Hiding behind a Covid-19 scapegoat

Posted on May 1, 2020


Authorities unable or unwilling to face up to — and deal decisively with — a reality that might reveal their own shortcomings and ineptitude, usually resort to pinpointing a scapegoat, be it an individual, group, natural disaster or social practice. This year, Covid-19 fits that bill exactly.

The pandemic is being blamed for wrecking a global economy that was already unstable before the virus struck. And governments — with the possible exception of the United States where President Trump blames China —also tend to behave as if the arrival of this latest Corona virus was wholly unforeseen, effectively, in insurance-speak, an “act of God”.

But this is simply not true. And, in a post Covid-19 world, this is a fact everyone should bear in mind — and act on.

Because governments the world over knew that a pandemic — a viral attack for which no vaccine exists — was “probably inevitable”. That was the word of leading scientists whose analysis and findings were available for years to leaders in all 194 countries that are members of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The 194 all have representatives on the Assembly (WHA) that meets annually to review the work of the WHO, an organisation that relies for its funding on donations by member states and private donors. Certainly by 2015, all governments were warned of concerns about a future pandemic for which there might be no vaccine, especially since funding for such research was lacking.

Because of these concerns, the WHO established a panel of highly specialised scientists in February of that year to list the dangerous viruses in this category. The panel and officials within the WHO agreed that the speed of trans-national travel and greater human contact with the remaining wild regions on the planet had created ideal conditions for such a pandemic.

Because of the SARS (CoV1) outbreak in 2003 with a mortality rate of 10% of those infected and the outbreak in 2012 of MERS-CoV where 35% of those infected are estimated to have died, there was an obvious focus on the Corona viruses. In an interview with the New York Times this week, one of the WHO panel, Peter Daszak, a disease ecology specialist noted: “We’d done a lot of research on coronaviruses, so we knew they were a clear and present danger.”

Given sufficient resources, scientists feel they could pre-emptively create vaccines for viral attacks in the future. Daszak told journalist Jennifer Kahn that prevention [of the Covid-19 pandemic] was “very possible”. He added: “But we didn’t do it. Governments thought it was too expensive. Pharmaceutical companies operate for profit.”

A well-funded global campaign was clearly necessary, but governments and private donors remained tight fisted and, with little to no profit to be made from such vaccines, pharmaceutical companies weren’t interested. Although the main objective of the WHO is to ensure “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health” it has no power to demand or enforce any measures.

As a result, governments around the world, while continuing to underfund epidemics such as TB, did practically nothing to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic. Countries such as the United States even scaled down some existing protections.

Fortunately, for most of the world’s population, it appears that this latest corona attack, although it spread more quickly and widely than either SARS or MERS, is less virulent that its predecessors, with the Covid-19 mortality rate estimated at 2%.

But the situation was — and remains — serious, especially since governments had ignored warnings and advice and were wholly unprepared.

One result was an unseemly competition to buy up protective equipment and ventilators while hurriedly trying to arrange treatment and isolation centres. Lockdowns and social distancing became de rigueur in many countries, along with the wearing of masks.

But while general lockdowns are clearly possible — even advisable — in relatively wealthy, industrialised countries, they simply cannot apply in countries where much of the working class live in crowded tenements or shacks and where work is mostly on a casual, day-to-day basis and malnutrition rife. Social distancing in such conditions is impossible and, without work or the opportunity to scavenge, starvation looms.

Governments in this position, if they do not, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, largely ignore the pandemic, seem to react with a degree of barely disguised panic. In this regard, South Africa may become a classic example in the years to come.

Regulations promulgated by a hastily constituted — and potentially illegal and unconstitutional — National Coronavirus Command Council contained elements that seemed both irrational and bizarre. But, tragically, these regulations deprived millions of the poorest workers of any opportunity to earn money at a time when there exists inadequate provision to feed them and their families.

The move from Level 5 to Level 4 of the lockdown, announced on Wednesday night, also brought with it a dusk to dawn curfew, with jogging, cycling and other outdoor exercise now permitted, but only within a 5km radius of homes and then only between 6am and 9am. However, co-operative governance minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, did at least declare that the irrational ban on the export of wine and other liquor would be lifted: it was costing the country an estimated R200 million a week in desperately needed foreign exchange.

Dlamini-Zuma also announced that the ban on “informal recyclers” would be lifted. Yet, a week ago she opposed an application by waste pickers to be regarded as an essential service and allowed to work, describing their application as “opportunistic”. She told the court: “The work that the applicants are engaged in does not entail waste and refuse removal at least in the conventional sense.”

But the minister also contradicted the earlier announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that cigarette and tobacco products would be again available from Friday 1 May. So South Africa remains the only country to ban both the sale and distribution of alcohol and tobacco products.

Also contradicted was Ramaphosa’s announcement a week ago that the poverty-level child support grant of R440 would be increased by R500. Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu said on Wednesday that it was unaffordable, in the process perhaps triggering a backlash to equal the one building up over the shambles about education and schools.

But criminal gangs, probably the best organised groups in many, if not most, poor working class districts, have benefitted from the regulations. They are now the major purveyors of illicit booze and ‘baccy, with a R200 carton of cigarettes now fetching R800 and a R170 bottle of whiskey available at upwards of R500.

Ironically, it is the gangs that have adhered best to protective measures, fearful of their members falling prey to the virus. When Covid-19 struck, they established a national Council that declared a ceasefire in ongoing gang feuds, so contributing, especially in the Western Cape, to the drop in the rate of murders and related trauma cases.

There is perhaps a lesson to be learned here: if communities were organised as collectives of citizens and therefore ceased to fetishise and hand over power to leaders, they would not tolerate criminal gangs. And, by assuming real power, they could decide for themselves the best way forward.

Armed with the information available from the WHO years ago, it is most likely that such grassroots organisation would have had fairly thorough preparations in place when Covid-19 arrived. As a result, the levels of confusion seen so far might also have been avoided.