BY THEOPHILUS KWEK
Disclaimer: This piece reflects only the author’s individual opinions and not those of any organisations he is affiliated with.
There are two ways of thinking about citizenship today: as a bundle of rights that may be claimed against a state on account of one’s membership in the political community it represents, and as a set of obligations owed to the state, by which it derives the resources necessary to protect its own. Both accounts are inextricably linked, as without the resources afforded by its citizens, the state is rarely able to make good on its obligations towards them. As the anthropologist Aihwa Ong writes, the state – deriving legitimacy, direction, and resources from its citizens – provides a mechanism to ‘implement citizenship entitlements and protections claimed through recognized political membership’.
What happens to citizenship, then, when crisis disrupts the state’s ability to fulfil its obligations to its citizens? Or when citizens find themselves, at a time of need, unable to depend on their states for a meaningful guarantee of protection? Among other effects, the emergent COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a severe test of state capacity to regimes worldwide. While governments in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have earned plaudits for maintaining key services, imposing social controls and shoring up public trust, states elsewhere are under mounting pressure to deliver what are seen as basic protections for their citizens. Beyond the quality and capacity of healthcare services, these include access to food and other necessities, as well as safeguards against the economic fallout.
Yet straightforward country-by-country comparisons cannot tell the full story. Even in states that are well-placed to respond to crises, not all citizens are equal recipients of such basic protections. Some, instead, find themselves stripped of the assurance that citizenship is meant to bring. Drawing on the experience of Hurricane Katrina (where poor New Orleanians were ‘left behind […] to face the storm alone’, while wealthier neighbours were able to flee the city in time, and benefited from better flood protections for their homes), the sociologist Margaret Somers has shown how some citizens are essentially ‘forgotten’ by their states in crisis, and cannot rely on the same protections offered to their compatriots. Long before the storm struck, she argues, a history of racial and socio-economic exclusion meant that these predominantly black communities were ‘already rightless, stateless, and expendable’, disenfranchised by default as they lacked access to basic infrastructure and services.
Prevailing inequalities within societies mean that those who are already disempowered in peacetime are often also disenfranchised in crisis. This might happen in several ways. Most directly, the sustained exclusion of certain groups from access to adequate or appropriate services can, to borrow a phrase from anthropologist David Graeber, produce a ‘structural blindness’ towards them. California’s move to shut public spaces in the wake of COVID-19, for instance, has left few alternatives for homeless families who rely on libraries and campsites for temporary shelter. While emergency measures may not have intentionally targeted the homeless, a prior lack of safe and affordable housing has left them vulnerable, at this juncture, to the side-effects of an otherwise prudent policy. To stretch the metaphor, the bureaucratic channels by which the state might ‘see’ these citizens and account for their needs during peacetime can atrophy with disuse, and as a result, fall short in a time of crisis.
Indirectly, too, disadvantaged communities are less able to accumulate resources during peacetime, and have less to buffer them from external shocks when they take place. In the UK, the journalist Owen Jones has described in stark terms the ‘social crisis’ accompanying COVID-19: 4.7 million gig-economy workers, already in debt, have ‘no financial cushion if their income evaporates’. And across the US, efforts to promote virtual work or learning as a response to the crisis will invariably bypass the ‘millions of households that lack access to high-speed internet’. None of these citizens have been deprived of basic education, income security, or information access by a deliberate withdrawal of state services. Instead, prevailing inequality and a dearth of fallback alternatives – in other words, the precarity they are already subject to – exacerbate the worst effects of a crisis.
These examples may seem far from home, but some have already identified similar dynamics here in Singapore. During the Budget debate last month, nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira argued that low-wage workers, including cleaners, public transport workers, security staff, and shopkeepers, were not only at greater risk of infection due to the front-line nature of their jobs, but faced greater insecurity as they worked longer hours during the crisis for less assurance of pay. Over the past month, tighter disease-control measures have placed additional strain on the elderly and vulnerable, with front-line social services seeing a higher caseload. More recently, Beyond Social Services shared preliminary research showing that a combination of COVID-19 responses and the wider economic slowdown had inadvertently increased the financial and caregiving burden on low-income families.
