Boris Kagarlitsky on social consequences of the pandemic: ‘Collective claustrophobia is growing’
“COVID-19 has neither upended anything dramatically nor changed, but it has detected many things. A lot of things that are now considered as consequences of the pandemic are either a continuation of the development of the tendencies that had been developing latently during the previous periods, escalation of contradictions that had been accumulating for decades, but before the pandemic, they could be ignored or one could pretend they aren’t so significant. The epidemic demonstrates very well the exhaustion and limitation of the previously existing and dominating practices and their crisis,” Professor of Moscow High School of Social and Economic Sciences Boris Kagarlitsky reflects in an interview with Realnoe Vremya. The famous Russian political expert, sociologist and public activist told us about socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, economy of health care that turned out to be helpless in front of the artful infection, unexpected factors that allowed reducing poverty and named the reasons why the authorities would not correct their mistakes.
“The economy of health care has turned out to be completely invalid”
What changes do you think we can consider dramatic in the life of society because of the novel coronavirus infection pandemic that will stay with us for long?
COVID-19 has neither upended anything dramatically nor changed, but it has detected many things. A lot of things that are now considered as consequences of the pandemic are either a continuation of the development of the tendencies that had been developing latently during the previous periods, escalation of contradictions that had been accumulating for decades, but before the pandemic, they could be ignored or one could pretend they aren’t so significant. In both cases, the epidemic was a life-changing point. But not that it creates something new but it demonstrates very well the exhaustion and limitation of the previously existing and dominating practices and their crisis as well as the crisis of existing socio-economic relations in general.
What spheres the pandemic has illustrated the biggest crisis in?
First of all, the weakness of medicine has been found. But the weakness of medicine was known a long time ago. Professionals around the world yelled about it, while they were ignored when there was a mass reduction of hospitals, staff, investments in this sphere, there was the destruction of health care and, most importantly, its commercialisation. The latter in general isn’t compatible with situations of epidemics, pandemics.
A commercial entity can’t run effectively for everybody. It is designed for a society with excessive resources, which in general isn’t compatible with the situation of total challenge, which is any epidemic, the challenge that is equal approximately for everybody.
Moreover, no privileges save. And we perfectly saw it in the number of representatives of the elite, ministers, visitors of Courchevel who had COVID-19. Another thing is that they were treated better and faster. Nevertheless, the fight against the epidemic envisages the creation of a structure that slows down the spread of the disease, not only solves problems of treatment. Not to mention the fact that the quality of treatment in total has turned out to be low enough.
Hence the conclusion that the economy of health care that was implemented within neoliberal reforms has turned out to be completely invalid. More importantly, not COVID-19 but people who didn’t receive proper assistance or didn’t receive assistance on time because the system was overloaded with COVID-19 patients has accounted for a very big share of deaths. By different estimates, this has caused from a quarter to a third of excessive deaths. And this isn’t the final data. The story with COVID-19 is cunning because this disease usually overlaps with other chronic diseases. This is why in some cases, even pathologists have problems with finding the cause of death in some cases. Though a famous joke puts it that a pathologist makes the most accurate diagnosis, but there is a unique situation when even pathologists couldn’t make an accurate diagnosis.
The economy of health care that was implemented within neoliberal reforms has turned out to be completely invalid
Not COVID-19 in itself but the state of medicine is one of the sources of deaths because physically there is a shortage of beds. If we had had twice more beds, we would have 30% fewer deaths. Or if we had had 30-50% more ICUs, we would have had fewer deaths both from COVID-19 and other causes of excessive deaths amid the epidemic. All this is happening only because of the economy of medicine built in the 90s of the past century that still exists.
In general, this would not have happened in the economy of medicine in the 20th century either in the USSR or Western Europe. Moreover, such epidemics as COVID-19 already repeatedly took place at the end of the past century and were far from having such catastrophic consequences.
“Remote working, in fact, makes workers subsidise companies because”
What tendencies can you single out in the economic sphere?
