Thematic axes Global Challenges

Conference with Nira Yuval-Davis

"Coronavirus management has highlighted inequalities and systemic racism"


“The most vulnerable groups and immigrants have been doubly punished. For the coronavirus pandemic and for the management of their governments that have been more concerned with saving large corporations ”. This was one of the complaints made by Nira Yuval-Davis, an expert sociologist in identity and citizenship, in her conference on June 8 within the cycle “For an intercultural future” of the Re-City platform organized by the Fundació Catalunya Europa with La Caixa , the Club Roma and the support of the Barcelona City Council, the Barcelona Metropolitan Area and the Generalitat de Catalunya.

Although sanitary measures due to the pandemic prevented her from traveling to Barcelona, ??Nira Yuval-Davis delivered her lecture online from London, where she is professor and honorary director of the Center for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London (UEL). The conference was moderated by Silvia Carrasco, professor of Social Anthropology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

The confluence of two pandemics: Covid and racism.

"We are currently living in a very extraordinary time. We do not know very well what will happen but we are clear that nothing will be like before the coronavirus ", said Nira Yuval-Davis." Suddenly we have found that we do not know and cannot plan the future, and we constantly feel surprised, weak , precarious and vulnerable. ”A scenario that has been even more disturbed with the murder of George Floyd in the United States and the mobilizations against racism around the world under the slogan“ Black lives matter ”(#BlackLivesMatter). According to Yuval-Davis, this "reflects the confluence of two pandemics: that of Covid-19 and that of racism, as a consequence of the different multifaceted crises of global neoliberalism that began long before these demonstrations. Above all, since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008 ”.

The British sociologist made an X-ray of these "crises of neoliberalism" within which we can distinguish "three great dimensions, which have mutually constructed and shaped each other in very different ways and with different intensities". These are the three dimensions or types of crises caused by global neoliberalism:

Social inequalities
Governance of governments
Governance of the peoples
According to Yuval-Davis, in the same way that people react differently to the virus, “communities can also react differently to each of these crises, and I would dare to say that we are not victims of the pandemic but of the way in which different governments and communities have managed the pandemic ”.

More neoliberalism, greater social inequalities.

The social justice expert recounted the impact of the coronavirus on communities already punished by neoliberalism, which in recent years has increased “social and economic inequalities intensely as a consequence of deregulation, privatization and cuts in the public sector. Cuts that the effects of the pandemic have even more highlighted ”. In this context, she pointed to the United Kingdom and the United States, as examples of far-right governments that have had to allocate large amounts of money to maintain their basic services such as health, transport or social assistance. "However, all this effort has been like putting a plaster on a huge wound, which has not been able to prevent the death of many people, or the growth of poverty or extreme precariousness for millions of them."

Given this growth in inequalities, Yuval-Davis wanted to distinguish between the different types of inequalities that converge according to Göran Therborn, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. It is about vital, existential and resource inequalities. All are part of social inequalities and have been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vital inequalities refer to the opportunities that people have, throughout their lives, to grow in a healthy way. They are evaluated based on mortality rates, life expectancy, morbidity and other indicators such as child health. “Precisely, during the pandemic, we have seen how the most affected groups had to do with age and the elderly have been by far the most affected in the population,” explained Yuval-Davis. Instead, existential inequalities have to do with the attributes that make up the person, that is, autonomy, dignity, degree of freedom, rights to respect and development of oneself. "Here we have seen the difference between those who have been able to stay at home and those who have had no choice but to go to work, even putting their lives at risk," the speaker recalled. Finally, resource inequality not only refers to access to economic resources but also to cultural and other types of social capital. In addition to all this, other factors of inequality must be taken into account, such as the urban or rural environment of the population, the policies of local governments, the type of governance, or other environmental, gender or ethnic factors, which have also influenced on the impact of the pandemic.

The governance of the states and systemic racism.

