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Covid-19, Class, Capitalism & China: Cruel post-colonial reality and a better world for all


Dr Phillip Dexter is the Chief Operating Officer of NIH. He writes in his personal capacity.

We cannot go back to business as normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained. If we do not address the socio-economic realities in South Africa once and for all, there will be another Covid-19 that destroys us all. There is a global reality too, that if all countries don’t find ways to enable people to live decent lives, the globe remains vulnerable.

To say the Covid-19 virus has shaken the world would be an understatement. Predictions of the end of the world being through nuclear war or climate change are a dime a dozen, but only a few, such as Bill Gates, saw a virus as being such a threat to humanity. As the REM song goes, “It’s the end of the world, as we know it”, but unlike in the song, we don’t feel fine.

While some of the criticisms of the South African government’s response to the virus have merit, the personal attacks on the President and similar responses take us nowhere. They lack substance. The same goes for conspiracy theories. What the virus has shown is that the real underlying issues of the political economy of our country and the developing world in general and of capitalist development – uneven, iniquitous and destructive – is a threat to everyone. Post-colonialism has offered countries such as our political freedom, but a continued relationship of dependency and exploitation with the developed world.

What has changed? Nothing, except for the fact that Covid-19 scares the rich and the powerful. That’s because it is the great leveller, a pandemic from which nobody is safe. It is like an airborne HIV. Prophylactics may mitigate the risk of infection, but there is no guarantee. But, Covid-19 has also has created opportunities for the future. The crisis that the virus has precipitated also presents us with strategic choices to make about what kind of world we want to live in. China, ironically the place where the virus was first identified as a contagion, has shown how choices made about the development of a country can be its best defence in times of crisis.

We have already seen the makings of our possible futures as scenes from around the world carried on the myriad forms of media we now encounter flood our minds. From the terrible tragedy of the lives lost – some nobody could have saved but the majority unnecessary – to the hope and solidarity displayed in the responses of so many to this challenge, the future has this new threat of contagion added to that of climate change, thermo-nuclear war or economic collapse.

It is clear that the use of technology and access to advanced healthcare is going to be vital for our future quality of life, as well as our survival. The current poverty, inequality and joblessness, as well as access to basic services such as housing, potable water, sanitation and energy that the majority of the worlds’ population experience, are being shown for what they are: necessities, not nice-to-haves.

The poet Ntsiki Mazwai recently unleashed a tirade against President Ramaphosa, accusing him of “running away” from the virus and the effects of it. As misguided, unjustified and unsubstantiated as her views are, she is of course entitled to them. But such criticisms – personal and opportunistic – don’t really assist us in understanding why we are in this crisis, or what we can do about it. Whatever the origins of the virus, the claims that one individual is responsible for the crisis, that the virus is man-made, or that it is Chinese in origin, are far-fetched, ignorant and fail to grasp the fact that this virus or any other could start anywhere. Wherever that origin is or will be, an airborne contagion is a threat to all of humanity.

But why are we so vulnerable to such a virus? The reasons are obvious; most people do not live in hygienic or sanitary conditions, capitalist and industrial-scale agriculture have many attendant risks, most of which are mitigated against using chemicals and drugs, most developing countries and even some developed ones do not have the healthcare system or infrastructure to protect us from such a virus and the fact that we have such extremes of wealth and poverty mean that unless things change, most people never will have these basic amenities. Therein lies the rub. For Covid-19 shows that no matter how wealthy one is, contact with anybody who has the virus – in a shop, at work, in a bar, walking down the street – can lead to your death.

While the virus may have affected middle-class people in larger numbers initially, probably due to their global mobility, there is no doubt that if the virus gets out of control in a developing country such as ours, the working class and the poor are bound to bear the brunt of the virus and its effects.

We see this already in terms of the all to necessary lockdown. Wage-earners and informal sector survivalists are being the hardest hit, as are small businesses and the self-employed. The lack of basic services, health infrastructure and a sustainable social safety net will all contribute to the poor and the most vulnerable feeling the effects of the virus most of all. The very idea of social distancing in informal settlements is actually quite difficult to imagine.

The features of postcolonialism and global capitalism in the 21st century are what create the fertile ground for such a virus to kill us all. Unlike HIV-Aids, or starvation, unless the entire population is locked down forever and the rich insulate themselves in bubbles, being served by robots, Covid-19, or 20, or 21, will find its way into all strata of society. It is the lack of food that drives people to eat food that is unsanitary or contaminated. It is the lack of water, sanitation and education that causes people to live in unhygienic circumstances. That is the lot of the multitude in the present.

The fact that the virus was first identified in China may be what saves us all from the virus. In the first instance, China has the social organisation, infrastructure and technology that enabled it to identify the virus, contain it and treat those infected. It also has the production capacity to manufacture what is needed to combat the virus and the social orientation that puts people before profit and relies on social solidarity to keep their nation intact.

Those who may disagree with what they regard as China’s authoritarianism should look at how many countries now, including our own, have suspended certain rights to fight the virus. The difference is that we don’t suspend anyone’s rights to fight poverty, inequality, unemployment, racism, etc as the Chinese do. This bears thinking about, because a society that puts the right of people to loot, profit and plunder at the expense of the majority has different kinds of freedom for different people. The fact that technology has played such a crucial role in the fight against the virus is also significant. It shows that if used the right way, technology can benefit us all. Used selfishly, for the narrow pursuit of profit, makes technology as much a part of oppression as any other thing.

We, as the Chinese have done and many countries are now following our President’s lead, will have to use short-term measures such as the lockdown, but in addition, mass testing and the isolation of infected individuals. In the medium term, temporary laboratories, hospitals and mobile units will also be critical. But in the long term, unless we address the conditions people live in, the poor social services they get and the lack of any opportunity to work, own a business – in short, to live a decent life – there will be another Covid-19 that destroys us all.

Similarly, unless all countries or regions have the production capability to manufacture what is needed for people to live decent lives, this or another crisis will leave countries vulnerable. Ultimately, it is the lack of social solidarity that makes our country so vulnerable to all the social ills we endure; poverty, violence, inequality, crime and disease.

The most important thing once we overcome this virus is to keep the momentum built around it to address all our challenges in the same way, whether it be the lack of power generation, joblessness or violence against women and children. The response to Covid-19, led so ably by the President and our Minister of Health and of all those in government, business, labour and civil society in general that have stepped up, will bring us through this terrible time. The test on us as a people will be what we do afterwards. If we go back to “business as usual” and treat our abnormal society as it were immune to change, we will all have proved to be nothing but self-serving liars. DM


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