Covid-19 in South Africa: Success and neoliberal threats

BY:Mark Waller| June 12, 2020
Covid-19 in South Africa: Success and neoliberal threats


Amidst the global onslaught of Covid-19, South Africa was relatively well placed to try to slow the course of the disease when it identified its first case of the virus, March 5.

By then there were over 96,000 cases worldwide and 3,300 deaths. China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy had the largest numbers of cases and fatalities. The US and the UK—which on March 5 had 228 cases and 14 deaths and 116 cases and one death, respectively—were soon to experience a terrifying increase in the pandemic and death toll.

But that day both President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson were cavalier about the threat. “You have to be calm. It’ll go away,” Trump told Fox News. “Wash your hands and business as usual,” Johnson quipped in an interview for ITV.

For South Africa, the first case of the virus was the prelude to a mass mobilization by government.

It was clear that the pandemic would soon hit, but how hard? Millions of people in South Africa have compromised health due to HIV and tuberculosis. And millions live in impoverished, cramped conditions where social distancing is unrealistic and access to fresh water for repeated hand-washing scant. The Department of Health predicted that two-thirds of the country’s population of 56 million (2016 figure) could eventually fall victim to the coronavirus.

On March 15, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster. There were then 61 cases of Covid-19 in the country, and as yet no fatalities. Ramaphosa established the National Coronavirus Command Council to coordinate government action to “flatten the curve” of the virus. On March 23 he announced that a full national lockdown would start three days later.

The first death due to the virus was recorded March 27. The same day, 217 Cuban doctors arrived in the country to assist with the response to the pandemic, which the US government weirdly condemned as a form of human trafficking.

The first phase of the lockdown was stringent; even sales of alcohol and tobacco were prohibited. Schools closed and borders were sealed, Parliament suspended its activity. All movement except essential services stopped and much of the country fell eerily silent. Police and army were on the streets to enforce curfews.

As in other countries, with no coronavirus roadmap to follow, subsequent developments unfolded unexpectedly, only obvious retrospectively.

It soon became clear that the shutdown of the country was devastating the poorest and most vulnerable, the majority of the population. More so than for small and medium-sized businesses, many of which quickly folded. There had to be an emergency rollout of aid to tackle hunger and sudden loss of income.

On April 21, nearly a month after the start of the lockdown, the government announced a 500 billion rand (USD29.3 billion) stimulus package, 10 percent of GDP. Some 20 percent of this is being spent on boosting health care, with other spending used for increasing social welfare, tax relief, and small-business support.

The government set up a solidarity fund to further help cover costs and declared that for starters government ministers would contribute a third of their pay to it. The “pandemic requires an economic response that is equal to the scale of disruption it is causing,” said Ramaphosa.

But this has proven harder to manage in practice. Hundreds of thousands of food parcels have been regularly distributed in poor communities and among people living on the streets. Queues for the handouts often stretch for miles on end.

Lockdown restrictions have been eased since May and early June to allow for more people to work and earn. People are supposed to wear face masks everywhere except at home, wash their hands frequently, and maintain social distancing.  But the fear among the allies of the governing African National Congress is that such measures are not enough by themselves and that calls to ease the lockdown are balefully precipitous.

There is enormous pressure from capital and right-wing parties to “open up” the economy and roll back all lockdown restrictions and to rely on “herd immunity” to overcome corona. The opposition right-wing Democratic Alliance (DA) is lobbying for this with the wholly unproven line that the “economic lockdown . . . is now costing more lives than it can hope to save.” True to its ideology, the DA habitually refers to the lockdown as the “economic lockdown.”

Alliance partners of the governing African National Congress, among them the South African Communist Party (SACP), caution that the handling of the pandemic is being hijacked by a neoliberal drive that prioritizes profit over human life. The SACP recently slammed the false dichotomy peddled by the right and in much mainstream media between protecting lives or saving the economy. Any relaxation of restrictions must, the party argues, adhere to strict scientifically prescribed health and safety imperatives on Covid-19.

But, more than this, South Africa cannot return to the crisis it was in before the corona crisis hit, the SACP stated June 1. There must be a fundamental overhaul of the country’s political and economic priorities.

“This means that a mere recovery to where we were before Covid-19 is both impossible and inadequate, as we were already in an endemic capitalist systemic crisis of world-record levels of unemployment, inequality, mass poverty and uneven spatial development.”

There is little doubt that the lockdown restrictions imposed in March have not only slowed the progress of the pandemic in South Africa but have saved thousands of lives. This is clear from how the virus has spread in countries where lockdowns have been unsystematic and partial. Stringent measures can’t stop the virus, but they can control it, including by allowing the health system scope to be better prepared.

The danger now is that the lifting of restrictions, including a rushed return to school for some grades, at a time when the pandemic is gaining ground will see it careen out of control, undercutting the strong testing and tracing measures carried out so far.

As the World Health Organization has stated, lockdowns are a blunt instrument. In South Africa there have been a number of deadly abuses by the police and army to do with enforcing restrictions, and many people question the constitutional basis of allowing a prolonged state of disaster.

As elsewhere, there’s a sense of groping in the dark, making up strategy and tactics as we go along. The government says that if the rate of infection increases dramatically, it will revert to the blanket lockdown of March. But this could be challenged in the courts by proponents of a wholesale reopening of the economy and those uneasy at curbs on certain basic freedoms.

Scientists who advise the government predicted in mid-May that by November there would be 40,000 deaths from the virus, over a million infections, and a shortage of ICU beds. So far, some of their other projections have turned out to underestimate the problem, but at the time of writing, South Africa had 58,568 cases, 33,252 recoveries, and 1,284 deaths.

The coming weeks will show whether greater freedom of movement is allowing the virus to spread exponentially, or whether stipulations on wearing face masks and hand washing are having any real impact.

Image: GovernmentZA, Creative Commons (BY-ND 2.0).
























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