COVID-19 | Driving transformative social change through an internationalist response to COVID-19 by Lize Swartz

A recent webinar organized by the Transnational Institute and partners brought together activists from all over the world to brainstorm how to make social justice central to our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The main message? Stand united instead of divided, let empathy inform context-based responses, and start thinking of changing what’s broken, including our healthcare systems. These principles should also guide our collective efforts to enact transformative social change that starts with our responses to the crisis and ends in a sustainable, just and resilient future—one in which no-one is left behind.


We find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff with an abyss in front of us, left with three (or more?) choices: build a bridge to reach the other side, which is unknown territory; become engulfed by the darkness of the abyss and stand paralyzed; or retreat from the edge of the cliff to deceptive safety. This metaphor symbolizes the critical juncture[1] we’re currently at and the pathways we can choose: a radical transformation (the other side representing an unknown future, hopefully a sustainable and just one), paralysis (do nothing and watch the crisis run its course, whatever the consequences), or many steps in the opposite direction (further away from each other, creating a new normal that is worse than the one we had before).

Never before has the opportunity for real, comprehensive change been greater, never before has it been as necessary, and never before have the stakes been higher. But we have to start now―the window of opportunity is closing. There is some progress on this front as activists and thought leaders gather forces to fight for change. A webinar held recently by the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and Focus on the Global South, brought together roughly 600 participants to brainstorm how to build an internationalist response to COVID-19 in light of the crisis of deep global inequality.

Current responses to COVID-19 will shape future trends in how crises are tackled, and it is imperative to 1) prevent further injustices and inequalities arising from current responses that build upon already-existing inequalities and divides, and 2) start to enact radical change to prevent a return to the old normal or the adoption of a new normal that may be manifold worse. Thus, our responses show which of the pathways we choose now that we have reached the critical juncture, and responses should mirror the future we desire.

This seems like a mammoth task, but there are many energetic fighters across the world that are eager to get started. The webinar was a starting point to discussions and strategies for enacting change collectively. Discussions centered around not only humane responses to COVID-19, but also the need to critically discuss the state of our healthcare systems and to transform them. The crisis has clearly highlighted that healthcare systems in the Global North and Global South alike are woefully unprepared to deal with pandemics, not even providing universal healthcare services in non-crisis times. Mazibuko Jara, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and currently Deputy Director of the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education (both in South Africa), emphasized the need for healthcare to be seen as a fundamental human right—a public good, which would change how it is approached.

Many are not focusing on building up (improving health systems), however, but on breaking down (fighting the virus and fighting each other). Sonia Shah, award-winning investigative science journalist who authored the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond’ (2017), noted during the webinar that diseases and viruses are framed as external, prompting the closing of borders and the closing of minds as we distance ourselves from these ‘alien entities’[2].

Rather, what she calls a ‘microbial xenophobia’ arises as the disease is blamed on China and cultural practices in Asian countries. This process of ‘othering’ entrenches racism and xenophobia, enacted both by individuals and countries, preventing a collective global effort to transformative change and leading to increasing isolation as countries shut their borders and global geopolitical divides are strengthened. A strong counternarrative to this militaristic imaginary of ‘being at war’ with the disease and with each other urgently needs to be created.

Several discussants highlighted the inadequacies of current responses. Even if stringent measures can prevent the spread of the virus, which has yet to be proven by evidence, the authoritarian measures lack humaneness, further threatening the survival and dignity of already vulnerable populations without access to basic human rights. A one-size-fits-all approach, such as a national lockdown, does not work in contexts where such lockdowns can hasten the spread of the virus and lead to suffering due to loss of income and hunger, for example.

Thus, keynote speakers at the seminar concluded, we need an internationalist approach that:

  • Is based on solidarity and empathy so that responses are context-specific and do not create new injustices or inequalities that place an additional burden on vulnerable people
  • Creates a strong counternarrative to the xenophobic, militaristic narrative that is driving defensive and authoritarian responses, with a central emphasis on human rights and a common humanity, shown in how we communicate and how we act
  • Are based on health as a human right, a public good and working toward transforming the health system to this end
  • Recognizes that we are facing a supercrisis, that standing crises of poverty, inequality and climate change are interacting with biological crises such as COVID-19 and cannot be viewed in isolation
  • Counters growing authoritarianism and fundamentalism at all levels of society that are threatening to deepen social divides and split the world apart.

Participants agreed that solidarity and empathy should drive responses to COVID-19, but I argue that we need to go further than just responding. Our recognition of the root causes of injustices and inequalities should drive a multi-pronged strategy to not only prevent the spread of the virus and prevent unjust responses to it, but also to enact radical transformation through our responses to ensure that the inequalities the crisis feasts on are eradicated and that no-one is left behind as we move on to a future we can only dream of.

Without the recognition that the crisis requires a collective global response, we will get nowhere. And central to this is questioning the underlying structures and institutions that have created the breeding ground for the virus and the disaster that it has brought along with it, and changing them through intense and enduring collaboration based on a sense of shared humanity, or what especially Buddhist monks have called interbeing.

[1] Thank you to Duncan Green for mentioning the term ‘critical juncture’ that perfectly sums up the thoughts that I’ve had since the pandemic broke out in February.
[2]She also highlights the failure to recognize that pathogens or microbes become pandemics due to humankind’s encroachment on wildlife habitats.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


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About the authors:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

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