Covid-19

Maverick Citizen: Newsletter Editorial

April is the Cruellest Month: Can we begin to breed lilacs of equality in a dead land?

April is the Cruellest Month: Can we begin to breed lilacs of equality in a dead land?
Residents of Masiphumelele, Cape Town, walk among shacks. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

During lockdown, I work from a room on top of a hill. I have two views. One is outward, over the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, above an urban forest and the rooftops of spacious and secure homes. The pollution has lifted and the vista extends all the way to the Magaliesberg mountains whose outlines are crisp and clear. There’s a calmness in the air. Clouds dance, form playful shapes, undisturbed by perpetual air traffic and the heat generated by the busy city.

The people under my microscope are locked down, practicing civil obedience in ample gardens; sometimes the sounds of children’s laughter rises.

My other view is inwards, into the screen of my iPhone, drawn to a ceaseless stream of WhatsApp messages whose every ping, 24/7, adds to anxiety. Most of those messages come from the C-19 People’s Coalition, church groups, friends, members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The world they offer a view of is in turmoil. It cries out about how to get food to hungry children; it tells stories of rape and violence; it sends pictures of evictions and “temporary” camps for the homeless, like Strandfontein in Cape Town, that risk turning into concentration camps.

Children still laugh; children always find cause to laugh, even with the ache of hunger in their bellies. But, from this view, you can feel the rising anxiety and fear.

The growing hunger is of particular concern. As is the inadequacy of measures agreed (or not agreed) to stem it. Unfortunately, we don’t count cases of hunger like Covid-19 tests, or do contact tracing. Yet it’s just as deadly. This is a view extracted directly from one message:

“Today we were having our briefing meetings and suddenly about 100 community members came to my home asking me to help them with some food. Some were very angry. I was so scared but luckily I managed to address them. I think if something is not going to be done very soon things are going to turn ugly at Thembelihle.”

You may not have been there, but imagine it. Then multiply it by 10,000 (at least).

It’s hard to believe that these two views are of one world, but they are. They capture the failures of democratic South Africa.

Yet, we are not unique.

The sad fact is that all over the world it is such inequalities that predispose the most economically vulnerable to rape by epidemic. Inequality is coming to dominate a lot of the analysis of Covid-19.

This view is documented even in establishment journals like the New York Times. Britain’s Financial Times, in an unusual weighty statement by The Editorial Board, went as far as to declare, “Virus Lays Bare the Frailty of the Social Contract: Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all.”

Radical reforms are indeed needed to tackle inequality.

What else do you see?

In South Africa, our complaint is not that many of the people in comfortable homes have turned their backs on the poor. In fact the opposite. There are a multitude of acts of individual generosity.

Through the mediums of WhatsApp, Zoom and TV news we are witness to unprecedented displays of solidarity and humanity. There is a resurgence of community organisation, ingenuity, imagination. This is evident in stories of Community Action Networks (CANs), and the examples set by movements like Cape Town Together. It seems many better-off people have come to realise that, at least during the lockdown and period of uncertainty, we are in this together.

Class and race divides are being (temporarily?) bridged.

Which is not to say there’s not also plenty of meanness around.

As I look into my iPhone I see multiple reports of food parcels being used to reward political influence. The venality of the Zuma era is not over yet.

I see a hungry Zimbabwean man being denied food because he didn’t have a South African identity document. In Gauteng 55 schools have been vandalised. Municipalities in Ethekwini and Cape Town have used Covid-19 as an opportunity for retribution against social movements they don’t like.

I see a complaint that Clicks, a big pharmacy chain, has used its muscle and market power to buy up limited stocks of flu vaccine in order to meet the demands of suburbia and private doctors, leaving independent community pharmacies without stock to meet the needs of the more vulnerable. In the words of one pharmacist: “We had to use less than half the vaccines we ordered to help frontline staff, pregnant women and did not even get to cover the over-65-year-olds we normally provide care to.”

I see a report in which the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) has documented a spate of unfair labour practices by employers. Vodacom and Cell C have delayed zero-rating websites that provide digital learning services so that learners from poor and working class families can continue their education during lockdown.

So there’s beauty and barbarity; good, bad and ugly; ecstasy and agony.

As pointed out by Salim Abdool Karim, in an unprecedented lesson to the nation on Covid-19 epidemiology, we are only at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. That’s why it’s important to call out these behaviours. But not only from my editorial ivory tower. We need peer pressure from neighbours, comrades, churches, business people and family members. Covid-19 is an era-defining crisis. Many outcomes are possible and dog-eat-dog — if that is what you want — can be very ugly.

You might end up being eaten.

Finally, as we are yet to go into the eye of the storm, it may seem premature to talk about the post-Covid reconstruction particularly as public health experts are starting to think that the Covid crisis could last several years, not several months. Nonetheless, how the political and economic system responds (“reboots” seems to be the word in fashion) is something on many people’s minds — particularly poor people who are once again being asked to abide by a contract that has long been broken.

So, what are the lessons so far?

It was a sick irony (and one lost on him) to hear Boris Johnson say: “The NHS has saved my life. No question.” From as far back as the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration, the World Health Organisation and activists worldwide have been fighting a losing battle on the need for strong public health systems, modelled on the British National Health Service. By all accounts it is the weakness of public health systems, starved of resources at every level of care, that has left countries unprepared (as memorably pointed out by Barack Obama in 2014) and vulnerable.

South Africa is no exception. There is as much irony in our turn to 28,000 Community Health Workers (CHWs) to be the frontline of screening and testing as Johnson’s praise of the NHS. CHWs are the most exploited and least respected of our health workforce, some of them having had to go to court to win their meagre monthly wage of R3,500.

Can we take it as a given that the investments that must now be directed into public health will be sustained after this crisis? Will the 2020 budget for health, which has cut spending in vital areas, be revised? Will we still need to argue over the obligations that accrue for the constitutional right of “everyone to have access to health care services”?

Secondly, let’s now accept that the Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, Milton Friedman et al experiment with our planetary health and well-being has failed drastically. That neo-liberal economics that have handed all power to markets has been a disaster for humanity. This is no longer just a conclusion of the far left, but of most mainstream economists and economic commentators. In fact, anyone not suffering from denialism.

Capitalist economics has failed; let’s prepare to move beyond it.

If SARS-CoV-2 is going to be with us for years we need to start building a better society, even while we are at war with the virus. This is not Utopian. Every major social conflagration of the last century (except the 2008 financial crisis) has led to a reboot. We need one now!

For example, reports are that Amsterdam will embrace what Oxford economist Kate Raworth has called “doughnut economics” (economies that operate with respect for human rights and planetary boundaries) in its reconstruction.

However, to do this, we don’t actually need to create new rules or risk new social experiments by ideologues. After World War II, the UN started to build an international legal framework based on rule of law and universal human rights. In many parts of the world we were making good progress until 30 years ago. This framework prioritises human dignity and equality and incorporates it into law. A recent statement by the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, for example, set out clearly the economic measures states who have ratified international human rights treaties (that us, folks) are obliged to follow in the response to Covid-19.

It’s this view of the world that Trump, Putin, Modi, Bolsanaro, and the 1% they act as sword and shield for, want to overthrow. And it’s this order, already entrenched in our social justice-anchored Constitution, that President Cyril Ramaphosa must be seen to follow as we go into battle with another epidemic. DM/MC

Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen.

Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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