International Socialist Tendency (Africa) Statement on the Coronavirus Pandemic

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IST [AFRICA] STATEMENT ON THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

  1. The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is generally presented as a “natural disaster”. But this is quite untrue. This is a capitalist pandemic. There have been various virus outbreaks (SARS, MERS, H5N1, H1N1, Ebola) in the past. These developed mainly through two pathways both driven by capitalist accumulation of profits. Firstly, the industrialization of agriculture, more specifically, the mass production of animals in limited space, promoted selection and spread of viruses and their host-to-host transmission to humans. The flu-viruses H1N1 and H5N1 came from industrial pig and chicken farming, respectively, and MERS emerged from industrial camel trade. Secondly, the commodification of nature and wilderness gave also rise to viruses. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was driven substantially by a land-grab of big companies for the production of palm oil. The loss of natural habitat forced bats to seek shelter in palm plantations and brought their Ebolavirus hosting reservoirs into contact with humans. It is a good example of what Marx called the “irreparable rift” created by capitalist agriculture and consequent destruction of nature driving climate change.
  2. Governments’ responses to the pandemic have been pathetically inefficient and self-serving. It reflects the priorities of capital, not the ordinary people. In the advanced capitalist economies, neoliberal austerity has meant minimal emergency planning and healthcare systems. Whilst in Africa this has resulted in the stripping to the bone of already weak public healthcare systems already confronted by a general disease burden higher than in the West. (e.g. HIV, TB, Malaria). Of the over 32 million deaths due to the AIDS pandemic, 70% were from Africa, and over 400 000 die from malaria in Africa, 80% of the global total. Knowing that health facilities are utterly inadequate, governments were quick to implement lockdowns. But these measures without adequate provision of livelihoods, especially for the large informal sector that dominates most African economies, have caused hunger and despair for large parts of the African population. Although the spread and deaths due to the epidemic in Africa have been much lower than in the advanced capitalist countries, they are growing, exposing the myths about the disease not affecting Africans. WHO has warned that Africa is particularly vulnerable because of its already weak healthcare systems and economies.
  3. The pandemic is also precipitating a major global economic recession. In Africa, the impact of this crisis will be much greater than the Great Recession of 2008-9. Such crises are inbuilt into the capitalist system which promotes accumulation, relentless competition, overproduction and a general tendency fall in profits. For example, South-Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe were in recession and Nigeria was already heading towards recession even before the Coronavirus crisis. Lockdowns inevitably disrupt production – the closure of the Chinese economy at the beginning of the year has been rippling through global supply chains, as China is a global supplier of cheap labour and goods. The spread of the pandemic is shutting down sectors in the rest of the world.

In Africa, income support grants to precarious workers, the informal sector and the poor would have been very important. Instead, government in conjunction with private companies have resorted to the distribution of food parcels. This, in itself has created another value chain for middlemen/women and tenderpreneurs directly profiteering from the crisis. It has also opened doors to corruption and political campaigning for those in control of government procurement processes. Once again, the priority has been to defend profits, not the lives and livelihoods of ordinary working people.

  1. Governments frequently use the rhetoric of war in the face of the pandemic and appeal to a supposedly shared national interest. But the burden of the crisis is falling on the backs of workers. Healthcare workers are often being forced to risk their lives without the proper personal protective equipment. While some groups of workers are able to work online from home, large numbers especially of manual workers are being forced to carry on working, often more intensively and on a larger scale, usually in conditions where it is impossible to practice social distancing – in farms and factories, supermarkets and pharmacies, warehouses, delivery vans and lorries, refuse trucks, buses and trains. Workers in the informal sector, who dominate the urban population in large parts of the global South, are badly hit by lockdowns, which cut off their income instantaneously, as we have seen with Zimbabwean migrant workers from Botswana and South Africa. Covid-19 has provided a stark reminder that the world of 21st globalized capitalism still runs on labour – workers are now even more exposed to new dangers and face increase job insecurity from retrenchments.
  2.  In self-defence, the system has resorted to the tried-and-tested ideological mechanism of divide-and-rule. Trump’s insistence on talking about “the Chinese virus” has legitimized a myriad of racist attacks and insults directed at East Asian people. Migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable, as has been shown in official borders patrolled by soldiers at Botswana/Zimbabwean border. States are busy arming themselves with extra repressive powers, including suppressing the right to strike, which they will be loath to surrender when the immediate crisis is over. The blame game between the United States and China and the paralysis within the European Union will deepen inter-imperialist rivalries. As usual the Global South will be a collateral damage in a geopolitical tussle between contesting superpowers.
  3. The coronavirus crisis, in other words, arises from conditions created by the contemporary forms of capital accumulation and its consequences are mediated through the class antagonism and inter-capitalist competition that constitutes capitalist society. Leaders of many official opposition parties have fallen in with the government’s calls for national unity echoing official policy and welcoming the measures to prop up the economy. Even though these are designed to defend profits, not lives. There has been some tentative responses from sections of working people on the continent. Some trade unions have been very outspoken and clear in rejecting the bosses’ conditions, for example, the Botswana Nurses’ Union (BNU) and the Botswana Land Boards, Local Authorities and Health Workers Union (BLLAHWU) and the South-African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU). In some instances, workers have taken action on their own: Spar workers in Botswana went on strike against half-salaries, nurses and doctors stroke to demand personal protective equipment in Zimbabwe and there were wildcat nurses strikes in a few cities in Nigeria with the same demand; “no PPE, no work”. In Malawi, after spontaneous strikes by nurses and protests by youths and traders, the courts ordered a postponement of the lockdown until government had put in place adequate safety nets for the poor. Broad-based coalitions involving unions, social movements, socialists and progressive academics and NGOS have been established in South Africa and Nigeria to fight for pro-poor lockdowns that take into account the livelihood needs of working people (lockdowns from below – Peoples Lockdowns].  This basic working-class response needs to be spread through wider action and to be generalized into a program that becomes an axis of anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist struggles.

