INSIDE LABOUR | Normal is over - but our norms were broken

Terry Bell
Terry Bell

Covid-19 is only the latest in a long history of contagious diseases that have afflicted human communities across the ages. But it is the first that has clearly underlined that we are a single human species who share a planet with not only terrestrial and marine flora and fauna, but also with bacteria and viruses.

The responses and reactions to this latest and most widespread of contagions has also begun to tear away the veil of hypocrisy that has for so long disguised the venal nature of the economic, political and social system in which we live. It has also shown how ill prepared were those who should have known better since localised epidemics and, in their more widespread, pan, form are part of life.

But there does now seem to be consensus that, beyond Covid-19, with greater realisation dawning, society will never be the same again. It could, as I speculated in my last column, begin to change utterly on the road to a more democratic and egalitarian future. Or it could become a mere variation on the same exploitative and destructive theme, different in form but essentially the same in substance.

How the pandemic is dealt with now may give indications to the direction a post-Covid-19 South Africa, specifically, will look like. Signs, such as the authoritarian tone adopted by police minister Bheki Cele and the actions of some military and police personnel in the first week of the lockdown do not make for optimism.

But then, neither do the evidently hurried and poorly drafted regulations. These indicate a desire to project the form of strength and competence, without being overly concerned with the substance.

As one commentator has noted, this may be the logical result of trying to impose "first world responses where sufficient resources do not exist and in environments where they simply do not fit." In other words, demands enforced without consideration of the consequences or how appropriate they may be.

This certainly seems to have been the case with the ban on all liquor and tobacco sales during the proclaimed 21-days of isolation. Tobacco — specifically its nicotine content — is widely recognised as a serious, addictive drug while alcohol dependence is a widespread problem in many communities.

Linking such bans to household isolation may, in many instances, result in an increase in domestic violence and abuse. It could also, from a psychological viewpoint, cause considerable trauma, while certainly giving a boost to opportunistic and criminal elements.

More affluent families who drink alcohol, tend to maintain stocks of liquor and, shortly before the lockdown ban came into force, those with the financial wherewithal clearly bought in bulk, almost stripping many liquor store shelves. Among such buyers were opportunistic elements, some of whom were caught in the first week of lockdown selling liquor and cigarettes at hugely inflated prices.

But the whole idea of self-isolation "at home" and "social distancing" is very much a first world notion; it is simply a nonsense when talking about lifestyles in mushrooming informal settlements. Men, women and children who live check by jowl in one-room shacks, sharing inadequate water and ablution facilities, cannot practice social distancing, let alone self-isolate.

Many — perhaps most — also need to move out each day to fetch water and to beg, borrow or scavenge for food. There are millions of South Africans who live in this way and the government is clearly in no position suddenly to house, feed, and provide adequate, segregated shelter and facilities for them, along with many thousands of urban homeless.

Within these vulnerable communities Covid-19 could wreak deadly havoc. Yet the responsibility for the existence of such potential communal death traps rests with governments that serve primarily the interests of profit-driven capital. In this world with its wage and welfare chasm, it is the poor and the marginalised who — if they are regarded much at all — may often be seen as little more than human detritus.

But fears of the rapid spread of Covid-19 and its potential to mutate, have begun to focus more attention on communities, many weakened by malnutrition and diseases such as TB, who are most threatened. However, the main media focus still seems to be on the claim that we are "all in the same boat"; that whether rich or poor, aristocrat or peasant, we together share the threat of Covid-19.We may indeed do so, but only in terms of being able to contract the virus. That is where it ends: the rich who fall prey to the disease will generally survive; the poor will mostly die.

This is because the bulk of humanity has been consigned to servitude and worse while we all share the same resource rich planet hurtling through space. Our social and economic travesty is in the service of an economic and social system that is clearly destructive and, in psychological terms, has been described as psychotic.

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The psychological definition was given by the legal academic Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation. He pointed out, in 2004, that a corporation, such as those that sit astride the economic world, is, in law, a legal person. But this "person" is compelled, by the rules of the system, to act is such a way that, should any individual do so, they would be "locked away for life".

Yet, for the majority of people, this system has apparently been seen, for all its problems, as "normal". Now that the contradictions are being thrown into sharper relief by Covid-19, it may be worthwhile to look closely at what has happened, ask why — and consider what sort of post-Covid-19 world we want to see.

Perhaps we should take to heart an item of graffito that appeared in London last week: "We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem."

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