Each of these groups of citizens have found their social and financial protections eroded to some degree, as a result of the well-meaning measures that have been taken to protect a population from direct harm. While posing as minor inconveniences to some, such measures may act in tandem with structural inequality to place a disproportionate toll on others. To its credit, the state has rapidly unveiled a slew of fiscal measures to target areas of greatest need, including direct income relief to self-employed and low-wage workers, and unemployment assistance and training support for others. Other measures have been designed to keep businesses running, and provide a wider measure of assurance to steel the economy against further shocks. These moves will shelter many from the worst effects of the crisis. Whether they redress inequalities in the longer term, as some suggest, remains to be seen.
The Challenge for States
The central challenge for states is the obligation to ensure equal protections for citizens whose needs, ultimately, are heterogenous and fluid. Moreover, states have access to finite resources, and must (rightly) also contend with citizens’ expectations as to how these resources are used. Crisis situations only raise the urgency of competing demands, and increase the potential for missteps: as we have seen, even the most well-intended responses can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. There are no perfect ways to square this circle, but past and present examples suggest some ways forward.
The pressure for decisive action in responding to a crisis may prompt some states to set aside the consultative processes of peacetime policymaking, but this should not always be taken as a necessary trade-off. Community organisations which, during peacetime, already step in to remedy gaps in state provision, can inform policymakers on which underserved communities most require assistance in crisis, as the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics has endeavoured to do in the US. Front-line service agencies, already familiar with the ways in which healthcare needs intersect with other vulnerabilities, can serve as a sounding-board on how public health measures may create unintended consequences, as several organisations supporting the elderly have done in Singapore. All the more in a crisis, governments must engage with civil society to ensure that ordinary barriers to access are overcome, and no citizens are excluded or harmed by contingency measures.
But calibrating our crisis responses will not be enough. As academics Teo Youyenn and Ng Kok Hoe have written, short-term intervention must be accompanied by longer-term policies to ensure that Singapore’s existing inequalities are not replicated or deepened by crisis. Even in peacetime, they observe, there is a limit to how far one-off support measures (such as cohort-based benefits for the elderly) can produce meaningful structural change. The effects of inequality in the present mean that, although a crisis like COVID-19 may strike most citizens as an unexpected shock, there are some whose lives are already marked by constant crisis: for whom chronic debt or caregiving stress, for instance, can present daily dilemmas. Beyond financial insecurity, factors such as domestic violence – amplified in difficult times like these – also add to the strain experienced even in ‘peacetime’.
It is heartening to see that vulnerable groups will benefit, at this juncture, from exceptional government measures which have been framed as a ‘necessary response to a unique situation’. Taking the long view, however, it is only by addressing the inequities these citizens face during ordinary times that we can ensure they will not be ‘forgotten’ in extraordinary circumstances.
The Challenge for Us
Confronting a crisis like COVID-19 can be profoundly disempowering for the individual citizen. At a time where it seems ever more challenging, even in peacetime, for any citizen to hold her government accountable, it may seem far-fetched to suggest that individuals could have a meaningful say in shaping our response to a global emergency. Yet the obligation that states have to uphold equal protections for all citizens carries a concomitant obligation for us to ensure that our fellow citizens are treated as ‘moral equals’ – an idea Somers draws from the pioneering work of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. Our different political and social contexts suggest different ways of doing this.