We should reject wholesale the idea that lives must be weighed against livelihoods. We insist that these cannot be separated. At its simplest, an economy is how people organize collectively to produce what we need to live. All economies are composed of breathing people. But our current economy is badly distorted by subordinating production for need to ever-expanding profit. There has never been a time in history when more resources have existed to enable us to sit out an epidemic – but their extreme concentration in the hands of a few individuals and corporations, and the extreme enrichment of a handful of individuals globally, over the past years, have left to choose between starvation or Covid, and has left us deciding which people’s lives should be considered ‘surplus’ . Many African countries are more experienced in managing epidemics than European governments – yet we can expect the toll of Covid could be very high here if it is allowed to spread unchecked as most countries on the continent have limited resources. We reject epidemic plans that confine us to what is practical within this extreme maldistribution of wealth. Global wealth must be mobilized to assist any country struck by the virus but particularly those which were drained by colonialism and after. This assistance should take the form of reparations, not loans with conditions attached.

7. This program should include the following demands:

  • Global redistribution of resources to assist poorer countries
  • Reallocation of resources to healthcare, to producing the equipment needed to treat patients and protect their carers, and to providing for the essential needs of the population; frontline workers should be given risk allowance.
  • Seize control of the food chain, and urgently reallocate urban land for cooperative local food gardens.
  • The permanent provision of free healthcare on the basis of need properly funded by progressive taxation, end the public private divide- nationalise the private medical sector.
  • This reallocation of resources to be funded through drastic cuts in military spending and taxation of accumulated wealth by the rich.
  • Essential workers should be those who really make an essential contribution to the welfare of the population and should be provided with safe conditions of travelling to work and performing their jobs.
  • Payment of a living-wage to all non-essential workers who are unable to work from home.    Employment security for casual and contract workers.
  • State financial support for communities in the form of income grants to the poor and vulnerable to cut out middlemen/women and efficient access to food, medicine, and other necessities.
  • Non-discrimination against workers in the informal sector including preference in government bail-out support and protection of informal workers’ right to earn a livelihood.
  • Transparent and accountable administration of Coronavirus relief funds to prevent corruption and profiteering.
  • Nationalization without compensation of firms engaged in profiteering;
  • No deportations of migrants and refugees. Grant the ‘right to remain’ to migrants and refugees as exemplified in Portugal.
  • Defend civil liberties and labour rights: No special powers to the police and military. Let restrictions on movement to be enforced by local communities. No restriction on the right of workers to strike in defence of unsafe, unhygienic conditions or in defence of the right to organize, employment security and fair remuneration.
  1. The Covid-19 pandemic has harshly exposed the limits of capitalism. Right-wing and centrist governments headed by the likes of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro or Ramaphosa have been forced to make concessions and spend more on public health, open up underwriting a huge range of economic activity and commissioning industrial production to provide equipment required by the health emergency – something which goes beyond the neoliberal agenda. Even though inadequate and carried out to protect capitalism and from above, these policies demonstrate that there is an alternative to the dominant form of neoliberal capitalism. This has come at the very moment that the pandemic itself – like the East African floods and the burning of the Amazon last year and the Australian wildfires at the start of 2020 – reveals the scale of capitalism’s destruction of nature. In other words, genuine socialism – where working people take democratic control of the world and its resources and produce for need not profit – is both possible and necessary. There should be no return to the normality that is breeding these disasters. The pandemic is a frightening event that demonstrates the true destructive power of capitalism. But a powerful political response from working people and the left can lay the basis for another kind of world, where humankind has a future.

International Socialist Tendency [Africa] – Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, South-Africa, Zimbabwe

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