How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected global solidarity?

Published on 9 July 2021

Melissa Leach

Emeritus Fellow

On the 5th July, IDS Director Melissa Leach participated in the opening plenary of the EADI conference: solidarity, peace and social justice. The following is a summary of her presentation on the lessons we have learned over the past year about practices of solidarity and global transformations. We are grateful to our partner, the International Institute of Social Studies, and EADI for inviting us to participate in this rich and diverse discussion.

A year ago, when Melissa Leach and colleagues submitted a World Development article on ‘post-pandemic transformations: why Covid-19 requires us to rethink development’, they suggested that the crisis could be an opportunity for transformational visions and practices of global solidarity.

That the virus affects everyone everywhere, and the truism that no-one is safe until we are all safe, carried wider implications for global commons challenges like climate change. It would bring the final death-knell to North-South divisions, enabling a universal, global view of development as progressive change for everyone everywhere finally to take hold. That Covid (like previous epidemics, but now the long-awaited ‘big one’) is a zoonosis might drive home, finally, the ecological fragilities created by our industrialised systems on a pressurised planet, catalysing transformations to more respectful, intertwined human-non-human futures. And with the World Health Organisation revitalising its International Health Regulations and launching its new Health Emergencies Programme, perhaps we were seeing a rebirth and strengthening of institutional multilateralism.

One year on: building back better or amplified inequalities?

However, a year on, we are neither post-pandemic, nor have these visions of global solidarities materialised. Instead of people-to-people sharing, Covid has revealed and amplified differences and inequalities across place, race, gender, class and their intersectionalities; some have thrived while others face worsening intersecting precarities. It has exposed long-term structural violence and ‘cracks’ in health, social and economic systems, while doing little to mend them.  It has given rein to authoritarian politics – from the UK to Uganda, Brazil to India – which abuse rights and foster division.

Instead of human-nature solidarities, we are seeing new climate and biodiversity deals emphasising national, market-based targets and mechanisms, exporting restoration or offsetting to others, undermining local and indigenous solidarities in nature. Instead of strengthened global political-economic solidarity, we are seeing sharpening divisions – nowhere clearer than in the ‘vaccine apartheid’ emerging as rich and powerful governments have used their leverage to corner the vaccine market, dwarfing multilateral initiatives such as Covax and leading to grotesque disparities in vaccine access between countries. The spectre emerges of a truly divided world, between the vaccinated and mobile, and the unvaccinated and entrapped.

Indeed Covid political economy – from vaccines to Public Private Partnership contracts and massive profits to firms benefitting from lockdowns – reveals the persistence, or strengthening, of what Guy Standing in a recent commentary calls ‘the virulent global solidarity of the rentiers, the plutocracy, and globalised finance’. It is a particular kind of global solidarity in which long-dominant development models, promoting economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, carbon-intensive industries and command-and-control planning – are unfortunately embedded.

So, whilst in revealing fragilities, the pandemic exposes the limits of these conventional framings of development, so far, these remain remarkably in-tact. Should we conclude that, a la Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the pandemic has simply seen crisis capitalism at work, as elites have manipulated disruption to shore up and enhance their political and business interests?

Solidarity and network building through the pandemic

And yet. The pandemic has also revealed practices and imaginations that do presage strengthened, enlivened global solidarities – although happening in different, less obvious ways, often from the margins, and from the bottom-up. Citizen-led Covid responses have been evident, from low income settlements in Nairobi, to food provision networks in Brazil, to mutual aid groups in Kerala – variously driven by community groups, neighbourhood networks, local civil society, diaspora networks, religious organisations, philanthropists and others.

Some of the most effective Covid responses are emerging in countries where bottom-up action is supported by inclusive state-citizen alliances. In other cases, local solidarities are spreading directly transnationally through learning and advocacy coalitions and social movement networks, whether the practices of Slum Dwellers’ International or the movement for a people’s vaccine.

We see that the pandemic has fostered an unprecedented moment of reflection and imagination of alternative futures. Inclusive collaboration, collective action and mutuality are the watchwords, complemented by ethics of care, respect and empathy, and a new style of politics, embedded in communities and egalitarian norms, yet supported by trusted, accountable states and global institutions.  Such alternatives are variously manifested in conference discussions like this, in activism on the streets, in the chat of the young, in media, social media and fiction. Utopian perhaps, but as Richard Falk recently put it in a commentary, vital counters to the ‘foreclosure of imagination’ which otherwise sees no alternatives to business as usual.

Melissa concluded by asking: can these solidarities globalise, building progressive global solidarity from the bottom up and, with it, new models of development that challenge the regressive global solidarities of pandemic crisis capitalism?

To conclude, as the original World Development article did, the pandemic reveals the need for fundamental transformations of development and that these must address fundamental matters of power and politics, including challenging incumbent institutions and interests, at the same time as fostering hopeful, innovative alternatives. It means enabling a more caring, inclusive, convivial approach to development, one in which knowledge, learning and imaginations from diverse people and places have key roles to play. If such far-reaching transformative change does not emerge, the project of ‘development’ will have failed, and future shocks – for they will surely come – will wreak even greater havoc.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.



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