Yuval-Davis also denounced that in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, the most vulnerable communities, of black or immigrant origin, have been the most punished by the pandemic, thus evidencing the systemic racism installed in society. Communities that have been doubly punished for precariousness and Covid, and that have also been forgotten by their governments. And it is that, according to Yuval-Davis, global neoliberalism has been more concerned with saving large corporations than with its own citizens: “once again the degree of interdependence between the public and private sectors has been demonstrated, and the false belief of that there was no way to save the world without saving the private sector ”.

In this sense, he recalled that the American sociologist and economist, Saskia Sassen, has observed how governments have not only been unable to represent the interests of their citizens, but have also given all force to the executive power over the legislative power, to the point that some parliaments have even closed and suspended their activity, which has also generated a governance crisis. "It is the executive branch that has managed the negotiations, while the legislative branch has had much less power and responsibilities, within a state with increasing privatization."

Crisis of governability of the towns (governmentality).

According to the sociologist and also a consultant for organizations such as Amnesty International, this crisis of governability has caused a crisis of governmentality. “Many citizens believed the neoliberal model according to which their well-being depended on their own success and wealth. In other words, each one is responsible for their own health, their own wealth, their own well-being and their life project. But they have been seeing that this did not materialize, which has led to a crisis of governance and confidence in their governments. People feel helpless and abandoned, that they are less part of a political community, of a nation, and that they have been less successful in the process of building a government and government policy.

As happened in previous crises such as 9/11 or AIDS, governments have responded with a process of daily “bordering” or border closures, as Yuval-Davis relates in the book “Bordering” (2019), written with other authors. “A fact that demonstrates the paradoxical phenomenon that under neoliberalism, borders did not disappear, but increased, both within countries and outside and between them. Consequently, this forces many groups to live or feel trapped in a kind of precarious limbo, in border areas without any possibility of developing a normal life with political, civil and social rights ”. It is a process that has been accompanied by the rise of populist and nationalist movements in order to expel foreign citizens from state resources and marginalize them on a political, physical and social level. As we have seen before throughout history, “blaming others and using them as a scapegoat has been a reaction to the pandemic. Very few countries, except Ireland and Portugal, have recognized all migrants as full members and able to receive a minimum income like their fellow citizens ”.

The "pessioptimism" in the face of the challenges that threaten democracy.

Along with the strengthening of borders that is leading to an erosion of democracy, Yuval-Davis warned of another great challenge: the technologies linked to Covid-19 that are being developed by authoritarian and liberal governments together with companies such as Google or other facial recognition companies that they can threaten our freedoms with greater control of the population. A fear already exposed by the historian, Yuval Noah Harari, who warns that the pandemic may normalize biometric surveillance that would allow authorities to monitor people's emotions, their lifestyles and locations. "This would lead us to the most extreme paradox, a world without borders in which the most effective border control technology operates," said the British sociologist.

On the other side of the scale, the speaker highlighted the “positive response that the pandemic has caused with the emergence of inclusive participatory movements or mutual aid groups in local communities. We must work to develop social and solidarity policies to bring about change. Solutions that have a holistic approach and are interrelated. We have seen a lot of solidarity and a huge global backlash against racism and police violence in the wake of George Floyd's murder in Minnesota. And in Barcelona, ??in particular, one of the things that I like the most is the cooperation between political parties and social movements despite their differences in many aspects ”.

Nira Yuval-Davis ended her lecture by showing the image of a young black woman demonstrating with a sign where it could be read "not only the lives of blacks are important, but all lives." Therefore, “we must all fight, whatever color we are. And we must channel the feeling of anger and discrimination in such a way that we can achieve a different reality, an intercultural reality, ”stated Yuval-Davis.

Finally, she recalled the philosopher Antonio Gramsci and her concept of "pessimism of the mind and optimism of the soul", and the Palestinian writer, Emile Habibi, who coined the term "pessimism". Two ideas with which Yuval-Davis called for optimism, since “fortunately the confinement has shown us that we have at our disposal many means and instruments to transform and develop all our solidarity in a positive way, to organize ourselves better and act as a counterweight to global neoliberalism ”.