OL web-02-01

"It is certainly not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time, but it is just as certainly our task to criticise the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers."
Karl Marx, 1844


Published: 1 May 2020

Transcribed from a Radio 786 interview.

Gadija Davids (Interviewer): The Daily Download on 100.4 FM – our latest stats coming through nationally and regarding COVID-19 3465 confirmed cases of the virus and then provincially in the Western Cape. As of yesterday 974 confirmed cases of infections. Total recoveries in this province are 221 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed the world and which is now spreading rapidly in South Africa, it’s crucial to locate the outbreak and associated responses within the globally and nationally dominant political economy of capitalist neoliberalism. Then while there is a broad merging consensus around the needs of the city practical health related measures that need to be taken to contain the pandemic. There is serious and growing divergence around the political, social and economic framing, application content and impact of those and related measures. International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) did a webinar with their long-time political, social activist, writer and present Director of Khanya College Oupa Lehulere. And he joins us now, hello, welcome to Radio 786, Oupa.

Oupa Lehulere: Good evening Gadija and good evening to your listeners.

GD: Oupa, this is when we speak about the political economy and how it relates to COVID-19. People might think that these two are not connected. But how do we draw the connections and make people understand that political economy really is, you know, connected to this virus and how we deal with it?

OL: I think the idea of, and importance of course, understanding political economy and locating the COVID-19 and responses to it is that our capacity as societies and that’s now globally, for us to respond to COVID-19 firstly, depends on the in the most direct sense on how well our health system is organised. Okay, that’s a very basic level. But a political economy also wants us to ask that I mean, if we look at the epidemiology of COVID-19, COVID-19, actually preys on and attacks, I mean, the mortality rates relate to people with underlying conditions, okay? So it’s people have diabetes for instance, are very, very susceptible to this. People who’ve had heart conditions, people who’ve had hypertension, it’s a people that is like TB, and so on. So, COVID-19 intersects with a nation’s morbidities underlying structure of disease.

Now, that structure of disease is not just a product of the individual’s own susceptibility to sicknesses. It’s actually a social product. I mean, in South Africa, for instance, we know that in the world all over that TB is a condition of poverty come from your social conditions. That’s why in South Africa it is spread so widely, because it’s a communicable disease.

The houses in which people live are crammed, are very damp, they’re very wet in the winter, if you take the Cape Town context. So a political economy attempts to understand the interface between disease itself, the social structures that make people susceptible to it, and the social structures that explaining how we’re able to confront that disease. So for example, I mean a country like Italy is like a classic example. I mean, Italy’s high mortality rate, is in many ways due to the fact that for the last 10 years, there’s been such a steep, in a way, destruction of the healthcare system in Italy. Just the number of beds alone that are available in hospitals. And if people have seen pictures that even in Italy are just sitting in a tent, there is no ventilator, there is no medicine. There’s not even enough nurses. But that’s not something that emerged now. It’s because for the last 10 years Italy’s health system has been decimated. Conversely, Germany’s say, people say, have been able to confront and respond to the disease. But in Germany, of course, they’ve got more health beds than they need, because they continued throughout the last ten years to invest heavily in public health.

So the Political Economy of a disease means that it is not accidental that certain countries have high mortalities and other countries have low mortalities. You’re going to a country that’s relatively poor, compared to South Africa and its resources. I mean a country like Cuba, can’t even compare to South Africa’s wealth. South Africa is a very wealthy country, but Cuba can do better with it because the structure of the health system, its political economy, allows it to respond rapidly and respond effectively to disease.

So I think that was the idea of trying to say to people we have to think about COVID-19 in the context of all these factors that we call the political economy, the underlying structure of disease, the capacity of the health system. And of course, to what extent is the government prepared to actually respond, what are the constraints on that government. And, I think the webinar was an attempt to explore those dynamics, and how, in a way South Africa is susceptible to scale a high mortality rate, even according to the epidemiology currently, looking at the modelling of the disease and thinking.

GD: And then we find that South Africa has been praised for how it’s dealt with and its response to the virus, the lockdown is in place so that it can get its health system, at least prepared to deal with the influx of cases and will eventually hit the hospitals once the lockdown is lifted. So in that case, and do we then find that South Africa has at least recognised that, you know, we could have done more previously to this pandemic. But we are trying to alleviate that problem, now. Do we find that the South African health system will be better off or once this pandemic leaves?

