COVID-19 had, by late April 2020, affected 2 931 710 people worldwide. As of April 26, 203 590 people have died. The Global North has not been spared by this crisis. The United States, with 960 896 cases and 54 265 deaths, is the most affected country in the world, followed by Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the UK. The pandemic has further swept across the Global South, with India, for example, registering 26 496 cases and 825 deaths, and South Africa with 4 361 cases and 86 deaths.
We need to view these statistics carefully, however, because of the differences in registration in each country, ie. many people are not able to get tested, or state bureaucracies do not have the capacity to register COVID-19 cases correctly. Countries in the Global South in particular, have huge problems controlling major epidemics due to deficient public healthcare systems as well as continuous exploitation by the Global North. This precedes the crisis and is a result, among others, of a colonial history.
Continuous Exploitation after ColonialismFrom the Early Modern Period to the beginning of decolonisation (1450-1950) European colonial powers like Spain, Portugal, England, and Germany participated in colonial expansions by means of “civilising” missions. These imperial metropoles needed raw materials such as cotton, sugar, tea, silk, oil, coal, natural gas, and metals, like gold and silver to feed the added productivity of modern factories during Europe’s Industrial Revolution. These raw materials were not available locally, and had to be found abroad. Europe has possessed various forms of colonies like no other continent. Other non-European countries like Japan and the United States undertook similar colonial expansions and committed crimes of slavery and theft of indigenous lands, but never matched European expansionism, which, at it’s peak, directly controlled over 80% of the globe, as Ania Loomba pointed out in her work Colonialism/Postcolonialism (2015).
Theft of indigenous land and indigenous people’s resources along with the enslavement of indigenous peoples as cheap labour laid the basis for global trade, the expropriation of the commons in Europe, and the worldwide creation of a landless proletariat who were, and still are, forced to sell their labour power in order to survive. It is through colonialism that capitalism and imperialism emerged as an out-of-control global economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and private production of commodities for profit.
Towards the end of colonialism, in the course of anti-colonial independence movements, European motherlands mostly left their colonies to “independently” deal with disaster and ethnic rivalry. This often lead to brutal civil wars and partition (for example in India, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia etc.), as well as to continued economic exploitation by the Global North in a newly structured post-colonial neoliberal system. InThe Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon theorises how the national bourgeoisie in formerly colonised countries will consolidate their own class interest and capitalist power within the country by serving foreign, often Western, capitalist business even after independence.
Countries in the Global South are still politically and economically dependent on imperialist powers like the United States and the European Union, even after the formal colonial period. Many former colonies receive so-called development aid because they were ‘underdeveloped’by the imperial Global North during colonisation and later imperialism. These development aids continue the vicious cycle and reproduce economic and political dependencies. They are nothing but another project to stabilise and foster the rule of Western capital in the Global South. In reality, what these development projects try to do is to temper some of the consequences of capitalism, so as to avoid popular sympathy for any anti-capitalist change, like a socialist revolution as a response to the constant crisis of capitalism.
With international trade, labour mobility has increased and imperialist, neo-colonial exploitation has continued and takes on new forms. Cheap labour comes from abroad – from the Global South and from Eastern Europe – to the metropoles of imperialism. This cheap labor force, these guest and migrant workers, usually do the “dirty,” physically and mentally exhausting jobs, and are the most oppressed subjects of the impoverished working class.
In capitalism, these underdeveloped countries, most of them former colonies, cannot develop themselves independently because they are under the restrictions of the capitalist world market. For example, former colonies need to export their natural resources at a fixed price that the global market dictates and forces upon them.
Multiple Crises in the Global SouthColonialism remains visible in the Global South in many different forms – psychologically, politically, and economically. The COVID-19 crisis amplifies all of these effects. The crisis is affecting capitalist systems dramatically and people are losing their jobs on a mass scale. Even imperialist countries, such as Germany or the United States for example, struggle in this crisis; their health care systems are over-extended and millions of people have lost their jobs.
This means that the countries that have already been the backyard of the imperialist Global North are disproportionately facing deeper odds. Crises in countries of the Global South are multifaceted and numerous, meaning that the realities of struggle cannot be homogenised. But there are some similarities at hand. Thousands of people in the Global South are dying during this crisis, not necessarily just due to falling sick of COVID-19 itself, but primarily because of the consequences of decades of colonisation and capitalism in its imperialist form. This has resulted in miserable healthcare systems, limited access to medicine and healthy food, no easy access to hygiene products like hand sanitisers and masks during lockdown, etc.
