Tomás Hirsch: The Pandemic Could Generate New and Very Interesting Responses

03.05.2020 - Anna Polo

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Tomás Hirsch: The Pandemic Could Generate New and Very Interesting Responses

Pandemic, activism, social protests, neoliberal system, solidarity, social, personal and spiritual perspectives ; we discussed all these topics, with Thomas Hirsch, Chilean humanist deputy.

The emergence of the coronavirus puts us in a new scenario and destabilizing for all. This change of habits and certainties for social and political actors also meant a change of plans. What is the impact of all of this on the wave of protests that has been developing in Chile in recent months ?

The protests that erupted in Chile in October 18th 2019 is the result of an accumulation of situations that have dragged on for too long. Although the trigger was the rising metro prices, it is clear that this particular fact is not the reason why the social explosion has grown to such an extent.

It is the effects of the uneasiness accumulated among people during decades of ill-treatment, postponed implementation of the solution, and the lack of defense against a system which gradually concentrates economic power and privileges in the hands of some. The profound inequity of the chilean economic model, neoliberal in its most refined form, limits any possibility of producing structural changes in our society.

One sentence sums up people’s feelings very well: “it is not 30 pesos, it is 30 years” (editor’s note :30 pesos is the value of the rise in the price of the metro ticket, which sparked the protests)

And this feeling continues to operate because there is no fundamental response from the government.

Today in the context of the coronavirus, the social movement, in its street and mass manifestation has been progressively reduced to silence.

At first,we looked at government policies with a lot of suspicion, we thought they wanted to demobilize us, that they were looking for an excuse to stay at home, but it quickly became clear that the situation was serious and that this pandemic posed a heath risk to millions of people.

People responded to instructions, to withdraw, to stay at home, to maintain social distance during confinement. And that’s what’s going on today ; today, the vast majority of Chileans respect this measure responsibly to prevent the spread of the virus.

Have Chilean activists managed to find more creative ways to carry out their initiatives, to continue mobilization despite the limits imposed by the emergency?

It was not easy because the situation is complex. The country has been hit hard by the pandemic, by threat it poses to health and the economy.

Since the announcement of the start of confinement, thousands of people have lost their jobs and as many have seen their incomes drop drastically. And our precarious, underfunded and long-stifled public health system is unable to respond to a potentially explosive demand.

For the moment, we don’t know how long it will last. And so at this point, people are retreating, but it is a tactical retreat, from people who understand the situation very well, people who take care of their loved ones.

So how were people able to demonstrate and express themselves?First, through social media, which has been very helpful in exposing the lies with which president Pinera seeks to improve his own image. Social Media has helped to remain attentive and vigilant and not to neglect his concern for matters of substance.But the manifestation of these demands on the street has been clearly limited.

Neoliberal politicians, and economists, such as Boris Johnson and Mario Draghi, among others, have been responsible, with their policies of austerity, for destruction of the welfare state. Today they present themselves as the « saviors of the people », and support the intervention of the State to help people and to save the economy, and insist on the need to return to quality public health and good standards. What do you think of this change ?

For too long, public health services have been destroyed all over the world and the value of the private has settled, favoring the activity of a few. The same is true for the education system, which suffocates millions of families around the world, forced to go into excessive debt to educate their children.

The restrictive policies in the field of health and education have been applied by right-wing governments but also by social democratic sectors which represent moderate progessiveness, as it is the case in Spain, in France, in England , not to mention Latin America.

The same sectors that have strangled public health are those that now want to apprear as the saviors of the people. They should leave recognizing that they have deceived the people for too long.

In the specific case of the coronavirus, this lie manifests itself in the enormous lack of respirators, beds in intensive care units, even masks or other elements necessary for the safety of health personnel.

There is also, if one considers the long term, a positive aspect to this situation.Some political leaders are beginning to realize the fragility of the global economic and social model, and are reflecting on the underlying social problems that are compromising the direction of events beyond the pandemic, and are beginning to reflect on the future of humanity as a whole. From this point of view, it seems to me that this uncertainty about the world to come, also gives hope for a profound change.

I heard Boris Johnson’s speech when he was near death, and it is true that these experiences touch you and lead you to seek new answers. Mr Johnson, upon leaving hospital, considered that the NHS (National Health System) of Great Britain, (the public health system) was very important.

Today it is internationally recognized that these are precisely the countries which have maintained or taken over the public health system, which have succeeded in responding as best as possible to this health crisis. This is the case of Germany, a country which has maintained a solid public health system over the years and which today has one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

The same goes for certain northern European countries which have managed and maintained the public health system.In short, it is this public system, with its workers, civil servants, doctors , nurses and all the human network associated with them, which has taken great care of people’s health.