We see a mass decline in the economy that is accompanied by a number of standard occurrences, for instance, a lower demand for feedstock and a crisis in the labour market. At the moment we see a decline in the economy, closure of companies, the bankruptcy of a big number of small and medium-sized companies, closure of a number of branches by large companies. All this entails a rise in global unemployment and simultaneously restructuring of the labour market, which is more complex because it doesn’t boil down to unemployment only.
The labour market is redistributed in a way that a part of the population is changing the form and character of the job, not just staying jobless. On the other hand, we see the renowned remote work.
In fact, remote work wouldn’t be possible as a reply to the pandemic if corresponding practices hadn’t been implemented quite intensively in the last 10 years. The case is that the introduction of remote work dramatically accelerated during the pandemic — forcedly and compulsorily.
These practices are very profitable for companies. And, by the way, there aren’t so new — the Middle Ages know the so-called “distributed workshops” where workers worked at home using their own instruments, while the manager’s job boiled down to their coordination. Today’s remote work reduces costs on office maintenance, including the same electrical energy, which worsens the decline in the economy more — there is a crisis in realty and energy consumption, less oil has to be burnt. Big offices need big costs on light and heating, while a person will illuminate the flat he is working from at his expense.
So remote working amid the pandemic, in fact, makes workers subsidise companies because now companies don’t spend money on offices, workers pay for electrical energy, the Internet and so on themselves. I don’t know even one case in which companies gave their workers who started working remotely a subsidy for electrical energy, heating or to connect to the Internet. Though I know cases when companies gave employees money to install software — this did happen. This practice exists both in Russia and abroad. While the other costs aren’t subsidised — it is considered that the workers have them paid in any case.
In fact, remote work wouldn’t be possible as reply to the pandemic if corresponding practices hadn’t been implemented quite intensively in the last 10 years. The case is that the introduction of remote work dramatically accelerated during the pandemic — forcedly and compulsorily
Another dangerous thing adds to this. I have noticed myself, and all teachers talk about it: “We thought we would have more free time after switching to remote work. While there is less free time”. Clearly, this refers not only to teachers.
Why does it happen? It is hard to draw a line between working and free time in remote work. Hence the opportunity for managers to bother their workers at any time.
On the other hand, the border between necessary and additional working time blurs in our consciousness. The necessary time is the time a worker spends to produce a good that’s enough to keep himself. While additional time is designed to produce a good that allows the company to make a profit.
This is fair, in fact, because the company provides the employee with a job, provides the sale of products, management and so on. And here we face a situation when in remote work the company doesn’t provide a workplace, the management is strange, online. At the same time, the worker can steal the company’s time, while in some cases, the company itself steals the worker’s time because when I stay home, nobody controls if I play games or work for the company. Perhaps, I have several parallel processes in different windows of the computer. The company and worker’s time is simultaneously stolen.
At the same time, the final result is controlled. But the company always wins in the end because it has the right simply not to pay for the undone work. This exactly reproduces the situation of the home workshop, it is simply astonishing how modern technologies take us back to early, pre-industrial practices.
In remote work, relations become more complex, but the intensity of use increases. Moreover, the use of labour is significantly replaced by the use of the work’s individuality. All my personal qualities are used to exploit me as much as possible.
Soviet historian and sociologist Marat Cheshkov predicted this in the mid-1970s. Now the forecast has been completely confirmed. And here it is important that despite some progress, the worker loses in the end. The worker got less from this transition that he gave. But it doesn’t mean he didn’t get anything. Labour relations are restructuring.
But are there any jobs that can be shifted to remote work?
Yes, from couriers to electrical energy generation or pant making. Here a problem arises — some people who had a more or less stable and good position in the market are driven out due to the closure of enterprises, sales points, firms, to a lower niche. For instance, a person was a seller yesterday, stood near the counter, while today he becomes a courier. It means he lowers his labour status. He used to work for a certain amount of time under the roof, while now he is working at any time, rain and shine outdoors. By the way, he is risking his health, and maybe even life. And if his labour relations were likely regulated by a labour agreement, now they are by verbal arrangement.
It is a famous factor when such crises occur, there is pressure of the upper stratum of workers on the lower strata. A worker who used to be a qualified specialist can become a courier or taxi driver. But as a result, he drives out less qualified people from this labour market because, for example, an educated person will highly likely do any unskilled job better.
