Covid-19 is not the real enemy

Posted on May 27, 2020


Viruses kill, but so does poverty. And while we have to live with viruses because they are an inherent part of our environment, we do not have to live with poverty. And poverty each year kills more people — especially children — than any virus.

It is also the working class, particularly the low paid, the casual labourers and the unemployed who suffer most. And those malnourished children among the poorest of the poor who manage to survive to their fifth birthdays will often grow up stunted, physically and intellectually, part of a generation of largely wasted human potential.

One of the enduring legacies of apartheid — something the post Covid-19 era must seriously address — is the correlation in South Africa between ethnicity and poverty. While the overall mortality rate here for children under five is 34 per thousand, it is more than 57 for children from the black community.

It is the same the world over in terms of class, not colour. Even before the advent of Covid-19, increasing unemployment and policies of austerity were driving millions more workers into insecurity, debt and the mire of poverty with inadequate, or no, proper health care.

This is not the fault of any virus. They share the planet with us and, given sufficient resources and funding, scientists will develop vaccines that will protect we humans from the sick making, crippling and sometimes lethal effects of these organisms.

But they will not disappear and, where vaccines are not available or used, can — and do — reappear, sometimes in changed, mutated, forms. Classic cases are polio and measles, both highly contagious and transmitted from person to person. And, as with the case of Corona viruses, from SARS to MERS and now Covid-19, most people who are infected by these viruses do not die.

Before an effective and inexpensive measles vaccine became widely available in 1963, there were regular epidemics of this most contagious of diseases which killed an estimated 2.6 million people each year. Once again it was most deadly among the poorest of the poor who, according to the World Health Organisation statistics accounted for 95% of the deaths.

It was a similar case with polio for which a vaccine was first developed in 1955. In South Africa, the most severe outbreak occurred in 1948 of a disease that paralysed or killed some 500,000 people every year.

Now that funding is belatedly pouring into Corona virus research, a vaccine for Covid-19 — and, perhaps like influenza (Flu), its future mutations — will eventually be found. But even worse poverty will remain, causing almost certainly more damage and death than this or any other recent viral outbreak.

And the system that created such mass poverty and joblessness in a world of plenty is not capable of providing answers. These must come from the overwhelming majority of citizens, among whom even the better paid and qualified now face increasing insecurity.

This will require organisation and the labour movement could play a leading role, but only if trade unions apply the democratic principles of the past in order to help build a better future. Those principles were that elected officials, not carrying out their mandates, could be recalled and should be paid no more than the highest paid union member; that union members should organise within their communities and among the unemployed to give support to campaigns and policies that benefit the majority.

The prime lesson that workers should carry actively into the post Covid-19 future should be that poverty and inequality are the enemies — as are those who create conditions that ensure these ills continue.

(First published in City Press on May 17)

Posted in: Uncategorized