Covid-19 and the virulence of global capitalism – the poor are on the frontline

Covid-19 and the virulence of global capitalism – the poor are on the frontline
A member of the SANDF (South African National Defense Force) talks to a homeless man while being deployed on day 1 of the 21 day national lockdown, following President Cyril Ramaphosa declaration of a National Disaster as a result of Covid-19 Coronavirus outbreak, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 March 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the intricate machinery necessary to keep global capitalism in motion. It has also revealed the inequalities central to the system. South Africa faces the risk of deepening existing inequalities and placing the urban poor at the frontline of the pandemic during the lockdown. But there are also glimmers of hope for more just futures and alternative value systems.

The Diffusion of Covid-19 and the virulence of capitalism

The Chinese city of Wuhan has reached notoriety in the last few months as the site where the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, was first identified in December 2019.  The virus has since diffused with rapidity across the globe, reaching over 150 countries, with over 660,000 confirmed cases and over 30,000 recorded deaths as of Sunday, 29 March 2020.

The pace of diffusion can be attributed to the multiple nodes of connection and flow that bind the world in service of global capitalism. The pursuit of profit has led to an ongoing search for cheaper labour as well as new consumer markets, with cities such as Wuhan emerging as hubs for the manufacturers of component parts for global corporations, including Apple, and global carmakers. China, more broadly, has emerged as central to the engine of growth, more so in the last decade, responsible for approximately 25% of global manufacturing and 17% of global GDP.

Hence, while the spread of Covid-19 was precipitated by globalisation, the spread itself has ironically had a dramatically sombre effect on global markets. Beginning in China and spreading across the system, we have witnessed a slowdown and disruption of global supply chains, reductions in consumer demand, remarkable constraints on the flow of goods and people as governments institute lockdowns, and dramatic drops in stock market valuations, reminiscent of the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the market and the virus are tightly bound, threatening a mounting and unprecedented epidemiological and financial crisis. Crisis itself can be understood as a disruption of normalised conditions of existence. This is fundamentally unsettling, but also arguably revelatory of the contradictions latent in our existing systems and, in a more hopeful register, pregnant with possibility.

Covid-19, in a few short months, has been remarkably revealing of the ways in which nature, economics, politics and social reproduction (or destruction), are tightly bound, and mutually constituted. As Marxist geographers have long argued, there is nothing natural about a disaster. In the contemporary moment, the existing relations centralise profit over care for people and planet. The climate crisis has already increased awareness of the ways in which capitalism is destroying Earth’s liveability, extracting from and treating the Earth as a dumping site.

However, in contrast to the slow violence of climate change, Covid-19 has introduced a temporal urgency by bringing forth the more immediate presence of death and destruction. Nature’s acting is insisting that we recognise the virulence of capitalism now, not later. At the same time, there are powerful and hopeful reminders, in the political and social responses that Covid-19 has hastened, that economic systems are, in fact, contingent on and always open to remaking. This supports arguments long made by critical feminist scholars that, in contrast to an appearance of coherence, the existing social order is fragile, always in the making and thereby open to remaking.

The South African response to Covid-19: Placing the urban poor at the frontline of the pandemic?

In South Africa, the rate of documented infections has risen to over 1,000 in just a few weeks, with the first recorded death reported on 27 March 2020, the same morning that South Africans awoke to Day One of a nationwide 21-day lockdown. The lockdown, announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 23 March, is an attempt to curb the spread of the virus and has been accompanied by a range of economic policy measures to mitigate the economic fallout for firms, workers and households. 

The measures include the establishment of a Solidarity Fund; contributions from South African billionaires, the Rupert, Oppenheimer and Motsepe families, totalling R3-billion; numerous tax measures; and the marshalling of the Unemployment Insurance Fund to support unemployment. In addition, more than R3-billion has been made available to support small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), and industry. Overall, these measures amount to a carefully considered response to largely assist the formal sector in weathering the storm. Praised as decisive by many, activists and critical analysts have argued that it is hopelessly inadequate in a country already defined by glaring inequality.

One of the most glaring gaps in the South African response, largely consistent with packages introduced around the world, is the exclusion of workers within the informal sector. This group of precarious workers constitute almost three million in South Africa, according to StatsSA, and include car guards, domestic workers, waste pickers, casual labourers and traders. In the absence of benefits, formal employment contracts and state support, the “working poor”’ find themselves at the frontline of the economic fallout both in South Africa and globally. These are workers who are caught between the choice of starvation or facing the threat of the virus to sustain already precarious existences.

