Writing this article was not easy. Once again, I was forced to doubt and question my sanity. How can it be that truths that, to me, are self-evident seem not to be obvious, especially to those in citadels of economic and political power. I struggled with writing this article, doubted and questioned my sanity, because I am beginning to doubt something else – the existence of an audience for the vantage point from which I write. In fact, I am tempted to stop writing.
What brought this on? Two things: First, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report this week in which it shared its assessment of the progress the world has made in the fight against Covid-19 since, just over a year ago, the WHO declared the public health crisis a global pandemic. A year ago, the WHO was reporting about 500 000 new Covid cases per week globally. Today, a year later, the WHO is reporting a figure of about 4.5 million new Covid cases per week worldwide – almost ten times the number it was reporting last year. In fact, over the past two months the infection rate has doubled and more than three million people worldwide have died since the Covid-19 crisis began. Why is this not dominating headlines and debates on (anti)social media, television and radio when it is clear that the Covid-19 global crisis has worsened since its onset in December 2019?
Second, I am haunted by what at a cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil – the largest cemetery in the country. So far, more than 300 000 people have died because of Covid-19 in Brazil. At the São Paulo cemetery, grave diggers are struggling to keep up with the number of coffins waiting to be buried. Families wait, crying and wailing like women mourning the deaths of their fishermen husbands in a J.M. Synge play, wait for graves, while the grave diggers, now bereft of all feeling by the mournful cries of fellow citizens, like robots, continue to dig – day and night. It is these scenes which made me to decide I would write about The Covid-19 Crisis – A Year Later. Nothing came. This was not a case of writers’ block. The blockage was neither creative nor intellectual. It was spiritual.
There is something that is dead about our soul at a global and collective level. Economic and political power have become a perversity – a black stain on the soul of humanity – and because of it, people are objects and profit is more important than people.
Again, I ask: Why is the fact that, today, the WHO is reporting about 4.5 million new Covid-19 cases per week not dominating headlines and debates on social media, television and radio?
Let me start with a benign interpretation and move to a not so benign explanation. People, worldwide, are tired. A sense of fatigue has descended quite heavily on humanity. The lockdown measures of the multiple waves of Covid-19 infection, together with the closing-opening dynamic of economies at national level, have caused people to be afflicted by a condition quite akin to the debilitating effects of the undulations of ‘clinical’ depression on the body, mind and spirit. The pain and poverty in, and of hope caused by grief and loss, as well as, the devastating social and economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, has become integral to the mind, soul as well as the physical planes of our human existence. And, as indicated by the WHO yesterday (16 April 2021), the infection rate is going in the wrong direction. This notwithstanding, total shutdowns are not an option because they have become a political hot potato. Governments are aware that the Covid-19 crisis has, in part, become a matter of national security both in terms of its broader implications for the economy and the well-being of citizens, and the narrower imperative of state security. With regard to state security, politicians fear that the day may come when lockdowns become the cause of civil unrest. Politicians know too that the stomach is the most important part of the brain. In countries such as South Africa, people are literally going hungry in the context of an economic recovery programme whose dividends remain meagre. Since politicians are creatures of self-preservation, any response that may cause contractions in electoral support is not going to be incorporated into the political repertoire of governing political parties and their leaders, and since politicians mumble when money talks, that profit matters more than people is a dynamic politicians must not disrupt because the decoupling of money from their narrow political interests may cause power to shift to politicians other than themselves and to political parties other than their own. In the end, no response to the worsening global Covid-19 crisis will be embraced by political and economic elites,, no matter how beneficial it is to humankind and citizens in the nation-state, if such a response constitutes a potential or real threat to profit and(or) political power and the Faustian pact between politics and money. So, it is primarily to preserve this order that the vaccination programmes have come into being. If it were possible to preserve economic power without people, vaccines would not be a necessity and science would be irrelevant. Also, to focus too much attention on the true nature of the Covid-19 crisis is to open the door to unwelcome social, political, economic and scientific analyses and, therefore, narratives about the re-calibration of the balance between lives and livelihoods because such a re-calibration may propel us towards a conversation about the quality of the said lives and livelihoods. Such folly may open the door to something else – indigenous knowledge. It is precisely for this reason that Western thought – resident in both black and white bodies – must be the ultimate and only solution to the Covid-19 crisis. Western ways of being and seeing must be the only solution because concepts such as ubuntu – not the commercial and popular version – that are a product of indigenous ways of knowing as well as indigenous ways of creating and producing knowledge constitute a very direct threat to the dominant logic in the global and domestic economy. When it comes to the African continent, our blessings and gifts are properly integrated into the global economic system and its underlying il(logic) but our interests are not. The same applies to other parts of the world languishing in the periphery of the global economic system. Because of this illogic, the seven most industrialised countries in the world are gormandising vaccines to the exclusion of the rest of the world, aided quite ably, by the chronic dearth and paucity of leaders in our countries. When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, these countries have manufactured scarcity. This they have done with the aim of manufacturing the consent of the governments of poorer countries at the expense of their citizens. The manufactured consent is manifest, for instance, in how our governments were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements with pharmaceutical firms. What secrets are contained in these agreements? We don’t have to know the actual content of the agreements to understand that they are not in our interests. If we ever suffer the misfortune of knowing what these agreements contain, we will know something else – confirmation that profit matters more than people and confirmation that, to politicians, people are objects. But the rich countries are being myopic. There is no safety for their citizens in the strategy of hoarding vaccines. Rich countries are going to achieve Pyrrhic victories in the war against Covid-19 if theirs continues to be a strategy based on manufacturing scarcity in order to maximise profit and other benefits of vaccine nationalism and diplomacy. What they must remember is that strategy does not always survive contact with the enemy. If they continue on this myopic and destructive path, their strategies will certainly not survive contact with the Covid-19 enemy even if our governments remain subservient to the power of money and servile to the geopolitical and the geostrategic interests of rich countries and their transnational corporations.
What must we do? What must civil society do?
Civil society must refuse to be co-opted by economic and political interests. We must resist vaccine authoritarianism, techno-authoritarianism and the tyranny of scientific expertise in particular and the tyranny of expertise in general. These are things that are weaponised to rob countries on the periphery of human development to comply with measures and Covid-19 regimes that, in the main, have little to do with saving lives, which are much more about the desire to concentrate economic power in a few hands in a few countries. In our country, there is the very strong possibility that the vicissitudes of our roll-out programme are a function of investments that were deployed to influence the outcome of battles in the ruling party before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. Obviously, therefore, civil society and citizens in general cannot rely on the political class in the fight against the neo-coloniality of rich countries and their transnational corporations. Saving lives must be about campaigning against the neo-colonial illogic of vaccine nationalism, diplomacy and authoritarianism.
Aubrey Matshiqi is a seasoned political analyst and writes in his personal capacity.