Miniseries on COVID-19 and Inequality: A Critical View from South Africa

30 Apr 2020 - 20:00
Bamenda, Cameroon. Photo: Divine Fuh

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series, the GRIP Secretariat provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.

Dr Divine Fuh is the Director of the Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town, and is next up in GRIP’s miniseries on the coronavirus and global inequality. Fuh is also one of the editors of Corona Times.

In this interview with the GRIP Secretariat, orignally published in 30 April 2020 here, Fuh focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects primarily in Africa and South Africa and argues for a critical view on epistemic violence and the need for a radical ethics of care.

To what extent could we now see urban inequalities both between and within countries becoming accentuated as a result of the corona outbreak?

There is an established template to respond to this question: pre-existing conditions. From what science tells us, the virus relies on an entire ecosystem for survival and performance. It needs a stable infrastructure to incubate and disseminate. We are told that it currently thrives well and hits the hardest on bodies with pre-existing medical conditions. This in my view results in a bifurcation. On the one hand, the virus can be deadly and therefore accentuates inequality. But also, and this is the point I wish to impress upon, the coronavirus alone does not create or accentuate inequality. Rather COVID-19 thrives on the pre-existing condition called inequality. Thus, we could argue that even though the virus can be destructive, it is how we organise our lives that gives it the scope to cause destruction and inflict pain and sorrow. It flourishes on the underlying conditions that we created, especially the impossibility of affording a dignified life particularly for people bracketed in certain socio-political and economic contexts. Competition and inequality are the basis upon which our modern concatenation operates.

Before COVID-19, we had created a world in which rendering other lives not liveable was considered right and justifiable. For example, we gave life to the terms ‘lazy’ as a tool to code a particular kind of incomplete subject that could be dispensed with, muted and easily ignored. We have a pre-existing condition, which is an infrastructure of disposability that discriminates according to different hierarchies of precariousness and uncertainty. It is this that further accentuates the spread and consequences of the virus. Our world became, and still is a laboratory for eugenics, with inequality as its principal ingredient.

Over the past centuries, we perfected the art of this necropolitics (to use Uncle Mbembe) that limited other people’s aspirational nodes (to use Appadurai) and further narrowed the terms through which others could be recognized (to use Butler) as valuable humans. The race to return to ‘normal’ and desire to each go back to business-as-usual in a context where others are still struggling or just starting to confront this global menace is symptomatic of the desire to bail out and therefore maintain our pre-existing condition – inequality.

COVID-19 will not create or accentuate inequalities; rather it will flourish on inequality. What will accentuate inequalities both within and between countries are pre-existing practices of social abandonment such as austerity, sanctions, chauvinism, racism, colonisation, epistemic violence, devaluing peripheral knowledge circuits and neoliberal corporatization amongst others that neglect and allows people to die.

How are the responses to the corona outbreak revealing the reverberations of colonial and postcolonial histories in terms of how pandemics are thought about?

This is the political economy of forced friendships, and the kinds of violence and violations that come with it coded as opportunity that always force postcolonial countries to constantly bend over backwards in order to accommodate their friends – the colonisers. These histories you mention both constrain and obscure the efforts by these postcolonial countries to effectively respond to the pandemic. Some of the responses to the outbreak also reveal the unfortunate consequences of forced friendships locked in unequal power matrices.

There is a continuous global project framing postcolonial societies as pathologies constantly requiring and essentially dependent upon external intervention. The result is the conundrum in which many postcolonial countries find themselves at this very moment – that is, to mimic or not to mimic, to copy the centre or to act independently in the periphery, should we adhere to global standards often conceived out of existing realities or work with the DIY survival kits that we are accustomed to using given the global tendency to relegate us to the back of the queue?

In Africa for example, the tightly woven umbilical cord between certain countries and the brutally oppressive societies and systems that criminally colonised them for decades instituted the accepted practice of externalising expertise, especially in the health sector. What dignity does any people have left when the most basic and existential services such as health is deeply entrusted in the hands of people thousands of kilometres away? It is a travesty. This “extraversion” as coined by Hountondji, has produced entire countries without domestic laboratories and medical specialists. In fact, in many of these countries, it is churches, private individuals, and in some cases, communities, providing the kind of advanced medical services infrastructure for surveillance, diagnosis, prevention and treatment. The irony is further that these non-state health actors, just like the state, are funded through international aid and volunteers, reproducing the same cycles of colonial dependency.