Alongside the informal sector, workers performing “essential services” in retail, service and care work are also putting their lives at risk in the name of care for fellow citizens. As has already been observed, self-isolation is a privilege and many can simply not afford to stay home. This is especially true in cities of the global South, defined by high and rising rates of informal economic activity and informal settlements.

In response, informal worker organisations globally have been calling for the provision of a “basic income” or similar grant to support the most vulnerable. While there have been indications from the presidency that a plan for the poor is being developed, no announcements have been made. The situation is now urgent, because without income security, food and basic necessities, people will not be able to remain safely at home. 

This economic struggle is compounded by the living conditions of those living in informal settlements and other inadequate housing conditions. As argued by Professor Diana Mitlin of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester: “The global spread of Covid-19 poses particular risks for the one billion people living in informal settlements in the global South.”

These settlements are a feature of southern urbanism and are defined materially by high levels of income insecurity, residential density, incrementally constructed neighbourhoods, peripheral location and poor service delivery. Social distancing is near impossible in crowded informal settlements. Dozens of developing countries have ordered lockdowns, but how can these be enforced when the choice is between life and livelihoods (which amounts to the same thing). As some have already suggested, if Covid-19 doesn’t kill them first, hunger will.

The South African government appears to recognise that people living in poorly serviced and crowded housing conditions are particularly vulnerable in the pandemic. In response, the plan announced by the Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu on 24 March, includes a process of “de-densification” and the provision of basic services, including water and sanitation, to identified sites with the greatest need. 

However, these measures are questionable at the very least. In the case of de-densification, concerns have been raised that the crisis may be abused to support mass evictions and that legitimate opposition will be crushed through militarised and authoritarian responses. The second point is that a more sustained response to poor housing conditions and service delivery has been a very long time coming, and we will pay a high price for this slow (in)action. The case of the Cape Town water crisis is particularly illustrative and I will discuss it briefly here.

Rethinking crisis response: Drawing lessons from the Cape Town water crisis

In work that I’ve carried out with my colleague and collaborator, Dr Nate Millington, we have cautioned against the uncritical celebration of Cape Town’s water crisis management approach. Instead, we have argued that the promoted demand-management interventions, that included the remaking of Free Basic Water (FBW) and a tariff restructuring, threaten to limit equitable access to water into the future. 

This is because the remaking of FBW resulted in the targeted provision of this instrument only to those registered as indigent, the associated conditional installation of water management devices (WMD), and tariff increases beginning at the lowest tariff step, that effectively increase the price of water for low-income consumers to make up for reduced consumption levels among high-volume users. In the context of a drought crisis, these interventions were designed to avoid a financial crisis for the municipality, ensuring that the city’s model of managing water remained financially solvent. We argue that these measures served to deepen the marketisation and valuation of water, and further intensify water inequity.

It is important to recognise that crisis is a general condition of South African water governance, resulting in sustained inequity. The threat of “Day Zero” was recognised and named a crisis and, in its resolution, acted to return water access to those already included. At the same time, the daily struggle experienced by residents of informal settlements, backyard dwellings and low-income communities, was neither acknowledged nor resolved. 

Instead, the crisis management response intensified the struggle for these residents of the city. Consequently, historical inequity merged with climate uncertainty to create forms of continuing and intensifying “eco-apartheid” (to use a phrase coined by climate scholar and activist, Daniel Aldana Cohen). Furthermore, the drought crisis was not limited to Cape Town and many communities continue to struggle with basic access.

An ethnographic study carried out in Beacon Valley, Cape Town, by a student on this project reveals how living with the WMD results in residents constantly weighing up various activities contributing to a physical and mental load. This takes the form of calculating usage, forgoing a bath or a cup of tea, and engaging in time and labour-intensive practices, including the use of rudimentary infrastructures for greywater collection and reuse. 

Furthermore, in households with free-flow connections, water debt is a constant source of anxiety, with the fear of eviction for those living in state housing. Here, the concern of the municipality to remain financially resilient is translating into household indebtedness or disconnection.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is no longer possible to deny or normalise the more sustained “Day Zero” of the marginalised. As lockdown drew closer, on 25 March 2020, about 40 people picketed outside the Civic Centre to highlight this struggle, demanding that the City of Cape Town immediately ensure that emergency water be made available to those living in informal settlements. 

