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‘Return to normal’ from the COVID-19 crisis?

This blog was published on 3 May, 2020 and is written by Dr Les Levidow, a Senior Research Fellow in Development Policy and Practice at The Open University. The photo reads ‘We won’t return to normality because normality was the problem’, taken in November 2019, Santiago, Chile. Credit: Mauro Bradi.

As the COVID-19 crisis persists, ‘a return to normal’ remains contentious. Many people are asking, ‘what normal?’ Or more practically speaking, ‘How to create a better normal?’   

The question has compelling reasons: The globalised agri-industrial food system has already caused several pandemics, directly or indirectly. The avian flu pandemic highlights how the profit motive has turned animals into ‘the monster at the door’. Moreover, the neoliberal agenda has outsourced, marketised and weakened the public-sector capacities necessary to contain pandemics. 

Despite early warnings of a widespread pandemic, some governments denied or downplayed the problem in order to continue the previous economic activity. The UK government initially prioritised the right of people ‘to buy and sell freely among each other’. This response delayed the economic shut-down and health-care preparations necessary to avoid thousands of deaths. 

Although the crisis has been exploited globally to extend market-driven agendas, alternative futures have been counterposed. More people have raised the slogan, ‘No return to normality because normality was the problem’. It originated in Chile’s anti-austerity protests last year and later acquired a broader meaning about entire production-consumption systems. The slogan invites people to imagine and create a different normal. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that ‘normal’ is not a society that is resilient, fair, and just, says the UK Landworkers’ Alliance. ‘There needs to be a new normality’ that improves the quality of life, says Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham.  

An alternative potential future has become more visible and tangible in collective responses to the COVID-19 crisis. In Britain mutual aid networks have been established or expanded to help vulnerable people who may be self-isolating, ill or unable to obtain food and medicines. Many networks originated from earlier projects for food localisation, some coordinated by Sustain UK or Sustainable Food Places. Through mutual aid activities, volunteers have been ‘trying to get a degree of agency and control in their life when they feel so helpless’, according to a UK coordinator.

Such a need long pre-dated the COVID-19  crisis. Beyond a short-term stop-gap, mutual aid can prefigure an alternative future. This would prioritise use values in people’s everyday needs --  rather market exchange values for ‘a return to normal’.  

Brazil’s Economia Solidária faces the pandemic

Such alternatives have gained strength over the past couple decades in Brazil’s solidarity economy: Economia Solidária  or EcoSol for short. This has has built solidaristic interdependencies among economic activities, each under collective self-management. Short supply chains have brought producers closer to consumers, avoiding profit-driven intermediaries. In parallel, small-scale producers and civil society groups have been jointly promoting agroecological methods; these depend on farmers’ knowledge of locally available natural resources, especially by reproducing biodiverse seeds and recycling nutrients, thus minimising environmental harm. 

Networks previously promoting either EcoSol or agroecology converged towards integrating them. Together they have built widespread support for an agroecology-based solidarity economy. These networks have gained a higher profile since Brazil’s COVID-19 crisis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic spread around Brazil in early 2020, President Bolsonaro ridiculed the threat as ‘a fantasy’ causing ‘hysteria’. Soon he dismissed the virus as a gripezinha (mild flu), dangerous only to people at risk such as the elderly. His denial provoked great fear about whether the state would even try to protect people from the virus. Anti-Bolsonaro activists organised mass protests with people banging pots in windows. 

When Brazil’s state governments rightly introduced measures of hygiene and social distancing, heavier burdens fell on lower-income people and small-scale producers. The new requirements posed special difficulties for open-air farmers’ markets, called feiras livres. These are Brazil’s second largest outlet for food and a crucial outlet for agroecological producers, especially women.   

The new hygiene standards required several measures: disinfecting the food stalls, maintaining a minimum distance between them, and avoiding infection through product handling, packaging, plastic bags or payment methods.  Farmers’ markets are mainly sited outdoors; few have running water. They made special efforts to adopt hygiene measures, e.g. disinfectants, gloves, etc.  Some markets had extra assistance from municipal authorities, but others could not comply and had to shut down. Here are some responses from solidarity networks, mainly from the Baixada Santista, a region southwest of São Paolo.

Livres is a citizens platform which locally ‘links producers and conscientious consumers, without capitalist intermediaries or exploitation’.  Livres means products free of pesticides and profit-driven intermediaries, among other ills. - When some feiras livres in Santos could no longer operate,  Livres used social media tools to arrange smaller pick-up points or home deliveries. This helped provide economic security for small-scale producers. 

The Rede Solidária (solidarity network) collected surplus food to supply individuals who lack sufficient income to purchase it or means to reach sales points, as well as elderly people. Initiatives have done swaps of surplus products. They plan countryside trips to harvest crops that would otherwise go to waste.

The NGO Ecovida solicited donations of hygiene materials for farmers’ markets to help keep them safe and open, as well as donations for vulnerable individuals. It also made and distributed facemasks; short films depict their use at every stage from plant cultivation, to harvest, transport  and open-air markets. This initiative followed the high-profile example of a Porto Alegre textile cooperative, UNIVENS, which quickly produced 600 facemasks for free distribution to health centres, feiras livres and other public places. The fabric was donated by the Justa Trama (fair trade-loom) network, which routinely supplies organic cotton to UNIVENS. 

Prefiguring a different future

During the COVID-19 crisis, Brazil’s agri-food initiatives have had four trends: more solidaristic interdependencies among them; their greater public visibility; their replicated activity; and social media being used to connect them with more support groups, volunteers, consumers and vulnerable people. Together these activities may express a cultural change around agri-food meanings and attachments.  They indicate a potential for solidarity networks to transform  production-consumption systems. As many people have been saying, ‘We should go back better, not normal’.

EcoSol activities build collective self-confidence for dealing with fear, isolation and emotional stress, as well as for prefiguring a different normal. Each initiative has a Facebook page where supporters can learn about mutual aid activities, join them or replicate them in other places. Although most initiatives began with state assistance, they are trying to overcome such dependence. 

In response to the pandemic, Dutch academics have issued a declaration for an alternative development model to replace ‘the neoliberal growth machine’. Using the crisis, we could rebuild civil society for a socio-economic order ‘based on equality, public welfare, and ecological sustainability’, argues the historian Neil Faulkner. Academics can contribute through action research with initiatives which build producer-user solidarity and collective self-management capacities for such alternative futures.

Acknowledgements

This article comes from a new project, ‘Research Partnership for an Agroecology-Based Solidarity Economy (AgroEcos) in Brazil and Bolivia’, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC),  Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), during 2020-2021, project no.AH/T004274/1.  

The project is supported by the Open University’s programme in International Development and Inclusive Innovation. The short name AgroEcos denotes activities that have echoes, expansion and replication across places. 

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, our project had to cancel its first event planned in Brazil for mid-April.  Then we sought to collect information about solidaristic responses. For this article, helpful info came from Newton Rodrigues, Forum de Economia Solidária da Baixada Santista (FESBS), Monica Schiavinatto (UNESP) and Andrea Berardi (OU Co-Investigator).

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