The dangers of disaster capitalism during virus crisis

The dangers of disaster capitalism during virus crisis

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 The processing facility at the Suncor oil sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. (Reuters)

In 2007, Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine: The rise of Disaster Capitalism” was published. In it, Klein introduces the theory of “disaster capitalism,” in which neoliberal policies, wrapped in “Washington Consensus fundamentalism,” are pushed forward through the exploitation of disasters. She explains that, during the shock of disasters — whether economic, natural or wars — capitalists, corporations and others see the opportunity to implement their policies and agendas, exploiting the fact that societies are too disoriented and distracted to resist.

To use the famous quote by Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” These disasters can be anything from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami to George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”

The 2020 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is nothing short of a disaster that has shocked the world. It has affected every aspect of our lives. The world was suddenly crippled by its impact and was utterly consumed in trying to contain the spread of the virus. The global economy fell to the brink of collapse with astonishing speed. However, with the world preoccupied, the COVID-19 pandemic presents the perfect conditions for governments, politicians, corporations and others to implement policies and changes that may have been met with public resistance were we not so distracted. 

To illustrate, in March, US President Donald Trump signed a $2.2 trillion emergency relief package to stimulate the economy. The package included bailouts to big industries such as airlines and the gas and oil sector. 

The Trump administration also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend its enforcement of environmental laws during the coronavirus crisis and lowered fuel emission standards for vehicles sold in the US. To make matters worse, the EPA also announced a “blanket policy suspending enforcement and civil penalties for any regulated entity that can show COVID-19 was the cause of a failure to comply with the law.” This decision, considered a big win for the oil industry, poses a great risk to both the environment and people and allows industry to continue to pollute with few repercussions. The decision prompted serious criticism from health and climate change experts. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who served as administrator of the EPA during the Obama administration, called the move “an open license to pollute… and an unlimited get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Undermining environmental protection policies has always been a key target under the umbrella of disaster capitalism. For example, in Alberta, Canada, the government — using executive powers granted under the COVID-19 public health emergency — passed legislation to deregulate the Alberta oil sands. The local government suspended environmental reporting and amended air quality monitoring requirements, citing “undue hardship.” An April article on The Conversation website explains that, thanks to these moves, oil sands producers “will not have to submit reports on how much waste water they send to tailings ponds until Aug. 14, 2020. In addition, they are exempt from reporting when emissions from smokestacks, tailings ponds, transportation and dust exceed daily ambient air quality limits until Dec. 31, 2020. They are also free from filing inventories of airborne emissions and air quality monitoring reports until Dec. 31, 2020.”

Undermining environmental protection policies has always been a key target under the umbrella of disaster capitalism.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

In Hungary, soon after the coronavirus outbreak hit the rest of the world, the parliament passed a bill giving the nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping emergency powers. The decision came amid both domestic and international resistance and criticism, arguing that it gave the PM unlimited power to bolster his leadership rather than use it to fight the virus. Not long after the bill was passed, Orban signed a $2.1 billion loan agreement with China to finance a railway link between Budapest and Belgrade. It will be Europe’s first major Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project and will help connect Greece to Western Europe, opening up European markets not only to China but also the rest of the world. However, to everyone’s surprise, the terms of the loan will be kept secret for an unprecedented 10 years. 

During disasters and turbulent times, it is important to understand there will always be others who see the situation differently. They recognize this is an opportunity, not necessarily to benefit the overall well-being of society, but rather to exploit the circumstances to benefit specific groups and agendas. A quick search through recent history yields almost endless examples. 

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
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