/ 17 March 2020

Eusebius McKaiser: Certain views about Covid-19’s global trajectory are anti-poor and anti-human

Safrica Health Virus Covid19
Supervisor Brighten Mashau pushes an ultraviolet (UV) pulse lights disinfecting robot at the Netcare Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg., (Michele Spatari / AFP)


Crises bring out the best and worst in some humans. There are countless stories online about people scaffolding each other as we all experience the effects of Covid-19, a pandemic that is likely going to be the biggest public health threat of our generation.

I have seen Facebook posts about healthy individuals in cities under lockdown or with severe movement restrictions volunteering to go fetch medicine or to go buy groceries for neighbours who are in risk groups that make them dangerously susceptible to infection, and susceptible in particular to severe versions of the virus’s effect. 

I have already seen, here in South Africa, stories about people volunteering to look after their neighbours’ children, now that schools are being closed, but breadwinners must still go to work. The value of ubuntu, often casually trotted out in speech but less often expressed in behaviour, comes alive in examples of social cohesion and solidarity.

Unfortunately, there is also an incredible amount of foolishness doing the rounds that needs to be countered — urgently and vehemently — because the societal stakes are too high for imprudence, foolishness and even unethical speech and evidence-insensitive opinion to not be contested.  

The idea that Covid-19 is not serious in South Africa but mostly a virus that is affecting white Europeans, and China, is anti-human quite apart from being empirically false. For one thing, even if it were true that this virus is mostly affecting the Global North, it is callous to see tens of thousands of people infected with a nasty virus that causes immense physiological and psychosocial harm, and to respond with glee, just on account of where they were born. It is anti-human to be unmoved by the suffering of others.

The subtext of this callousness, among some people who peddle this kind of unfunny trope, is that this virus is the comeuppance that the Global North is getting its just desserts for the histories of colonialism and racism. Put simply: payback time! The schadenfreude embedded in this pathetic reasoning has multiple flaws.

For one thing, in many of the affected countries it is the poorest of the poor, and the working classes, who are disproportionately affected by the virus, and not chiefly nor exclusively the hegemonic political classes whose families and dynasties were the main architects of global racism and colonialism. Many of the most vulnerable people in these countries are second- and third-generation immigrants from the Global South. Societies within the Global North, in terms of the composition of their populations, have simply become far too complex in the 21st century for anyone to be so reductionist about the connections between Empire and a desire for historical justice. You may well be laughing at the wrong corpses.

Moral irony

But, beyond that, a moral irony should also not be lost on us that colonial masters, long dead, must be smiling in their graves at the sight of the children of their subjugated colonies behaving with similar kinds of disregard for the intrinsic value of people that they as racists had been role-modelling when they subjugated us. Do we really want to rehearse racism in our moral attitudes and thereby reproduce the neocolonial disregard for moral decency in how we treat, not just one another but also, people who are strangers to ourselves? There is no moral defence for unfunny and anti-human responses to a pandemic anywhere in the world.

It is obviously true that many disasters that mostly or exclusively affect poor regions do not receive adequate, or any, attention in richer countries. Hunger, for example, and food insecurity more generally, result in the deaths of many more people than will Covid-19 by the time we have a vaccine or cure for this virus. The same is true of many illnesses. It is not inaccurate to point out inconsistencies and moral hypocrisy in Western thought and behaviour.

However, we must do better than those people who do not behave with maximum moral regard for the wellbeing of others. Why mimic their lower moral standards? It is no time for peddling “what aboutism” analysis when the flow of people between countries means that the Global North cannot be neatly isolated from ourselves in terms of the behaviour of this virus. 

Because of open borders and the free flow of people through ports of entry it is impossible, and now too late, to divide the world between the “Covid-19 affected north” and “COVID-19 free south”. We are already, as our government has correctly explained with due urgency over the past two days, dealing with likely transmission rates within our communities that could lead to the dreaded exponential curves we have seen across the world.

So not only is schadenfreude morally misplaced, it is simply not an option from an empirical viewpoint. Our “day zero” has started. The clock is ticking. Speed is now of the essence, as well as social solidarity, and rational behaviour. We have no choice but to put aside political and ideological differences and co-operate, between ourselves and with other countries, to mitigate the effects of a potentially unprecedented human disaster.

Which brings me to why, finally, a tardy response to the government’s request that we help the state implement the measures that have been announced, won’t just prove to be anti-human, but also specifically anti-poor. Some people think Italy was hit hard because of an ageing population and that we can, therefore, chill a little bit in South Africa because the continent, and our country, has a youth bulge.

Local context

This intuition is tempting but misses some realities about our context. There is a difference between someone’s chronological age and their biological age. I might have been alive, say, for 30 years but if I am unwell because I have tuberculosis; HIV; a poor diet; or poor mental health due to homelessness and joblessness, the stresses of a uniquely violent South Africa, rape trauma, and so forth, then my biological age or “real age” may well be much higher than 30. 

Given how many South Africans have diabetes, live with HIV, and are susceptible to other lifestyle and socioeconomic-related conditions, we should not talk about a young population in such simplistic terms. There are millions of South Africans whose immune system is under enormous pressure, and which should not be further tested by Covid-19. 

Many of us, as a doctor friend of mine said to me the other day, lack vitality and health-seeking behaviour generally and so it is irresponsible to be blasé about what a virus of this kind could do to our bodies. Many people on Twitter, indifferent to the crisis or laughing at the Europeans, likely have a chronic condition but have not disclosed it publicly and would be experiencing a private hell should this virus attack their lungs. We really should check ourselves and not perform for the digital gallery.

And I have not even mentioned the further reality of a health sector that lacks the necessary resources to deal with exponential rates of infection should we not contain Covid-19. Now, taking account of how unhealthy many South Africans are (for reasons we can explain without judging ourselves), and how bruised and battered our health system is, how can anyone who pretends to be a friend of poor people and working-class people be indifferent about Covid-19? Let’s face it, not only is this virus colour-blind and class-blind, but it will be wealthier citizens that will have the better odds of staving off the potentially lethal effects of this virus, because a disproportionate number of poor South Africans shoulder our country’s massive chronic disease burden.

So, next time you find yourself laughing about the statistics of people dying in Europe, or racialise the stats, instead of focusing productively on what we each can do here to flatten the curve, remember that your anti-human and unfunny memes say less about colonial European powers than about your foolishness, lack of humanity and even a patent disregard for citizens who are poor and working-class.