Queen St, Auckland.

This pandemic is teaching us a lesson about our unsustainable capitalist system, writes Fulbright scholar Dylan Asafo. Are we paying attention?


As we continue to hear about more businesses closing and more New Zealanders losing their jobs, the prevailing message from our political and corporate leaders is that no one is really to blame for the unprecedented economic crisis we now see unfolding. 

In other words, Covid-19 alone is responsible for ruining our otherwise fair economic system and fine way of life. 

But, if we take a moment to think about it, we may see that it isn’t the Covid-19 pandemic that’s to blame. In fact, this pandemic is teaching us all a lesson about the unsustainability of our capitalism. 

This lesson was taught to us by the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, but we ignored and quickly forgot it — and we’re in danger of ignoring it again.  

Capitalism can be simply defined as an economic system in which a country’s industry, trade and profits are controlled by private or corporate companies in a free market — and not by the people who power those companies with their time and labour. 

By letting private and corporate powers have this control over the economy, capitalism has allowed the rich to get richer and the poorer to get even poorer. In other words, it has allowed us to normalise extreme income inequality. 

So, in New Zealand, for example, 10 percent of the population own 59 percent of our country’s wealth, while the poorest 50 percent own only 2 percent. 

As one illustration of that, capitalism has made it acceptable and lawful for the CEO of Fonterra to earn a base salary of $1.95 million while choosing not to pay the living wage to all Fonterra employees.

The inherent injustice of capitalism has long been one of the realities for Māori and Pacific peoples, who bear the brunt of income inequality in New ZealandHowever, Covid-19 has now forced the predominantly white upper and middle classes (who form the richest 10 percent of our population) to be confronted with the harsh realities of financial insecurity and poverty that the poorest people in our country face. 

These confrontations have resulted in a number of changes that have apparently been made to help them stand in “solidarity” with those worst affected by the economic crisis. 

So there’ve been billions of dollars in government grants to an unprecedented number of New Zealanders facing wage cuts and unemployment, increases in the minimum wage pay of essential workers, and accommodation for the homeless. And even an acceptance of significant pay cuts by some of the highly paid. 

But before we rush to praise and thank our leaders for making these changes, we need to ask ourselves whether these are genuine acts of kindness for our most vulnerable in this crisis — or whether they’re simply motivated by their desire to get things back to our deeply unequal normal as quickly as possible. 

This question raises two other questions.

One, if the CEOs, leaders and other members of the top 10 percent weren’t earning hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars each year, how many ordinary New Zealanders would’ve been able to keep their jobs and continue providing for their families?

And, two, would our economy have been in better shape to handle the impacts of Covid-19 if the government had passed the Capital Gains Tax Bill to help reduce income inequality? 

If our political and corporate leaders were presented with these questions, it’s highly likely that they’d simply ignore them and stick to the same story they’re telling us now — that this pandemic is unprecedented and has led to an unforeseeable economic crisis that no particular group or system should be blamed for. 

But we need to be aware that this narrative serves two purposes.

First, it allows corporations like Air New Zealand and and SkyCity to place responsibility for the crisis on the pandemic, and not on their preexisting financial structures and decisions (like those around income distribution) — and it lets them blame the pandemic for leaving them unable to survive a mere one or two months without their usual profit levels and thus unable to continue paying their employees. 

Secondly, it allows corporate leaders to portray themselves as victims of the pandemic, and therefore deserving of million-dollar or even billion-dollar government bailouts as rescue packages and loans required for the good of the hardworking everyday people who lost their jobs — and all the while providing little or no accountability for the financial decisions and structures that made them vulnerable in the first place. And, by the way, setting the stage for the cycle to inevitably be repeated. 

If we accept this capitalist narrative, and if these leaders succeed in getting things back to our deeply dysfunctional and inequitable normal, I’m sure many of us will be relieved and happy to forget the lesson that this Covid-19 pandemic has provided. 

But, with scientists warning that Covid-19 may be just the beginning of mass pandemics for our world because of the global loss of habitat and biodiversity, and with other existential threats related to climate change looming closer — we’re all faced with an undeniable truth that Covid-19 is trying to teach us: our capitalist system is unsustainable. 

The takeaway from this lesson is very clear. We need to radically transform our economy and society to be prepared for whatever lies ahead. 

As a silver lining of sorts, crises like the one we’re facing provide opportunities for transformative change. As the Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein reminds us

“In times of crisis, seemingly impossible ideas suddenly become possible. But whose ideas? Sensible, fair ones, designed to keep as many people as possible safe, secure and healthy? Or predatory ideas, designed to further enrich the already unimaginably wealthy while leaving the most vulnerable further exposed?” 

Therefore, the question now, for all of us, is this: Are we willing to do what it takes to make the once “impossible” idea of true equality possible for our own survival? 

The road to transformational change will be incredibly difficult. It will demand that we dismantle the pillars of our unsustainable system by reckoning with our ongoing history of colonisation, the obligations owed to tangata whenua under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, rampant institutional racism, the unequal ways in which we distribute wealth — and, on a more fundamental and personal level, our deeply ingrained beliefs about what makes a person deserving of a life with dignity and what doesn’t. 

Again, for many of us, embracing these radical ideas seems “impossible” and to several of us, these ideas may even seem racist, offensively socialist, repugnant, illogical and simply out of the question.  

But, no matter how hard we try to dismiss these ideas, tomorrow, all of us will wake up to another day in lockdown and anxiously await more bad news about our economy and our lives as we once knew them. 

It’s in this news that the lesson about our unsustainable system is being taught loud and clear, begging not to be ignored and forgotten, even when things appear to return to normal in the weeks or months to come.

Are we finally going to pay attention?


Fuimaono Dylan Asafo was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in West Auckland. His family is from the villages of Salani, Satalo, Siumu, Moata’a, and Leufisa in Sāmoa. Dylan is a Fulbright scholar, and is currently studying towards a Master of Laws from Harvard University, specialising in Critical Race Theory and minority rights.

© E-Tangata, 2020

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.