The protesters are part of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network (CAN) and were met by Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste, Xanthea Limberg. According to reports from protesters, very little clarity was provided by Limberg regarding city plans to provide emergency water. However, by 26 March, the city delivered a first run of tankers to the most urgent informal settlements. The delivery was celebrated as progress influenced by the work and protest action of the Khayelitsha CAN as well as support and solidarity from other CANs across the city, pushing the municipality to respond quicker.

These shifts are both encouraging and vital. However, what the above discussion makes clear is that the current crisis is located within a historical process that has produced highly differentiated lines of access. Municipalities across the country have been very slow to act, and so as the virus spreads, water-stressed communities are going to be at far higher risk. 

These are not only people living in informal settlements, but also include backyard dwellers, and those in formal housing with WMDs or mounting debt, as well as rural communities. As suggested by Richard Poplak in Daily Maverick, referring to both housing and service delivery failures: “According to epidemiologists, the coronavirus pandemic was inevitable. Informal settlements were not. By failing to address the latter, the government has potentially massively compounded the former. All South Africans will end up worse off for it.”

In thinking about Covid-19, the pandemic has really brought home the existing inequalities in our society and threatens to intensify them further. As one commentator astutely suggested, disparities that have been growing more acute for decades, have become apocalyptic. 

What is critical now, is the emergence of a political response that elides the return to “normality”, as this signals a return to ongoing and intensified inequality. Instead, we require an incremental movement toward fostering a more just society.

The first urgent step is the advancement of a programme that provides sufficient income, food and services to all South Africans to allow them to stay home. As covered in this paper by Mazibuko Jara, this thinking is already underway among South African civil society groups that have developed a “Programme of Action in the time of Covid-19: A call for social solidarity in South Africa”. The National Command Council, and nation, would benefit from engagement with this programme. The next and longer-term task is to attend to the project of remaking our socio-natural relations along more just lines.

Finding hope during a pandemic

States globally are responding with economic packages to try to manage the economic fallout and curb the spread of Covid-19. Already we have witnessed political responses that are unprecedented. However, in most instances, these responses fail to account for the most vulnerable members of society and are also at risk of enabling authoritarian state practices. Furthermore, the economic imperative remains central, as strongly reflected in Donald Trump’s recent statements that he would like to see a return to business as usual by Easter. 

Despite these multiple ambiguities and uncertainties, what is clear is that Covid-19 has surfaced the fractures and distortions of a system that depends on increased connectivity in pursuit of profit as opposed to solidarity. At the same time, a pandemic connects us all, making us all vulnerable to contagion. There is an opportunity here to focus on solidarity for the sake of life. 

While the future is uncertain, I would like to suggest that in the darkness, there are glimmers of hope. One hopeful movement is the advancement of a Programme of Action by civil society groupings that I have already referred to above. Another is the emergence in cities across the world, of mutual aid groups concerned to focus on social solidarity in the time of physical distancing.

In Cape Town, the group Cape Town Together has been particularly instrumental in supporting the mushrooming of Community Action Networks (CANs) across the city, providing community support for the most vulnerable during isolation. 

In a city as unequal as Cape Town, the emergence of “CAN pairings”, connecting groups across neighbourhoods to share and distribute resources, really begins to open up possibilities for a more interconnected and just city. Whether such groups will survive beyond Covid-19 remains to be seen. 

Now more than ever, the intricate machinery – drawing on bodies, minds, infrastructure, institutions and a mobilisation of nature – necessary to keep the system moving, is visible, as is the fragility of it all. Perhaps nature is trying to teach us all a vital lesson about the importance of constructing alternative value systems that prioritise solidarity with people and planet over the commodification of everything. 

As argued by David Harvey, we have been socialised to behave as good neoliberal subjects, “but even good neoliberal subjects can see that there is something wrong with the way this pandemic is being responded to”. We are told that the solution is to “wash your hands”. But this singular focus on hygiene ignores the political ecology into which the virus is inserted. Instead, we should also be focusing on instituting the more fundamental conditions necessary to stop the spread of the virus, including ensuring income security, access to food and basic services, decent housing conditions, and a challenge to household indebtedness. DM

Dr Suraya Scheba is a lecturer in the Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department at the University of Cape Town. She is interested in examining the political ecology of the city, with a focus on infrastructural and service delivery inequalities in the context of contemporary capitalist society. She has done work on the politics of water access, urban informality and land occupations in the city.


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