For the past 130 years, the 1st of May has been a day of mobilisation and hope. On this day we celebrate workers, the trade union movement and the colossal difference it has made for billions around the world. It is also a time to look ahead and find optimism and motivation in our shared vision of a better, fairer world with social justice, equity, freedom, prosperity and peace.
Today, 1 May 2020 is truly unprecedented. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill and impressed upon us all the value of solidarity. The first lesson we have learned from this crisis is that we can only overcome it by working together, making sacrifices to protect complete strangers who in turn protect us.
While this pandemic poses a great threat to the health of millions, its consequences run much deeper. Covid-19 has meant lost jobs and income for many, deep anxiety about the future for all. For essential workers, the pandemic means dangerous working conditions and gruelling hours to keep up basic services that the world cannot do without. Many have died making sure others survived. To honour their memory and for our own sake, we have a duty to make sure that the world that emerges after this crisis is better than the one before.
We cannot and must not go back to a world of individualism where capital rules supreme. Covid-19 has highlighted some of the fundamental inequalities that dominate our daily lives. While millions work from home, hundreds of millions have seen their livelihoods threatened. For those lucky enough to have kept a job, a healthy work-life balance has become a luxury. For the most unfortunate, the choice is truly tragic: stay at home and prioritise health or provide for the family. This is not a choice anyone should be forced to make.
In education, the impact of the crisis has been severe. The global school closures have exacerbated existing inequalities and have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. With over 90% of the global student population out of school, governments moved to provide distance education, but this effort is leaving many behind. Half of the world has no access to the internet and hundreds of millions do not have access to electricity. Even in developed countries, millions of children and students cannot count on a personal computer or even a quiet place to study.
Educators are working tirelessly to overcome the digital divide and provide support to all their students, despite not receiving enough support from education authorities. Their mobilisation has been truly outstanding. Education unions have organised to come up with solutions, providing learning materials, food and even mobile internet capacity to the most vulnerable. Many have donated wages to solidarity funds to help their students and communities. However, unions and the profession have often not been consulted in the government response to Covid-19. Some governments are even using the emergency situation to unilaterally cancel existing collective agreements or to reduce wages and benefits.
Beyond the immediate crisis response, this experience has also fully confirmed that distance education cannot replace school communities; that tablets, videos and online platforms cannot replace trained, qualified and supported educators. As situations stabilise and schools begin to re-open, the priority must become strengthening free quality public education for all – the only way to overcome the deep-seated inequalities of the world. This means supporting teachers and all education workers, respecting their professional autonomy, working with them and their unions, and investing in public education in all countries.
As the world slowly emerges from this catastrophe, a global economic crisis looms on the horizon. Now more than ever, it is imperative to remember that healthcare, education and all public services have been crippled by years of underfunding in the name of austerity and economic recovery. While the consequences of austerity are terrible in normal times, they have proven to be absolutely devastating during a crisis. The countries with high levels of trust and strong social contracts have fared much better than those with precarious work, privatised services, tax havens and crushing foreign debt. These lessons cannot be overlooked or forgotten once the health emergency is over. Austerity must be categorically excluded from any recovery plan going forward.
We must also stand firm for democracy and our values. Many authoritarians have and will continue to use this crisis to strengthen their grip on power. We must remain vigilant and make sure human and labour rights, an independent press and the very notion of truth do not fall prey to fear and manipulation.
This May Day we must imagine the future we want and work together to achieve it. It will take mobilisation, organisation and education. But we can count on enormous support from across the world because the essential role of public services has been recognised and the importance of all workers is painfully apparent to everyone. Now is the time. Together we can make global solidarity and social justice the heritage of this pandemic.