International Workers’ Day started out as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago when the police fired on workers during a general strike to obtain the eight-hour workday. It has become a yearly tradition to protest and demand better working conditions, freedom of association, health care and education for all. Nowadays some stay at home, thinking that trade unions and their demands are outdated, or because they do not feel represented by social movements. Today, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but ironically it is rarely recognized in the country where it all began, the United States of America.
This 1 May is like none other ever before. In countries around the world people are locked down, not allowed to go out and definitely not to gather in large groups. While the planet is in the grip of COVID 19, we celebrate health and essential workers, recognizing how important they are and calling for adequate protection and decent pay. Millions of people have discovered that working from home is not a holiday and that teachers do an amazing job educating the kids. Domestic violence has soared, racism and xenophobia are rearing their ugly heads. Families are torn apart and mourning loved ones. While many in Europe and the US continue to receive their salaries, that is not the case in the global South where a majority of workers live from hand to mouth. Migrants and refugees are left behind in camps without proper water and sanitation.
It is obvious that this crisis will have long-lasting effects, but beyond the health impact and lives lost, it is not so clear what these will be beside a recession that is unwelcome, dangerous and deeply unsettling. Doom scenarios abound and knowing that oil prices have collapsed, people shiver. The positive impact of the lockdown on the environment seems convincing, but concrete plans are needed to ensure a long-lasting effect beyond the current total standstill.
Panic is never a good advisor, and I have to admit that I was initially also plagued by anxiety of being separated from my husband, my family, food and my hairdresser. As the weeks went on, I started reflecting more on the way forward. I lived in Moscow in 1998 during the financial crisis and Russia’s default, which reminds me of our reality today and warns of what could be expected after a liquidity, production, trade and budgetary crisis. Admittedly, there was no global pandemic but a barrel of crude oil was sold at a mere 11$. In Moscow, around 70% of consumer goods were imported and became too expensive overnight. Eventually, domestic production picked up and some import substitution was achieved. Such a transition could also be realized in Nigeria tomorrow.
This crisis has exposed the deeply entrenched inequalities among people in and between countries. It has also shown the power of good and bad policies. Policy matters. While some leaders are celebrated and others are ridiculed, the role of experts in defining our day to day lives has never been stronger. When measures are discussed for the post COVID-19 era, workers and youth have to sit at the table. Our future can not be hijacked.
This 1st May, I wish for an end to tax havens so that this crisis will not be an opportunity to defund public services so badly needed for immediate recovery and beyond. I wish for debt relief and forgiveness so that developing countries will be able to use all their resources to support their people. I wish for a trade union movement that fights for the rights of informal workers, to make survival economics a thing of the past and move to sustainable development. I wish for universal public health care for all and an end to this pandemic.
And I wish to walk hand in hand with my mother at next year’s protest on 1st May and know that we are working together with millions of people for a kinder, warmer and happier future.
Power to the people.
Happy 1st May!
Sandra Alonge is a human rights advocate, with over 20 years experience working for international organizations in Europe, Africa and the Americas.