INSIDE LABOUR | A terrible choice - coronavirus or hunger

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

It is better to run even a 20% or 30% risk of being infected by the coronavirus than face the 100% chance of staying locked away, slowly starving, perhaps to death. That is an obvious calculation for many South Africans, some of whom have demonstrated vocally and sometimes violently in recent days.

Because poverty and the hunger and desperation that goes with it, is the biggest danger facing not just South Africa, but the world today. This has been highlighted as never before with the emergence of Covid-19 and by official responses to the virus.

That anger among many of the poor is growing is obvious, compounded in in South Africa in some instances by the actions of some uniformed — and a few plain clothed — thugs in townships such as Johannesburg’s Alexandra, and Masiphumalele in Cape Town. Very few journalists are on the ground to witness, film and report on such behaviour and, as in Masiphumalele, may be threatened and chased out.

Yet, unless we wish to return to the authoritarianism of the apartheid era, both citizens and the relevant authorities need the media to report fairly and honestly on what is happening.  This is the basic protection necessary for the level of democracy we now have.

But these are difficult times and mistakes have been made. For example, millions of South African workers, male and female, young and old, rely on casual labour to survive or to supplement meagre social grants, often to sustain extended families. Living on top of one another in agglomerations of makeshift shacks and high density townships, it was a clear nonsense to apply lockdowns and social distancing to such communities.

Government’s roll-out of water tanks to several waterless communities, topped up on a weekly basis by tankers, was impressive, but also amounted to an indictment: why was this not done before? Why was provision for so basic a need neglected for so long?

The obvious policy flip-flops on taxi use and travelling to funerals compounded the problems. It was also a simple fact that government at all levels did not have the resources to, almost overnight, feed and provide adequate services to millions of people unable to even scavenge for some form of sustenance under lockdown regulations.

Promised food parcels arranged through the social security agency are clearly inadequate. Were it not for community, religious and other groups, along with many individuals and businesses, rallying to help, many more of the poor and destitute would go hungry.  

All these matters have been brought to a head by Covid-19 which revealed clearly that governments the world over have prioritised economic growth over the good of communities.  One result has been the growth of human solidarity that should be built on for a post Covid-19 world that could challenge the obscene wage and welfare chasm that now exists.

Already, there is support growing for governments to institute a universal income grant, to provide enough income to sustain every individual at least above the basic poverty level.  Some big business supporters of the grant have pointed out that, without it, there could be substantial social unrest.

Here are echoes of the move in 1883 by the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who introduced a series of social welfare measures — later known as state socialism — in order to head off  more radical demands by the militant socialist opposition. However, on humanitarian grounds alone, a universal grant seems essential and would be the first step toward a fairer society.

But an essential element of such a society would also be the equal right for all to quality health care and education as well as to adequate accommodation and diet.  As even the wealthiest countries, such as the United States, have shown, this is far from the case and only when citizens, united, have pushed for change have any improvements been made.

There is a long road ahead and, to win such demands, requires organisation;  for communities to come together on the basis of a common programme, perhaps, in South Africa, such as that enunciated in the Bill of Rights.  This should also extend to making elected representatives wholly accountable to the electorate rather than, as all too often, acting as part of the management structure of the corporate world.

But one thing should now be clear: if — probably when — a vaccine is available to protect against this latest Coronoa virus threat, we should not wish to go back to business as usual.  That would almost certainly mean — if current epidemics of measles and TB are anything to go by — that the better off will receive protection while many of the poor will largely be left to suffer and, all too often, die.

A united citizenry, having eliminated poverty, would be in the best possible position to deal with any future global crises, from diseases to environmental despoilation in a world at peace. A dream, perhaps. But one worth striving for.

* Views expressed are the author's own. 

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