Some of the challenges with COVID-19 reporting we are currently witnessing may also arise from the fact that within certain countries, reliable tests can only be conducted by certain laboratories, oftentimes the proxies of institutions based in the global North. In the country of the man who revolutionised carbon dating technologies, people continue to rely on an old colonial laboratory for reliable medical tests. Sixty years after independence, a large number of countries are still dependent on the international aid machinery for health. Insurance premiums are sold in a group of countries on this continent with evacuation outside the continent – to the metropole – as a privilege. Unless we build strong institutions on the continent and de-link (to use Samir Amin) from this brutal necropolitical ecosystem as we see happening through organisations such as the Africa CDC, our responses to shock such as this pandemic will continue to be limited by these colonial and postcolonial networks of subjugation and mimicry.

That said, many African countries have demonstrated remarkable leadership during this pandemic. Unfortunately, much of this continues to be obscured by the preferred discourse about Africa as a place of gross incompetence, buffoonery and the unimaginable or laughable. You know, this tendency to treat Africans as naturally irrational. It continues to foreground all analyses or reporting on the continent, and you can see it amplified during this pandemic.

The other day President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has shown remarkable leadership throughout this crisis, delivered a speech to the nation disclosing the government’s plan to re-open the economy and the country. While this got coverage from international media, what many people and the mass media seem to remember is the moment after the speech where he struggles to put on his mask. I cannot count the number of times this clip was shared with me across all social media by family, friends and colleagues from across the world – I mean all reasonable people. So why do we laugh? They are all correct. It is funny. But this mishap is also unfortunate and embarrassing. Many people who shared it with me sent it with accompanying laughing out loud emojis and the phrase “see your president”. This mishap is paraded as a symbol of the buffoonery, incompetence and confusion that is continuously projected to the continent.

It is interesting that we who inhabit this place have become accustomed to this kind of Bakhtinian “carnival”, and use moments like this to make nonsense of the commandment. Yet, there is a kind of racism towards the continent, reverberations from colonial and postcolonial histories, skilfully rendered as “expert analysis”; but which works to pathologise and mock everything from the continent. You can see it everywhere during this pandemic, particularly how it is deployed to obscure the remarkable efforts, albeit with mistakes, that various African countries, leaders, governments and peoples are putting in place to prevent the kinds of catastrophes they have already experienced, and that we all witness happening elsewhere in the world.

While the virus is bound to inflict a calamity of biblical proportions on the continent with an estimated 3 million deaths as announced by the WHO, the reality right now is that Africa accounts for roughly 1% of global infections – that is, according to the Africa CDC. While we have seen regional responses in other parts of the globe collapse during this pandemic, there is a lot to be said about the effectiveness of the Africa CDC. It is clear that the continent knows what disaster looks like, and has a framework in place for early action, even if with challenges. But this framework needs to be supported and resourced. In Africa, we also have not seen the kinds of buffoonery that many global leaders have been performing throughout this crisis. Unfortunately, all of this is obscured by the resilience of colonial tropes that denigrate the rest.

In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the underlying political, economic or other drivers of heightening inequalities within a capitalist system?

At the risk of being labelled an apologist, I think it is important to revisit some of the important structural critiques that Mbeki raised about health and our modern global system, but eclipsed in our focus, and rightly so, on his denialism. The severity of any medical condition is determined not only by a biological syndrome, but further shaped by atrocious structural factors which ensure that the manifestations are different across the board, even when there is no crisis. This is best captured by my brother Parfait Akana who talks about social distancing as a tool for expanding existing inequalities between the haves and the have nots. Those who can afford to isolate behind high walls, hotels, separate bedrooms, and those that are already socially distant from these high walls but deeply embedded in social networks of care at homes with extended and displaced families, and dense neighbourhoods.

As this pandemic has made visible, this structural conditioning is not an African or “third world” ailment as has been made to believe over the past decades. Look at Europe’s response to the outbreak in Italy, and the global controversy over ‘stolen’ medical supplies. J.F. Bayart should be thrilled, or perhaps not, that the politics of the belly is not restricted to postcolonial Africa. In North America we have seen the struggle to provide universal health coverage and the terrifying consequences of the failure to achieve this for dealing with this pandemic. Francis Nyamnjoh recently argued that the humbling nature of COVID-19 in transcending borders and infecting people without discrimination is also “fake news” as the structural consequences are devastating for those already vulnerable. In the US we have seen the startling figures about infections and fatalities amongst Black communities who have faced decades of structural violence and neglect, and who therefore provide the “essential” and poorly paid labour during this pandemic. In many countries it is poor immigrants working on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic as care workers, cleaners, garbage collectors, amongst others. In France we see the unequal effects of lockdowns on the poor in the banlieus and controversies over wealth and early access to testing.

