“Incompetent and heartless governments put the hammer down on society without any planning or concern for those with few resources. It is one thing for the elite or the middle class to stay at home, work using the Internet, and muddle through teaching their children from home; it is another for the billions of migrant labourers and day labourers, people who live hand to mouth, and people who have no homes. Lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing – these words mean nothing for the billions of people who work hard each day to socially reproduce the world and to produce the millions of commodities; they have not benefited from their work, but they have certainly enriched the few who are now hiding with their wealth behind their curtains, afraid of the reality that made them rich.”
So says Vijay Prashad in the weekly newsletter of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
South Africa’s ANC government has been no exception to the manner in which they’ve responded to the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s as if they are oblivious to their over two decades of misrule, mismanagement and corruption facilitated by state power and its extremely conservative neoliberal economic policies. They responded late to the unfolding pandemic and finally took the necessary drastic step of declaring the country in a state of lockdown under the state of National Disaster provision. However, in doing so, its main concerns were the interests of the business community of local and foreign capitalists, with undertakings to subsidise companies and wages. Belatedly and more than a week into the lockdown it made concessions to the informal sector of street vendors and others. However, millions of South Africa’s unemployed, homeless and survivalist unemployed were not factored in at all for support from the state. Considerations for the poor and those who rely on social grants were neglected and at times dysfunctional causing poor recipients to return to unsafe SASSA pay-points. If anything, the pandemic has been the proverbial chickens coming home to roost with it exacerbating and brazenly exposing inequalities forced the government to pay attention to critical social issues that it has neglected for over two decades, such as access to clean water and de-densification of informal settlements etc. As we publish, many of our public hospitals and clinics still do not have all the required equipment such as respirators and materials to care for COVID-19 victims, nor the necessary protective clothing for healthcare workers.
Like many left analysts have forewarned, during major crises like wars and pandemics, the ruling class rapidly takes advantage to maximise its gains during and after. Already we saw the supermarkets and wholesalers capitalise on middle-class’ hoarding by pushing up prices while globally major pharmaceutical companies are racing against time and each other to be the first to produce a vaccine against COVID-19. We also note how the government has relaxed regulations in healthcare to enable private companies to profit more while the environmental pollution legislation for toxic sulphur dioxide emissions by SA’s mineral-industrial complex’s companies like SASOL, will be allowed to pollute more and further cause asthma and related lung disease as well as cancer for members of communities who live close to these emitters of poison.
Another ministry reinforced the government’s xenophobia by declaring that only SA owned spaza shops in townships would be allowed to operate during the lockdown. Moreover, with ratings agency Moody’s downgrade of South Africa to “Junk” status, Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, was said to be in a celebratory mood after getting the go ahead from the President with “structural reforms” a euphemistic technical term for more reduction in social spending and cuts in the public service, i.e. more attacks on the living standards of the working class and poor in a country where up to 50% of the population is unemployed or underemployed and inequality is the highest in the world.
The SA government, unlike others in the world like Britain, Italy and Spain that have taken drastic measures to alleviate the effects of the pandemic on the general population, like nationalising private healthcare and guaranteed income for everyone during their lockdowns, the SA government has not adopted any extraordinary measures that will provide real relief to the poor. Instead the poorest and marginalised have been forced to endure harassment and violence from the armed forces to respect the lockdown and “social distancing”. The lockdown in SA entered its second week and already the signs are there that the situation is much worse than initially assumed with the statistics of tests results lagging behind by up to two weeks. With SA’s poor public health system, the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions and worsening general conditions of poverty with limited access to income and food, SA’s working class and poor is in for a nightmare and the country a social catastrophe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the weakness and limitations of our working class organisations and supportive NGO’s, after three decades of political degeneration and organisational decline. Moreover, the action that’s key for countering COVID-19, physical distancing and isolation, has by itself made it extremely difficult and nigh impossible for galvanising those worst affected into mass action and resistance. If anything it has proven that no amount of comfortable social media activism will achieve the necessary that will get us closer to a just and equal society. Addressing our weaknesses in the post-COVID-19 period will be our major challenge and task.
This week’s articles and video production that follow illustrate all of the above.
WWMP Editorial Team