File picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
File picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Now is the time to rekindle the spirit of solidarity

By Xola Pakati Time of article published Mar 25, 2020

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As the coronavirus ravages the world with infections, fatalities and the necessary but costly protective measures the world has had to impose on itself, political factors of historical and contemporary significance are coming into bold expression.

So far, at least two European leaders have invoked memories and imageries of the second World War. Over the past weekend, Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, described his country’s battle with the virus outbreak as the “greatest challenge since World War II.” 

The week before, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel remarked: "Since German unification, no, since World War II, there has been no greater challenge to our country that depends so much on us acting together in solidarity.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has also called on our nation to act in support of one another and set up a solidarity fund to help those who will be most affected by the 21-day lockdown. 

While WWII killed 50 million people and devastated the world economy, Covid-19 is thankfully not yet near that dreadful magnitude. Nevertheless, rising infections and fatalities, its impact on health systems, economies and the rhythm of social life, leave little doubt of its potential to upend nearly every facet of human society.

Correct as they are, calls for solidarity sharply contrast with the fact that we live in an era of human history in which it is in permanent antagonism with the fetish for the self above all else.  

This did not happen of its own volition. The late British-American historian, Tony Judt, lamented as much in his 2010 book, ‘Ill Fares the Land’: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

As a result, wrote Judt: “We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.” 

The 30 years to which Judt refers began with the ideological and all-round ascendance of Reaganite-Thatcherism in the 1980s and took firm roots after the fall of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. 

“The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on living like this.”

Historians, sociologists and political scientists see more than the actual number of doctors, nurses and other resources extended to the world, in particular Covid-19 hardest-hit Italy, by China, Russia and Cuba. For practitioners in these disciplines, it is not insignificant that 20th-century political trajectories of these three countries were ideologically poles apart from Reaganite-Thatcherism.

In his one-volume history of WWII: ‘Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945,’ the British historian Max Hastings wrote that the Red Army was "the main engine of Nazism's destruction." In the process, the Soviet Union would pay “the entire 'butcher's bill'” in the defeat of Nazism by “accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance."  

Broadly speaking, and of course, considering contemporary specificities, it is not inconceivable to the rank and file as to men and women of affairs, that history might appear at replay when China, Russia and Cuba take active steps to save humanity from the coronavirus, which threatens to decimate humanity in the 21st century as the Nazi political virus did in the 20th century.

Similarly apparent are shifts between (core) Western European ‘natural affinities’ and the Eastern European hinterland of post-1989 euphoric add-ons encouraged by the United States and British governments.  

The recent firm oaths by Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, that suggested Serbia’s version of a “Look-East” foreign policy while at the same time serving as a candidate-member of the European Union is not in the least-bit geopolitically insignificant. How this will pan out will be a function of the politics of the post-Covid-19 world.  

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, US media opinion seems unanimous in its objection to the Donald Trump Administration’s attempt to define the coronavirus in anti-Chinese racial undertones. The indivisibility of the struggle against international racism to the cause of global social justice obliges all humanity to condemn the racial, ethnic and xenophobic weaponisation of disease.  

As with other issues on which he is misinterpreted as an outlier rather than an institutional representative, it might be tempting to see Trump’s attempts at racialising the virus and the disease as yet another aberration. But what if it is part of the considerations of a post-Covid-19 world order in which the stereotyped are weakened and beaten into line to concede on such issues as:

  • racial profiling and the free movement of peoples within and across borders;
  • demands for an equitable and developmental global trade regime underpinned by a just and equitable global economic order, and;
  • the democratisation and liberation of scientific knowledge from the bondage of intellectual property legal regimes?

Undoubtedly, the marketplace of ideas will soon be awash with post-Covid-19 global political and economic governance policy offerings from a host of quarters. In last Friday’s edition of the Financial Times, author Yuval Noa Harari postulated that current decisions on Covid-19 “will shape not just our healthcare systems, but also our econom[ies], politics and culture.”  

Recently, the Australian asset management company, Macquarie Wealth Management, issued a report in which it said that “conventional capitalism is dying” and the world is headed for “something that will be closer to a version of communism”. The issue is, of course, not one of one “ism” versus another but how best to organise the world in ways that deliver social justice for all.

The menacing impact of the virus should spur South Africa, Africa and the Global South to bring our intellectual labours to bear in fashioning the post-Covid-19 global order. For those who identify themselves as progressive political actors, the pursuit of human solidarity at home and beyond, that is to say, the promotion of the idea that we are and should be one another’s keepers, should be at the epicentre of such pursuits.

As the current Chair of the African Union, South Africa is obliged to inspire and be inspired by the collective insights and wisdom of the continent and the world in the current battle against Covid-19. 

True solidarity will emerge out of an engaged local and international progressive movement which practices what it proselytises in a sustained battle of ideas that are unavoidably diametrically opposed to the entrenched materialistic and selfish values of neo-liberal Reaganite-Thatcherism.  

* Xola Pakati is Executive Mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality and Chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.

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

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