My sister Rama Dieng talks about COVID-19’s devastating consequences for social reproduction, particularly the unequal ways in which structural violence is imposed on the personal, particularly at home, that has now become the frontier of neoliberal survival. Caring for people and protecting lives has never been a strength of this brutal system. So, we should not be surprised that the state of the health infrastructure is what it is right now, and that after being shocked, the loss of life becomes normalised. We normalised the cadaverous drivers of this system. Just count the number of conflicts ad the billions invested in this economy of violence and destruction. States pride their strength not on their capacity to care but on their ability to kill, what sophisticated weaponry they have, are developing or have deployed. Immigration policies and laws that build physical fences and create entire armies to brutalise mobility and kill dreams. See the numerous wars and conflicts to which we can send contractors. Look at our current obsession with ICTs and remote working as a panacea for this crisis. Ironically, we have to build a new world running on technologies produced from the brutality of exploitative mineral/metal extraction from plantations in the Congo. We are comfortable with this modern machinery, as long as we can be socially distant from its ethical conundrums.

What might a global and equitable response to the outbreak look like?

Is that even possible right now? Look, we have to be better at being better humans. Our ethics of care needs radical change, and this cannot happen if our response to pandemics is centred on protecting the rational self, which as this pandemic has demonstrated, is nothing more than a farce. We see now that the idea of the dis-embedded individual is not tenable, because this person is essentially social and entrenched in social relations and physical encounters that we are now regulating. Care and consciousness of this interdependency need to form the moral fabric of any equitable response which privileges the protection and survival of humans and the planet rather than the abstract of this modern political and economic system. The ‘rational individual’ is not rational enough to be trusted to wash their hands, social distance and care for others, the reason why we resort to the drastic measure of locking them down to save others and enforce false empathy and solidarity. But this also requires a fundamental re-imagining of the state and its purpose, away from the idea of the state centred on the monopoly of violence. That is whether it should function as a tactic of death or ethos of life. We need a system that runs on steroids of care rather than one operating on opium of destruction. Addressing toxic masculinity and femininity, and rewarding care labour. Given that we know what we know now from this pandemic, an equitable response means imagining a new political community and democratic dispensation founded essentially on care, and which also values care.

But again, numerous alternative equitable responses have been developed, and those need to be taken more seriously. There is also a repertoire of vernaculars such as Ujamaa in Tanzania, Teranga in Senegal, Scratch my back I scratch your back in Cameroon, Ubuntu in South Africa and Kizuna in Japan, just to name these that, albeit romantic, provide the ingredients to build a more equitable and ethical response. The universalisation of measures also requires serious reflection. As Elisio Macamo has pointed out about the need for mitigated responses, while we all face the same enemy in this virus, the risks and consequences for everyone are very different. But this also means that we need holistic research interventions that are not only biomedical. While it is important to treat and develop vaccines against this virus, we need more than ever before to treat and develop vaccines against the drivers of inequality.

Are there experiences from the African context that global stakeholders or researchers concerned with inequality should be mindful of?

Definitely. But this will mean taking Africans more seriously, and developing infrastructure that make visible and take seriously knowledge on and from the continent. Of course, this also means that we Africans need to take our selves and experiences more seriously and de-link from this global machine of brutality as Samir Amin and Thandika Mkandawire have recommended. But it will especially mean taking seriously the longstanding critique of feminists such as Oyeronke Oyewumi, Amina Mama, Fatou Sow, Ife Amadiume who continue to challenge established orthodoxies and champion the struggle for epistemic decentring.

We have a long experience with pandemics, epidemics and disasters, and have developed an extensive archive on how to domesticate and live with illness. This is a part of the world where neglected diseases continue to inflict damage, without effective treatment or vaccines. Look at diseases such as Lassa fever, malaria, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoea, river blindness, cholera and malnutrition, just to name these.

For years people have developed strategies to deal with extended disruptions to the ‘normalcy’ of life. Consider countries that lived through military dictatorships and constant states of emergency, those with long civil conflicts, disasters and long disruptions to education and work. Rather than use these to pathologise the continent as we are trained to do, we need to use this rich experience to develop and deploy equitable and context-specific responses to outbreaks. Again, Africa’s experience continues to emphasise that diseases are products of social relations, and therefore require interventions that transcend the biomedical.

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