Covid-19 and the Need, Right Now, For a Universal Basic Income

Photograph Source: Generation Grundeinkommen – CC BY 2.0

Apart from the medical threat revealing a brutal class divide in healthcare, the coronavirus pandemic is creating social and economic havoc among non-rich populations. If ever the need for a universal basic income was evident, it is now. But governments, trying to save the neoliberal system, and making the most of the disaster to lay the foundations for a new round of disaster capitalism, won’t see it. To give a couple of examples of this catastrophe profiteering, laissez-faire entrepreneur par excellence, Sir Richard Branson, wants a £7.5 billion government bailout for his airline, and Trump has proposed a $700 billion stimulus package in which industries will be “stimulated” at the expense of Social Security and, once again, the poor. So much for the free market.

Many countries, mostly in Europe, have taken extraordinary, unprecedented measures, including closed borders. Perhaps the closest case for comparison with the present situation would be the “Spanish” flu (which didn’t start in Spain but probably in Fort Riley, Arkansas, or a British army base in France or, as a third hypothesis ventures, northern China in late 1917). Wherever it started, it affected a third of the world’s population with death rates, depending on the zones, of between 10% and 20%. By the end of the pandemic in 1920, more than forty million people had died. It is thought that the coronavirus will be just as dangerously active till the beginning of summer, at the earliest. So, it still has at least three months to do its damage.

A drop of between 2-3% in the world GDP (which is the definition of a recession), is expected because of the economic situation prior to the onset of COVID-19 and the chaos it is presently causing. Most of the world’s non-rich population hasn’t recovered its living conditions from before the crisis of 2008, and now it is being battered by another kind of crisis. Naturally, the very rich will lose too. According to Fortune, March 10 was the worst day of decline in a decade for DOW, S&P 500, and NASDAQ. When the New York stock exchange opened on 16 March, Dow Jones dropped 9.7% (more than 2,250 points) and S&P dropped 8%. The plummeting of global stocks in the past few weeks has been as fast as any downhill run in history. And they’ll also lose when their airlines and factories close. But losing for the rich isn’t the same as losing for the poor. The rich aren’t losing the conditions of their social existence, they’ll have good medical care, can hide away in their bunkers and, around the world, they have the power to mitigate their losses, so they’re wasting no time in calling for tax breaks and looking for legal loopholes to make it easier to sack workers. The millions of people who can’t work because of the virus, provisionally or in the long term, won’t only suffer “losses” but the material conditions of their existence will be in jeopardy. This means extreme vulnerability that will make them more susceptible to the virus because, for example, they can’t even attain the basic conditions of hygiene prescribed by the WHO.

The EU’s response to the crisis of 2008 was to impose “austericidal” measures which afflicted whole states like Greece, and all vulnerable populations. Now, with the pandemic, it seems that these measures, whose dire effects have become so obvious and well-known, won’t be applied. There’s not much coordination on this side of the world. For example, the Spanish government has announced that it will take public control of Spain’s private health providers and their facilities to cope with the virus while the free-marketeering UK government is coughing up £2.4 million a day for private hospital beds. However, coherent, public, and universally applicable economic and social measures are being vigorously pushed, though not by governments. In particular, activists from social movements and left-wing media are calling for basic income, an unconditional monetary payment to the whole population.

In many states, people are strictly confined to their homes and can only go out in exceptional conditions, like food and pharmacy shopping. This means loss of jobs or freelance work and tremendous economic anxiety. If the US Constitution is any example, western liberal governments are supposed to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote general welfare, and guarantee the rights of freedom. They’re failing on all counts and, one might almost say, doing the opposite, as well as adding insult to injury by mass surveilling their populations and lying to them about public concerns. We, the people, can’t count on them but must insist on measures that will strengthen our rights and ability to prevent further abuse. A universal basic income would be a very good start because it would bolster social existence.

This isn’t charity, or aid, or a temporary second-best solution waiting for better days. It’s a human right, the one right on which all other rights depend: the right of material existence. People who don’t have this right can’t be free because they’re dependent on others for their social existence. It’s not a form of conditional benefits either, something to be pleaded for, or only obtained when you prove to some bureaucrat that you’re worthy, a handout with a special ex post logic of only helping “failures” after they’re on their knees. These people who are made to beg have “failed” because they are long-unemployed or are working in conditions that put them under the heading of the working poor, which is the case of 15% of Europe’s wage workers, and other reasons that are products of the system itself. Conditional benefits are better than nothing, but they’re offered as a slender lifeline to a very small fraction of the truly needy population because of insufficiency, inefficiency, and the downright poverty of the benefits that are allegedly combating poverty. People in desperate situations are humbled into being subservient supplicants, begging for “benefits”. COVID-19 has only made this situation crueler for growing numbers of people.

A basic income of an amount equal to or above the poverty line in every country would guarantee the material existence of the whole population, respecting the dignity of everyone because this isn’t “help” but a right guaranteeing social existence. The pandemic, literally a life-and-death matter, has made this measure even more urgent. Governments are seized by attacks of the vapors when contemplating the “cost” of such a measure but there are detailed studies showing how it can easily be financed, basically by a stronger taxation system in which the rich would pay more in taxes than they would receive as a basic income. And let nobody say this is unfair to the rich when one third of the world’s GDP is stashed away in tax havens. What matters is that paying this “cost” of the material and social existence of whole populations should be a top priority in the crisis we are all now facing. And if the social benefits of this were weighed against the so-called “cost” (to the rich who, scrambling for their bunkers, are showing just how antisocial they are), could we even talk about a cost?

By the way, what would be the social cost of not introducing an unconditional universal basic income now?


Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-hold is Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under