OL: Well, I think firstly, it’s important [to note] that the government is trying to portray what I think is a false sense of calm about COVID-19. Firstly, I mean, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in the middle of March [2020…], it was already raging as an epidemic in the major centres, we had South Africans quarantined in China, so everybody knew it was coming. And the South African government has not allocated any resources to fight COVID-19. In fact, the irony is that in the budget delivered by the Minister of Finance on the 26th of February, he actually cut the budget for health, besides other social services, like transport, like housing, and all of that.

No one would ever dream of engineering a massive retrenchment process in the middle of COVID. Or, as we see in South Africa, this week has been quite astonishing in the sense that the amount of demolitions of informal settlements that has been going on has been just amazing in the context of knowing that, look, the focus will be on COVID-19. If these people occupied this land, if you want to remove them, they’ll be there in three months’ time. I mean, I don’t agree that anyone should be removed from that land. But why choose now when you’re creating these kind of conditions? So I think we’re dealing here with a South African state firstly, that’s completely ill-prepared. I think it’s hiding the real numbers of disease. I mean I read the report saying another 900 thousand people screened in the last in the last week.

Now, we do a lot of the monitoring at Khanya College of the screening that’s happening in the township. Khadija, let me give an idea of what this screening looks. A health worker is asked to go to the house. And they stand outside the house. And the house has 10 people, and they asked one person, is there anyone here who’s got a symptom? And the person says no. And you know, what form says? It’s 10 people that have been screened, because they spoke to one person. Now understanding also our history of stigma. And we’ve seen instances where people with COVID are being stigmatised. Who’s gonna tell the people (health workers) that “actually that person there”, because it’s not the person themselves that you’re screening, you screen on behalf of somebody. And then you fill the form and say, “no COVID symptoms.”

So I see we sitting on a massive time bomb here, in terms of what’s happening in the townships. In this country, everybody knows that it is inconsistent, that all our COVID cases on little bit of milder scale are coming from the private hospitals. Netcare have got so many, so and so have got so many. Our weak point, we all know is the structure of the public hospitals. The public hospitals have had such a crisis of being able to contain communicable diseases, even of the most elementary kind, that it’s a miracle that suddenly we find the government officials wanting to pay themselves about flattening the curve. What is happening is not a flattening of the curve that we see, because proper testing I mean, I can tell you the townships of Gauteng are very, almost no testing facilities, most of these clinics don’t the capacity to test. That’s why it’s important to understand the political economy. Why is it that the South African government that knew the pandemic was coming but understood, the underlying disease in this country did not get off the block first? To say, look, we know what can come with this. It’s become clear all over the world what it can do, we have a bigger challenge than most countries, let’s get out first, lay out, the hospitals start with a screening.

The fact that the overseas visitors managed to get through the airport without being detected. At any point when the scene was already declared a pandemic is just amazing. And either way, I think I think there’s of a frivolity with which this thing is being treated.

And watch for these other debate about easily the restrictions. We haven’t even created an infrastructure that can handle a surge in cases and people are already wanting to buy the lead card already wanting to go back to work. If it’s an attitude of the social class, that was the country that they don’t see this is serious, it’s not their problem is the townships of decimated by this, they’re very far from us. So I think that there is very little, for me, that shows us the confidence that we have a government that’s up to the task, that’s taking the issue seriously. And I think a lot of those issues have to do with the history of the compensation structure, and in a way, who goes to bed hungry, who over eats in the expensive restaurants, who has no house, 30 people in one room, and then the other extreme of R56 million house with three people in it. I think COVID-19 is gonna bring all these questions together. And I think we’re ready to do that. We’re seeing it in the United States of America where these extreme divisions in wealth are playing out.

GD: Oupa, unfortunately we’ve run out of time. I am sure we can discuss this at length with you. Thank you so much for joining us this evening on Radio 786. He is a long-time political, social activist, writer and the director of Khanya College, Oupa Lehulere, who was speaking to us on the political economy and how it relates to COVID-19.

Listen to the interview here.

Originally published here: https://karibu.org.za/covid-19-and-the-political-economy/


"Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever." -Leon Trotsky