Might has been right in the world as long as most people can remember, but Covid has taken that to new levels. Perspective is being skewed and we see that most flagrantly when it concerns big ticket events such as the Olympic Games, which have so much riding on the related media and global broadcasting rights etc. 

On the one hand, the Olympic organisers should be congratulated for going ahead with the games despite the fact that there is a pandemic – they have learnt that the contagion is something that has to be lived with because life has to go on. Japan, rich though the country may be, is no special place. Just 15-20% of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated.

The question, however, is why everything about Covid is weighted against the weak. Whenever the rich and powerful deem that something is necessary, it happens, but ordinary people are constantly being told that they cannot live their normal lives and should consent to being economically blighted because normal life is deemed too dangerous for them. 

It’s this two-tier treatment that is galling, to put it mildly. Yes, the Olympics should go on, as we all have to learn to live with Covid just as we have learnt to live with many other diseases. But the world wags the finger in the faces of the little people and tells them that they have to make way every time the rich want to have a tamasha.

So what’s new? During the worldwide recession in 2009, the millionaires made money as never before, and that seems to have been the trend during this global contagion as well. Never let a good crisis go to waste, as wartime British PM Winston Churchill is supposed to have said. The super rich in this country made use of Covid to retrench staff, and to this writer it looked suspiciously as if the government took their side.

Companies were allowed to retrench and downsize at will, whereas this should have been the absolute last resort. It’s not for nothing that we have some of the most stringent labour laws in the statute books that favour the labour classes – these worker rights were won after hard won battles by the leftist and progressive groups in the 50s and 60s.

But employers were told at the very early stage of the pandemic that the viability of business was everything and they had to retrench, and would be allowed to do so. This saw companies purge their employees at will, making for one of the most obscene mass lay-off events in the history of this country, but there was hardly a whimper while all this went on in the name of the pandemic. 

The result of which is that companies were, in short, able to line their pockets – or at least will be when the immediate impact of the lockdowns wears-off – and are able to get back to business. Layoffs should have been subject at the very least to some labour legislation – but no, companies were given the carte blanche to get rid of workers. 

But did the CEOs take pay cuts? In some companies perhaps, but in most they seemed to carry on happily because they were considered captains of business who had to keep the economy going. None of this would have happened if the lockdowns were rationalised and people were not forced to stay home for longer periods than were necessary.

There is no concerted effort worldwide or countrywide to ensure that those who ensured these job losses etc., win back their rights. Instead the powerful are cheering and praying for the powerful. The head of the World Health Organisation, for instance, is expressing hope that the Olympics would be held and would send a good signal. Of course the Olympics should be held and the fact that the organisers are making the determined effort is laudable.

But we don’t hear the head of the WHO saying he wishes everyone could work, nobody would be laid off etc. The complete suspension of workers rights during the pandemic has been taken to be a brutal necessity, and nobody has cared to raise a voice for the vast mass of people who have been laid-off and had to resort to begging virtually or starving to death in the teeth of these brutal measures that are designed to save businesses by sacrificing labour.

While all this happens, the general reaction is to boost the powerful and vested interests and let the poor collectively rot. The major events are all being held as TV rights are involved, and many capitalists are at the risk of losing money if these showpiece events are cancelled. Make no mistake – these landmark celebrations should take place. 

But all events should take place – not just those ones that are deemed to be important, and having made the cut. The pandemic has already increased the numbers of billionaires and added to the vast amounts they earned, and by now everybody would have heard of the extra billions those such as Jeff Bezos (the CEO and founder of Amazon) earned during the pandemic. That’s but a metaphor to the ever widening gulf between rich and poor that has been exacerbated during these economically turbulent times brought on by Covid.

Meanwhile, the richer nations are determined it seems, to rub it in – for example we saw the obscene Euro Cup related raves in Wembley in London, England, which took place even as the governments of rich nations red-listed travellers from the poorer countries and gave the poorer economies ratings downgrades etc.

The pandemic has seen an orgy of neo-liberal excess hitherto unknown. The rich owning classes have lined their pockets as never before, and governments and the working classes have been hoodwinked as never before as well, and one government that has been hoodwinked has been ours – at least for a while. If it is any consolation, we are not an exception in this regard. Several countries have committed economic hara kiri and the richer ones, though they too have locked down, have often benefited from the misery of the poorer. They have loaned-sharked the poorer nations for starters, and all this has been passed off as benevolence. 

It’s guaranteed that very little of this is reported in the way it should be, as the world is still reeling from the crisis and the show is still ongoing. It would take a good number of years before the dust settles on all of this for people to begin to realise how exactly the rich benefitted over the poor, making use of the pandemic.

By such time, the pandemic would be a distant memory for most people, and whatever findings that are made would be academic in that context. To end with the reference to the Olympics with which this article began, it’s a good thing the event is taking place. There was never any doubt that it would, but it serves the perpetrators of these aforementioned disparities to pretend that even the Olympics had to be almost cancelled.

(The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of three national English language publications and a practicing Attorney-at-Law. He is an Editors’ Guild award-winning columnist, and contributing writer and columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review and South China Morning Post, while his editorials have been published in The Australian)