What should the progressive political forces, which have always denounced neoliberalism and which are now baffled and cornered, do ?

I believe that more than great speeches, what the left and progressivism must do from now, is to assume a serious deep commitment which is the result of a self-criticism and a reflection on the strengthening of health and education as basic human rights.What seems obvious is not.

Today, as has been said, these rights have been transformed into a market, and as a market, they are oriented towards profit. This interest in making money benefits certain sectors in the short term, small economic groups that control health and education, but in the end, in a situation like the pandemic, it is clear that this « profit of a few-one » ends up no longer benefiting anyone.

The same is true for a privatized pension system. This will mean a tragedy as great as that of the coronavirus, that is to say, that it will affect millions of people who, when they retire, will find that they do not even have the capacity to cover their basic expenses. In this sense, I believe that the role which today corresponds to the left and to progressivism is to think of very deep solutions which relate to a structural change of model.

Do you think that this crisis could contribute to an evolutionary leap of the human being and to a radical change of the system?

I think we are faced with a dilemma.There are two paths open to us: it may be that the values of « every man for himself » are reinforced and that is what we see in this kind of curious world war for artificial respirators. Today there are real mafias connected even to the states, which are taking away the markets and the supply of these equipment which are vital for the survival of people who find themselves in a dramatic situation. It is a path. And it is a path that relates to the deepening of a model with which we have coexisted for a long time.

But at the same time, the way is open to collaboration and solidarity.This direction of reciprocal aid between countries, between what a country produces and what another country demands. The way which consists using artificial intelligence not to spy, not to actually obtain the best information concerning technological progress.

Likewise, sharing patents and scientific information to provide answers that allow resources of all kinds to flow quickly between nations. It is the way of collaboration.

Both possibilities are open. I have a deep certainty and hope in the ability of human beings to find the best answers in times of crisis. And from this point of view, I believe that a situation as complex as the one we are going through, will also generate new responses.

Of course, there will be speculators who will do business before all that while seeking to make short-term profits,but I think that the most interesting will be the answers in the sense of collaborative, common, convergent, alliances that help and benefit the vast majority.

Compared to the district you represent, in Santiago and Chile,do you see the seed of this phenomenon?

If indeed, I believe that solidarity and collaboration are deeply rooted in the hearts of people, we individuals, do not exist in isolation, our lives are built with others. It is precisely this register of interconnections, which allows in emergency situations to express the best of human beings. We have seen it here in Chile, and I know that friends in different parts of the world have experienced it, the need to connect with others increases with confinement.Many people have developed tools and means to collect food and resources to meet the demand for medicines from their neighbors, colleagues and even anonymous people who need help.

In the case of the 11 th district of Santiago(the district that I represent),which includes five very diverse municipalities (Penalolen, La Reina,Las Condes, Vitacura, and Lo Barnechea), we supported the formation of solidarity networks which were essential to break fear and psychological isolation.In some places, as a result of business closings and confinement, people have been out of work. In these cases, the only response to the most urgent needs has been mutual aid and solidarity.We have organized campaigns such as those carried out during the dictatorship, to respond to these situations neglected by the government.

What are the changes within the human being that can emerge from this experience of fear, confinement and death, on a global level?And what will happen after the pandemic in terms of social movements at global and national level?

I think this pandemic was very strong, very complicated especially because it aroused fear very strongly, and why did it arouse fear.

Because we live with the illusion that we control our lives, and this pandemic proves that we do not control anything. In a few weeks, events precipitated, they take a completely unexpected direction and we are paralyzed in front of a reality which we cannot assimilate.

In this situation of high internal instability, we seek to experience again the desire to control, but this is not possible.We can then transform this moment of uncertainty into an opportunity, into a window that allows us to rethink priorities, to reflect on the direction that we want to give to our life and also to reflect on what is the project of society that we want to build.

It is clear to everyone that nothing is under our control, the entire planet we know is facing a very complex situation due to an environmental crisis announced years ago and which today has disastrous consequences. It is important to remember that in this crisis, we human beings have a great responsibility. In Chile, for example, we have a catastrophe due to lack of water, not only because of the droughts but also because of the monopolization that some people make of this vital element, to favor companies.

Finally, this difficult situation allows us to recognize the underlying fears that operate in us.Fears that are always within us and which, this time, manifest themselves more clearly ; fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of losing my loved ones.These fears can also turn into high feelings, love for some, compassion for others, feelings of solidarity, of communion.

Categories: Human Rights, Humanism and Spirituality, Interviews
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