When such crises occur, there is pressure of the upper stratum of workers on the lower strata. A worker who used to be a qualified specialist can become a courier or taxi driver. But as a result, he drives out less qualified people from this labour market
“Russia is starting to drive out migrants”
What’s happening to labour migrants who didn’t manage to travel to make money because of closed borders?
A very interesting phenomenon has happened in Russia now. It seems to me it can be seen in other countries too. After a very sudden upsurge in spring and early summer, unemployment sharply reduced in Russia by autumn. Moreover, the economy keeps shrinking, while the size of the labour market is reducing. So how did this happen? Simply: because of migrants.
Russia is starting to drive out migrants. Low-qualified and low-paid Russian workers or naturalised immigrants, that’s to say, those who will anyway stay are starting to drive out migrants who can go to Central Asia or somewhere else from the labour market.
By the way, there is a very harsh differentiation that hasn’t been seen in Russia previously: between immigrants and migrants. So migrants are people who arrive in Russia to make money and go home to Tajikistan, and immigrants are those who come to Russia with only one thought: “Never go back to Tajikistan under any circumstances”. They have a completely different labour behaviour, the attitude to Russian culture and so on.
This difference hasn’t yet been understood and reflected in social policy in Russian society. But this is what’s happening now, in fact. In the current situation, migrants are simply starting to leave, while only those people who can be considered as classic immigrants like in the USA in the 20th century who simply want to cut ties with their country of origin and integrate into this society as much as possible stay. At last, we have reduced unemployment because a lot of people who are constantly in the labour market are starting to take up shitty jobs, which are low-paid, unprotected, dangerous.
How has the pandemic influenced interpersonal relations? Even though people see each other, they don’t shake their hands, don’t hug each other...
I think it is a crisis of trust, not the epidemic. And this crisis began much earlier than COVID-19.
Russian society is a society of people who distrust each other. The level of mutual trust in Russia is much lower than in most European countries, not to mention Asia. This is why here we see some crisis of interpersonal relations.
I would say that collective claustrophobia is growing, which can lead to people’s spontaneous desire to massively take to the streets and do something together to cope with the stress because of claustrophobia and isolation. Perhaps, this will also have a positive effect in the future.
It is noteworthy that in Khabarovsk where people massively protested, there was no rise in the incidence above the average Russian number for a Russian region. While COVID-19 indicators are bad in a place where medicine is in ruins. The mortality rate and incidence don’t depend on society’s political activity. If medicine is in a bad state, a lot of people contract the disease in the hospital or, on the contrary, near their home because their relatives weren’t hospitalised. The scale of even infection depends on the state of medicine, not to mention the recovery and its speed. Another thing is that functionary merrily grabbed the pandemic as an excuse to ban street protests, and everything in the world.
There is an illusion that there is a problem that society sees, responsible people should consider this, address the problem and make a summary. But it is an illusion that appears because of the misunderstanding of how society really works
Will the state make a long-term summary of the problematic consequences of the pandemic that have come to the light?
I think there won’t be made any summaries. More precisely, some changes can happen due to objective reasons, but nobody will make a summary. There is an illusion that there is a problem that society sees, responsible people should consider this, address the problem and make a summary. But it is an illusion that appears because of the misunderstanding of how society really works.
Society doesn’t solve problems. Society defends its interests. There are certain groups of elites, a ruling class that manage the process and make a profit. Our medicine isn’t bad because somebody is an idiot but because it is profitable for somebody to have bad medicine. It is unprofitable for patients, however, it is profitable for directors of hospitals and investors of private medical companies.
If something happens, it means some groups are interested in it. And they, as a rule, are in power or close to power. They are stronger and more influential than most people who have suffered from the pandemic. We can say that a summary will be made as much as possible. But there won’t be any summary because to make a summary is to take away something important and valuable from very powerful people. They, of course, won’t permit it. Nobody will make a summary of the fact, even if they stay we have learnt everything and will change everything.
Another thing is what will happen next and who will take away something from whom and who will lose something. But it isn’t about summaries. It is about how different forces, clases and groups in society will fight with each other.