Life in the time of COVID-19 – exposing, once again, the glaring injustice of racism and poverty

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By: Carl Niehaus

So the first confirmed case in South Africa of someone infected by the COVID-19 virus
(commonly known as the coronavirus), had been announced, and our President has called on us, South Africans, not to panic. Which is certainly sensible, good, advice.

However, as I was watching the first ‘breaking news’ announcements that the coronavirus has hit our shores, I could not help but to feel concern about our nation’s ability to contain the spread of the virus. I certainly do not question the sincerity of the intentions of our Minister of Health, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, our Department of Health, or health practitioners throughout the country. Nor do I question that we have state of the art medical facilities, including laboratories, that can speedily identify the presence of the COVID-19 virus. As Minister Mkhize pointed out, in the whole of the African continent it is only South Africa and Egypt that have the state of the art medical laboratory facilities, capable of doing so.

My concern is summarized by one word: poverty. We are a country that is so often
described as the most unequal society in the world, and where, sadly, unemployment (and all its devastating consequences) is at record highs. As a society in serious economic decline, which has fallen back into recession, and where the gap between the rich and poor is increasing at an alarming rate, the challenges and consequences of the coronavirus is certainly not the same for all of us.

I state the glaringly obvious when I point out that there is a world of difference (in fact often the difference between life and death), between the treatment that a patient receives in a poorly equipped, overcrowded, understaffed, and far too often badly managed public hospital; and a state of the art, well staffed, and expertly managed private hospital. The inequality of this is glaring, and certainly unjust and unfair, for the treatment of every patient with any illness, and this will similarly be true for any patient infected by the COVID-19 virus. It is in contravention of the basic rights to life and human dignity, as enshrined in our Constitution.

Let’s be brutally frank about this, it boils down to money – to those who have it, and those who don’t. The ages old conundrum of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Of course those without money, who are the overwhelming majority of black South Africans, do not only suffer as a consequence of poor public health services, they also suffer overcrowding in
private and public spaces, housing shortages, poorly designed and built houses, long, and often dangerous, journeys from home to work in overcrowded taxis, busses and trains,
because of the consequences of apartheid spacial planning. Poverty impacts on every
single aspect of the daily lives of the vast majority of South Africans.

Therefore, as with every disease, and probably even more so with the COVID-19 virus, because infection is mostly airborn and through human contact (the risk of which is increased by overcrowding), the danger of exposure, and the consequences once infected, is not at all equal. This is true throughout the world, and it is definitely even more true for us here in South Africa, because of the harsh realities that I have described.

When one states the obvious, that the consequences of apartheid still permeates every corner of our society, and still negatively impacts every day on the lives of most black (especially African) South Africans, there are far too often those who attack one for stoking on racism and being divisive. However, let’s face the facts, because of our poisonous, and still deeply unequal overwhelmingly racially defined inheritance from apartheid, those who
are likely to be the most exposed to infection from the COVID-19 virus, and all its concomitant consequences, are black (and mainly African). This is no different from all other diseases, as is certainly also true for the continuing war that we are waging against HIV/AIDS.

Why do I find it necessary to emphasize these basic facts – which should be obvious to all of us who live in South Africa? Because we far too often behave as if these harsh realities do not exist, and as if after we have gained universal franchise in a so-called non-racial democracy, we are now all equal.

In South Africa equality is a myth. A fallacy that is perpetuated by the haves (still mainly white), to keep the majority of the have nots (still mainly black and African) oppressed, subservient and accepting of their oppression. Let’s not beat about the bush, inequality in South Africa is still overwhelmingly racially defined, and poverty has a black face.

I started by saying that I believe that Minister Mkhize and the general health fraternity in our country are sincere in their intentions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, in dealing with this massive challenge, I think it will be correct for our Minister and Department of Health to acknowledge, and speak out, about how this disease, like so many other diseases, will again impact grossly unequally on black people. In doing so,
they will have to – in acknowledgment of this harsh reality – direct the vast bulk of public resources available to fight the spread of the coronavirus to facilities that should serve black and, especially African, South Africans.

Every time that we are faced with a crisis that places pressure on our limited resources, and the just/fair utilization thereof, it exposes the deep fault lines of inequality in our society – and how this inequality in its overall manifestation continues to be racially defined.

In terms of its immediate consequence it may not be possible – despite our best efforts – to adequately address it, and mitigate against the glaringly racist injustice thereof. However, in terms of our overall economic policies we will be nothing but heartless and callous if we
continue to pursue economic policies that will simply entrench the current unequal
economic status quo.

Surely it cannot be that a small black elite makes common cause with white monopoly capital, and elevate themselves above the majority of our black, and especially African, people who continue to languish in poverty with all its consequences of ill health, and poor
and low life expectancy. Surely the immediate crises that we are confronted with, such as the looming COVID-19 epidemic must, in all fairness, challenge us to appreciate the urgent need to radically transform our economy so that the majority of black South Africans can indeed become economically empowered, and can rise above the ravishes of poverty,
and as the Freedom Charter demands: Share in the wealth of our country.

A critical start will be to acknowledge that poverty is human made, and in South Africa is perpetuated – and will continue to be perpetuated – until we have the courage to dismantle the grossly unjust economic superstructure that keeps White Monopoly Capital (WMC), with the assistance of their black compradore capitalist allies, in control of the commanding heights of our economy. Only once we can achieve that, will health and disease cease to have the racist face of racially designed poverty.

Carl Niehaus is a veteran of the ANC with forty years of uninterrupted membership in good standing. He is a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of MKMVA and MKMVA National Spokesperson. FILE PHOTO: Supplied

He wrote this article in his personal capacity.