Several days ago, a collective of migrant solidarity and anti-racist organisers in the UK released an open letter entitled ‘the state will not save us, only we can save us’, containing a list of demands for baseline social protections intended to complement community responses to COVID-19. Some of these (such as full pay for sick leave) resembled measures already being taken by countries like Sweden, but the key thrust of their message was to frame the pandemic as a political issue, and stress the importance of ‘community care’ outside of state structures: an approach rooted in a longer history of ‘mutual aid’ within marginalised communities. Their approach suggested that the protections of citizenship could equally be substantiated by ground-up efforts, an alternative to the failure of state provision.
In Singapore, many citizen-led efforts to raise support for front-line workers and hospital staff have come under the umbrella of state-sponsored campaigns to encourage ‘a strong community response to the outbreak’, backed by mainstream philanthropic foundations. This is unsurprising given the longer-term trajectory of civil society here, but we should not overlook the smaller-scale efforts by individuals to deliver face-masks to needy neighbours, or by groups like Homeless Hearts of Singapore to continue unofficial outreach efforts to rough sleepers. Such quieter initiatives are, in some ways, more likely to reach communities otherwise overlooked by official responses; regardless, all of these approaches are necessary to substantiate the equal regard we owe to each other as citizens.
There is also work to be done in peacetime. We have seen how citizen efforts to document gaps in social provision – such as last year’s nationwide street count of Singapore’s homeless – can illuminate areas of ‘structural blindness’ in state provision, and prompt discussions for policy change. Good-faith participation in consultative exercises, such as those resulting in the implementation of the Progressive Wage Model in various sectors over the past several years, can also help to narrow the pay gap. And forward-thinking conversations, such as those surrounding the release of the Minimum Income Standards report last year, help us to articulate expectations for a just social compact.
But there is also the less tangible work of promoting a discourse of fairness and compassion, that will sensitise us to the needs of the most vulnerable, and equip us to push for a more equal society. If, during peacetime, we already internalise a narrative that some citizens are more deserving of state support than others, our demands during times of crisis will perhaps be inevitably skewed. Tackling deep-seated biases in public discourse will, conversely, help to establish the fairer expectation that citizens, being ‘moral equals’, should be held in equal regard by the state and each other.
It’s worth ending these reflections with a note about non-citizens. In many societies, formal citizenship is what allows individuals to exercise a direct claim on a state’s resources, and demand the set of basic protections that are equally afforded to every other citizen. Those who lack this ‘right to have rights’, in the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s words, are often unable to exercise that claim; states, conversely, are seldom incentivised to provide for them. Yet this divide also seems too neat for today’s world, where transnational lives increasingly extend beyond the jurisdiction of any one state. Singapore’s heavy dependence on low-wage migrant labour has put it in an awkward position: the lack of access to public healthcare and cramped residential conditions raise the risk of COVID-19 transmission among the migrant community (and ‘spillover’ to the wider, resident population). But what has become the norm in peacetime – in culture and policy – is not easy to undo in crisis.
There are, nonetheless, positive signs. As the inspiring groundswell of citizen- and state-led efforts to house Malaysians stranded in Singapore by recent travel restrictions suggests, there is no reason why the equal regard we accord to vulnerable citizens should not also be extended to non-citizens, in crisis or otherwise, nor why the state should not afford basic protections likewise to the non-nationals within its borders. On the contrary, the very fact of our mutual dependence during peacetime provides a shared and viable basis to promote better access to infrastructure and services for migrants here: beyond ‘charity’, and as a matter of right. Indeed, if there is anything that the exigencies of COVID-19 have shown, it is that equality need not, and most certainly should not, be a zero-sum game.
In sum, citizens rely on their states for basic protections, and the fact of this reliance is a fundamental pillar of their citizenship. Not only are states obliged to deliver these protections equally for their citizens, but, in a crisis, to ensure that the most vulnerable are not ‘forgotten’ and disenfranchised. As we continue to address the present pandemic, we should translate its lessons, too, into a more robust set of protections for the future. Our fellow citizens will thank us for it.
Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher concerned with issues of citizenship, migration, and social policy. He holds a MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from Oxford University.
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