Passengers wearing masks line up as they wait to check in at Barcelona airport, Spain. Picture: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Passengers wearing masks line up as they wait to check in at Barcelona airport, Spain. Picture: Emilio Morenatti/AP

Coronavirus outbreak demands a bold response from government

By Phakamile Hlubi-Majola Time of article published Mar 14, 2020

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As expected, the coronavirus has unfortunately arrived in South Africa and the numbers  of infected people are rapidly increasing day by day. It is likely that that this will increase  significantly over the next few days and weeks.

The virus manifests itself through symptoms similar to the flu such as high fever, sore  throat, muscle ache, fatigue and a dry cough. It broke out in Wuhan in China in  December last year, and so far over eighty thousand people in that country have been  infected, and more than three thousand people have died from the illness. 

The good  news is that over sixty thousand people have recovered from the disease and so far  approximately sixteen thousand active infections remain. 

But the epicenter of the  disease has spread from China to other parts of the world including to Italy, where the  government of that country has announced a total shut down, closing schools,  cancelling sporting events, banning public gatherings and it has even taken the drastic  step of closing its borders and placing itself under isolation in order to prevent the  disease from spreading even further.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a global pandemic because  governments aren’t working quickly and aggressively enough to stop the disease from  spreading. Over one hundred and twenty thousand people around the world are  infected and counting. So far it seems the virus has a mortality rate of 3.4%, far more  than that of the flu which is approximately 0.1%. It is also more severe and not easy to  treat because we are still learning about it.

Unlike the flu, people have not yet built up an  immunity to Covid-19.

The (WHO) has also stated that the best form of treatment for the virus is self-isolation  or quarantine and has recommended that if a person fears they have been infected,  they should stay away from social interaction, in order to limit the disease from  spreading. 

This means that one of the best ways to prevent and limit the spread of the  virus is to encourage workers to take sick leave immediately and self-isolate should they  exhibit the symptoms of the viral infection. 

This strategy has been adopted by the  Chinese government which took the unusual step of placing more than 50 million people  on mandatory quarantine in order to curtail and control the virus. Many factories and  workplaces were closed and workers have been forced to stay at home.

If the infection spreads beyond the current figures in South Africa, the working class will  be the most affected, as is the case in many Western countries such as the US, where  low-wage workers are disproportionally affected by the coronavirus and efforts to curb it. 

The effects on workers in South Africa will not be dissimilar. Not only do many low-wage  workers work with the public, where the possibility of coming into contact with the virus  may be high, they also lack basic rights in the workplace. That’s a risk to workers and to  the public in general. Workers can’t take measures to keep themselves healthy so  members of the public have to interact with people who can’t afford to call in sick. 

For  many workers who earn hourly wages or workers on contract, sick leave is not an  option. Staying away from work literally means sacrificing an income, which is not an  option which they can afford. So they are often forced to work while sick, thus  increasing the risk of infection. This is made worse by the lack of access to free or  affordable quality health care.

One of the most effective ways to prevent infection is to wash your hands thoroughly  and repeatedly throughout the day and to maintain good hygiene. But for this to be  possible one has to have access to water and good sanitation systems. This is not the  case for the working class majority and the poor of our country. 

More than half the  population lives in abject poverty – forced to live in tiny shacks often without electricity,  water or basic sanitation services, therefore maintaining good hygiene under such  circumstances is extremely difficult. Isolation is highly recommended as one of the  methods to prevent spreading the infection, but how does one isolate oneself in a shack  where your entire family sleeps and eats in a single room? The Capitalist government  has failed to provide our communities with decent housing, clean water and sanitation.

Apartheid has been removed in the statute books but the economy remains largely  untransformed and racist. The working class is grossly exploited with low wages and  poor working conditions which means, that few will be able to afford the alcohol based  sanitation cleansers to keep themselves free of infection.

In South Africa medical aid is a privilege which the majority cannot afford. 

The working  class and the poor are forced to depend on public hospitals which are drastically under- funded and under resourced. Tests for coronavirus are now available to the public  through private testing labs but at a cost of R1000 – R1400 each. This is hardly  affordable for the working poor, who in some cases earn as little as R11 per hour. 

The coronavirus outbreak is highlighting once again the need for free quality national  health care for all. The current dual health system benefits the elite, where the  resources are disproportionally channeled to the minority who are lucky enough to be  able to access private health care through medical aid. 

The government of the day has  proposed an ambitious National Health Insurance (NHI) as the solution to the inequity  that exists in the health system. However, the proposed NHI is problematic because it  still allows for the dual healthcare system to persist, with the private sector set to  continue to profit, instead of one system where the resources are equitably spread for  the benefit of all South Africans for free.

The outbreak is laying bare the weaknesses of the capitalist system and its inability to  adequately respond to and eradicate entrenched inequality and poverty. Instead it has  succeeded in enriching the mostly white capitalist elite, who own and control an  inordinately large part of the economy.

To counter this the government must boldly enact emergency legislation to protect  workers and their families during the pandemic and in its aftermath. For example, Italy  recognized the need to cushion its society against the negative economic impact of the  outbreak, admittedly after a slow initial response. 

The Italian Deputy Prime Minister  Laura Castelli announced this week that mortgage payments will be suspended across  the country ‘as part of measures to soften the economic blow of coronavirus for  individuals and households’, and the banking lobby confirmed that lenders would offer  ‘debt holidays’ to small firms and families’.

According to research conducted by the Harvard Business Review 90% of Chinese  employers paid employee salaries and benefits in full during the mandatory quarantine.  This had the effect of lessening the outbreaks impact on the Chinese economy. 

Our government could take similar measures. 

The Reserve Bank should pro-actively cut  interest rates and inject money into the economy in order to stimulate activity. This will  be far more proactive than the lethargic conservatism that characterised the bank’s  response to the 2008 financial crisis. The fact that the economy never fully recovered  from the crisis is because of the blunders of the ruling class post 2008, and it is proof of  the failure of neo-liberal economics.

The government should also consider taking some of the following immediate measures  to cushion the poor and the working class:
  1. Free food parcels for households under quarantine and self-isolation
  2. Ensure that all employers implement the WHO guidelines for protecting workplaces from Covid-19, and have stringent punitive measures for those who fail to do so.
  3. Ensure that all employers maintain the salaries and benefits of workers during mandatory quarantine and furloughs.
  4. A moratorium on rent and mortgage payments.
  5. Free coronavirus testing and treatment.
  6. Looking into the role that the Unemployment Insurance Fund can play to ease the burden on the working class and the poor.
The announcement by the WHO means that it cannot be business as usual. This is a  crisis which demands an extraordinary response. 

These kinds of interventions are  necessary in order to ensure that we curb and treat infections and limit the negative  impact of the pandemic on the economy and society at large.

* Phakamile Hlubi-Majola is the National Spokesperson for the National Union of  Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and a former broadcast journalist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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