The Haitian government, like all other governments, is officially promoting confinement and social distancing in spite of the reality that people continue to struggle to feed themselves while avoiding an infection. The unemployment in Haiti is already high, with 6 million of Haiti’s 11 million citizens living below the poverty line of $2.41 a day. In Haitian slums, the population density is so high that social distancing is not a feasible solution in order to survive this crisis. South Africa is another example of these dynamics. South Africa boasts a very high unemployment rate of 29%, 50% of which is made up of young people. This is a social catastrophe in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is similar to the situation in India and its neighbors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The majority of people in India, about 81 % of the working class, work in the informal sector. The 21-day curfew is a major problem for the poorest of this population.
Social distancing and self-isolation are individual privileges and cannot be the solution for underdeveloped countries. We need to have a deeper look at living conditions of the poor working class, how they live (in slums for examples), how they go to work (overcrowded rickshaws, taxis, trains, buses), how they get food, if they have access to essentials like running water in their informal settlements or houses, and also, how they survive with their meager incomes.
COVID-19 as a global capitalist issue The Global North is focused on rescuing only itself rather than rescuing everyone. The United States, for instance, offered German scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine a lot of money to give the US exclusive access to their results. While the imperialist countries consistently fail to take responsibility for their colonial crimes, what we do need is a global public health strategy, because similar disease outbreaks are likely to re-emerge in the future.
COVID-19 is a crisis that is global in nature, and the Global North – which looked at epidemics and catastrophes as a problem of “dirty, dangerous, strange others”, problems of queer people, Black, Brown and indigenous peoples, peasants and poor migrant and working class people from developing countries – is not immune to this outbreak. Epidemics or pandemics are inevitable in times of globalisation and industrial food production, where international and intercontinental travel is highly connected. In the article ‘Political Economy of COVID-19’, Indian activist Manish Azad traces the COVID-19 outbreak to the meat production in Wuhan, China. He explains in detail how much the USA and other European countries have at stake in the World Meat trade of about $ 945 billion.
The Global North needs to understand that viruses will not only emerge in developing countries, in the so called “Third World” but that viruses emerge within this capitalist system and so it is a global issue that effects the global community.
Public Health Strategy and Opportunities A
universal healthcare system and a global pharmaceutical industry that
serves people, not profit, could successfully counter pandemics like
COVID-19. Any future COVID-19 vaccine needs to be offered to everyone
for free. Access to healthcare, water, and food should be a human
right for everyone and everywhere. All private hospitals, healthcare
systems, companies and businesses should be nationalised, as is
already partly the case in countries like Spain,
Ireland, and France, and most importantly, be put under workers’
control. The Global
North needs to take responsibility for the public health crisis it
created with the remnants of colonial power dynamics and the
exploitative capitalist mode of production it introduced to its
To quote Edna Bonhomme: “The Global South is not the source but the frequent victim of outbreaks aggravated by capitalism […].” However, it does not mean that poor workers and peasants from the Global South have no self-organised resistance, creativity or local knowledge to counteract this crisis. Examples of self-activity, mutual support, protest and unrest are expanding from Asia, across Africa and Latin America.
After the COVID-19 crisis, neoliberal politics will prevail. Exploitation will go on. The Global South, as well as all the migrant workers, refugees, and working poor will continue to be over-exploited. The capitalist bosses are the real gangsters, as philosopher Cornel West has famously put it, and will not stop stealing the surplus labour of workers worldwide.
But the COVID-19 crisis provides the opportunity to strengthen the worldwide working class and peasant consciousness in their position as the essential labour forces, on which the capitalist system and its bosses are relying.
This can be a start, not only in African countries, but also applicable in other countries of the Global South. Although these economic reforms will lead to only minor cosmetic changes within the capitalist mode of production, they will open up possibilities for working people all over the world. Once this crisis abates, workers worldwide have the opportunity to deepen their organising around how to mobilise and organise in order to take back the wealth that is concentrated in the hands of the few. Activists and scholars need to prepare for our own tasks as internationalist workers and intellectuals in the coming months.