Coronavirus in South Africa

The Coronavirus named COVID-19, which today has infected over 200 000 people worldwide and killed thousands has arrived in South Africa, with 150 confirmed cases as of 19 March. The South African state did very little to take leadership during the spread of the virus globally in January and February. When the President delivered his State of the Nation Address no mention was made of the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for South Africa. The Minister of Finance also said nothing about the coming danger.

Khanya College organises Community Healthcare Workers (CHWs), among other sections of the working class and the poor. These CHWs are at the frontline of the coming disaster. Like the CHWs, the working class that inhabits the informal settlements of this country, that collects materials for recycling from the country’s rubbish dumps – all these working class people are in grave danger.

The Presidential addresses ‘expressing concern’ will not prevent the coronavirus from killing thousands of people in working class communities across South Africa, so it is extremely important that we organise ourselves within each and every township, informal settlement and working class neighbourhood against the spread of this virus. To be able to do this, we have to understand the conditions under which we have to struggle against coronavirus. We have to face the impending catastrophe with rationality and courage if we want to prevent this destruction of our communities.

COVID-19 arrives in South Africa against a background of a public health system that is in deep and structural crisis. The sources of this collapse need to be addressed in the struggle against the virus.

South Africa has two health systems – a public health system for the poor, and a private health system for the rich. The private health system has all the facilities and resources needed to respond to COVID-19. With these facilities, we can expect the middle class and the rich to “isolate” themselves behind the walls of these private hospitals and clinics. On the other side of the class divide is the hospitals and clinics of the working class – poorly resourced, mismanaged and chaotic medical facilities. Like other social services hammered by 25 years of neoliberal austerity (policies enforced by the ANC government), it is facing a systemic crisis, and the Finance Minister’s response was to cut its budget further. This is the health system that will have to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic for the majority of South Africans.

South Africa has one of the world’s highest burdens of disease in the world and is the unfortunate leader in a range of disease areas, including: child mortality, malnutrition, TB and high blood pressure. All these diseases put a greater number of South Africans at risk if they contract the virus. Though high mortality rates show the elderly are more vulnerable to COVID-19, in South Africa the burden of disease among young people (60% of the population) is shockingly high, and this puts them at risk too. The reason that South Africa carries such a high burden of disease is because it’s now the most unequal country in the world, and the working class is one of the poorest.

The social context of South Africa is also one of deep, systemic and structural violence.  In a highly charged social context where the fear of the virus is unleashed, the struggle for control of spaces and resources may lead to a rise in the levels of social violence, especially against women and girls, who bear the brunt of this systemic violence. South Africa’s ruling class has also for a long time hidden behind the “foreigner” to distract the public from its anti-poor policies. Xenophobia may rear its ugly head as the failure of the state is transferred onto African foreign nationals. 

A defining feature of our social context is the epidemic of unemployment that faces large sections of the working class, particularly among youth people (50%). The high rate of youth unemployment is beyond catastrophic. Because they have been demoralised and betrayed by those who claim to have fought for them, the South African youth appear to have (or indeed have) a death wish. Within the context of the coronavirus this could yield terrible consequences.

The poor social services that the working class have to live with everyday has the potential to become major drivers of the transmission of COVID-19 within the working class. We need to look at housing conditions, overcrowded transport, food quality, and lack of running water, etc. A major organisational challenge for the working class is how it will organise itself so that it reduces the potential for transmission.

The failure of South Africa’s health system is not a case of misunderstanding. Further, the high burden of disease, and the social disintegration around us is a result of 25 years of the politics of neoliberalism. The South African state, and the ANC, has a clear and strong will – to protect and advance the interests of the ruling classes and its elites. We saw this in August 2012 (the Marikana Massacre), and we see this in the cuts to the health budget in the context of a collapsing health system and looming pandemic.

In their addresses on 13 and 26 February, the President and the Minister of Finance did not make any budgetary allocations for this life and death struggle against coronavirus. Again, no budgetary allocations were announced by the President in his recent evening address to the nation and not a single measure deals with the impending impact of the coronavirus on the working class! Instead public money will be used to maintain the profits of big capital. The rich and elites will have fiscal packages prepared for them, they will keep their hospitals, their doctors, their supplies and their lives.

This is the context within which we will have to struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. This struggle cannot be won without breaking the stranglehold of the ruling monopoly capitalist class over the state and over society. We may not be able to break this stranglehold in lasting ways, but it has to be broken at least for long enough for us to survive the storm.

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