WATCH: Will Covid-19 soon become a poor man's burden?
PRETORIA – At end of the first day of South Africa’s 21-day lockdown in reaction to the novel coronavirus virus, there was outrage that many people in the country’s poorer areas did not heed the call that they must stay at home in order to reduce infections. Individuals and the media expressed their displeasure and encouraged the police and soldiers to use their power to bring delinquency to an end.
What is not clear though Is whether the concern is for the people themselves or it is the usual response from privileged classes that the poor will spread the disease. If this is not guarded, the poor and poverty are going to be scapegoats should the situation get out of control. And as it is the case with everything else, people in Africa will bear the brunt. It is coming!
At the moment the coronavirus crisis affects all countries of the world irrespective of their political power and wealth. Strategies that accompany the lockdown such as social distancing and "washing hands" appear inconsistent with socioeconomic conditions in many countries. People like UK prime minister Boris Johnson, Botswana president Mokgweetsi Masisi and ACDP’s Kenneth Meshoe can self-isolate, but in reality, the majority of people in the world simply cannot.
Social conditions make it impossible for different strategies to work in different settings. Also, it is quite interesting that township people are seen as non-compilers when the Covid-19 epicentres are Sandton and Bedfordview, and not Mamelodi or Alexandra. Therefore, the lockdown should have been more focused on those areas to protect the poor. But no single soldier or policeman is deployed in affluent suburbs where the virus has the potential to spread from. Probably blaming the poor for not staying home is a bit unfair.
The hypocrisy of the privileged is quickly becoming rather obvious. The coronavirus has hit hard the richest parts of the world rather than the developing world which will soon receive exactly the same treatment as the poor in South Africa. Nonetheless, even in established countries such as the United States where infections are spiralling at lightning pace, the spread of the virus exposes internal weaknesses in a society which always prides itself as protectors of democracy and personal freedoms. The rich versus poor divide rears its ugly head as the US struggles to contain the disease. Access to healthcare is again a subject that is creating so much discomfort as fears grow that the world’s leading country could fail to contain the spread of the disease. The known cases surged past 100 000, which makes the US above both Italy and China.
The US does not have a uniform health system and has no universal health care coverage as in Europe. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Sarah L Collins and David Blumenthal claim that up to 80 million people in the US are either uninsured or under-insured. For years the healthcare debate has very much polarised the American society. Democrats such as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have pushed for universal healthcare. Besides inequality and other known problems such as racial inequality, America also has enormous social problems, crime and poverty. But it looks like a privatised healthcare system could challenge American resilience more than any other event in its 243-year history.
The story of America is as relevant for Africa as it is for many countries in the world who continue to neglect their duty to provide for their citizens. The neoliberal economic agenda of the past thirty years has stratified communities, societies and countries into two very large distinct groups. The first group consists of those who hold all the global wealth and also enjoy the highest living standards. These can be countries in Europe and North America as well as some in Asia. The second group entails those who have to live on basically nothing and have no access to basic rights like healthcare, education, jobs and justice.
But the story is not as simple as that. Within the countries that are categorised as either wealthy or poor, the extremely rich constitute a small percentage in relation to the rest of the population. Even in Zimbabwe and Haiti with all their problems, there is a small group that enjoys privileges and lifestyle comparable to the high end of the Swedish or Swiss society. It is this group of wealthy people and its middle-class associates who would like to make the Covid-19 a burden to the poor at all cost. However, the scales thus far are still tilted towards the rich as proud drivers of globalisation. In South Africa, infections exceeded 1 000 as the country reached Stage 4 (widespread community transmission), as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) categories. The concern that the virus could decimate the poor is growing each day.
Inequalities within and among countries point to the need for a rethink in how wealth is distributed in the world. With the coronavirus attacking the world, it needs to be emphasised that issues of public health, social stability and economic well-being are interconnected, and, therefore, impossible to separate. Meaning, it is not understandable how many countries expect to deal effectively with the Covid-19 when they long-neglected universal welfare of people. Any effort to contain the spread of the disease needs to cognizant of the interdependency between various developmental factors. South Africa as one of the countries with the highest infections in Africa at over a thousand, its triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality is certainly coming to haunt it.
The past 26 years after the demise of apartheid have seen less seriousness about dealing with problems facing mainly the black majority. A story that has replayed itself over the past decades and centuries is that poverty creates ideal conditions for the spread of contagion. As matters stand, around 84 percent of the population have no medical aid. American historian and demographer Robert Jackson comments: “The rate of infection may be high in the townships, and inadequate access to medical care may contribute to higher mortality rates. One of the advances of ‘modern’ western medicine at the end of the 19th century was the understanding that adequate care of the sick, even when there are no effective vaccines, can improve survival rates. Past practices such as bloodletting did the exact opposite, weakened the immunological system.”
Jackson continues to point: “Although figures on the number of people infected and the number of deaths ARSI released daily, we will not know the full extent of the outbreak until after running its course.” Zimbabwe has closed its borders and Kenya contemplates following soon. The main problem emanating from lockdowns in developing countries is that they are not synced with their problematic socio-economic realities. Journalist Margaret Njugunah argues that a large percentage of workers in the Kenyan economy is in the informal sector, which implies that a lockdown could not be sustained without a stimulus package worth millions of dollars. People live also in squalor and have no basics that would qualify their residences as homes. In a shack or township shanty, the only noble thing you can do is to sleep but spending hours indoors is almost impossible.
Also, people are survivalists without jobs or stable incomes – many people can barely support themselves beyond a day. They, therefore, need to hustle on a daily basis to find food. With all economic activity shut, there are serious challenges in containing the people. The picture that is also emerging in the South African lockdown is that many workers do the types of jobs that cannot be done at home, or they have no jobs at all in a country with 29.1 percent unemployment. Without money, it means that the next 10 to 15 days of the lockdown will be crucial. Already the police clashed with scores of people in Hillbrow who refused to vacate the streets.
As grim the situation is in many countries in the continent there could be major lessons learned and Africa could potentially be a different place after the ongoing crisis. For once, it is hoped that coronavirus can become a catalyst for change in Africa. Firstly, should the contagious virus attack millions it will expose the bad state the continent is in when it comes to looking after its population. It is likely that it will take a disaster of the largest magnitude to force all African leaders to understand what they were supposed to have done all along, which is improving the lives of people. The gap between leadership and ordinary citizens grows each day and nobody questions how politicians accumulate their wealth in some of the places that are ranked very low in terms of poverty, human development and other indices.
Secondly, the urgency created by the quickly increasing numbers of people with coronavirus necessitated sharper responses from many governments across the continent. Countries like South Africa, Rwanda, eSwatini and Zimbabwe have sealed their borders and asked people to stay at home. Unlike other countries though there are major stimulus economic packages to talk about. But the good coming out of the crisis is that for the first time the people see the usually indifferent and uncaring governments in a haste, which is a sign that they could act swiftly when asked to. The onus, however, is on them to decide what future they want.
What many people should be careful of not doing is to overburden the poor in their push to deal with the spread of the virus. People are suddenly expected to behave or listen to rules governing the lockdown. As dangerous as the situation can be, it is unlikely that they will have propensity to listen to anyone. These are people whom have generally been neglected, who die from hunger, poverty, crime, diseases and economic exclusion. They will defy any forceful attempt to make them to co-operate since they are surprised at why they have a centre of focus. They have grown not to trust anyone in their daily struggles to survive.
The poor are probably asking each other: Why does everyone suddenly care about us now?
Siya yi banga le economy.
Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.