The pandemic of desperate poverty: A Third-World view of the Covid-19 lockdown

The other day I saw a beggar who did not know how to beg. I was in my local market in an unfashionable middle-class Delhi neighborhood. As I was loading my grocery purchases in my car near a tiny supermarket, I heard a tentative “Madamji”. That’s when I noticed the man sitting on the curb in the desolate street. 

He asked softly if I could give him some food. He sounded so hesitant and tentative that I got the sense that he was new at this. I asked him whether he wanted food to cook or food that was ready to eat. My mind was racing and I thought that if he had nowhere to cook, I would give him bread and cheese, although that would certainly not be a traditional meal for him. He said he could cook. I asked where he lived, and he said in a shanty nearby. Was his family here or back in his village? He said they were all here.

I went back into the store and bought him two kilos of rice and a packet of soy nuggets. I explained how to cook the soy. He broke down, thanking me profusely and wishing me a lifetime of blessings. He broke down because I had bought Rs 300 (about $4) worth of food for his family.

On my previous grocery-shopping round too, a disabled boy in ragged clothes had approached me, begging for flour and rice. I bought him a couple of oranges, which he accepted, but he repeated his entreaty for flour and rice. I enquired how he would cook them, and he eagerly assured me he had a home. I asked where, and he named a nearby neighborhood that people like me politely describe as “low-income”. 

The reality is that such neighborhoods are home to people who are oppressed because of their caste, faith or gender. Many of these people are dirt-poor and earn precarious livelihoods. I bought the child two kilos each of flour and rice. I thought maybe people in his family have lost their livelihoods in the lockdown. 

My friends say they are glad I was there for these starving people. The fact is: I was there that day. A week or two weeks later, I cannot be sure they are okay. I cannot imagine the terror of the ongoing lockdown – is it a colonial hangover that we’re using the word “curfew” interchangeably? – for people who used to earn a living, no matter how humble, and who now have to beg.

Often, we hear middle-class Indians urging others not to give anything to beggars, because they’re part of a “begging racket”, implying that begging is organized crime. And yet, nobody has ever come across evidence of such a racket. Even people who have studied the lives of beggars say they have heard of no such thing. So why do we choose to believe that begging rackets exist, and that what is right in front of our eyes is not actual desperation?

In India’s version of the Covid-19 pandemic, hunger is as much of a tragedy as the disease itself, even in a relatively well-administered city like Delhi. Among the hardest hit are migrant daily wage earners, unemployed people, and the homeless. This video, shot on April 18 in Delhi, shows people waiting for food in a two-kilometer-long queue in the scorching sun:

State and local governments, faith groups, volunteer groups, and non-profits are trying to provide food to such people. But 26 days into India’s lockdown, it is obvious that many are still falling through the cracks. Stories about attacks on, and deaths of, the poor are surfacing with increasing frequency.

For example, 29-year-old Gangamma, a migrant construction worker, was forced to leave Bangalore when work came to a halt. After walking 300 kilometers, she died of hunger on her way home to Raichur. Mukesh, a house painter in his early thirties, in Gurgaon, near Delhi, sold his cellphone for Rs 2,500 ($33) to buy flour, sugar, rice, and a fan for his four children so that they could sleep comfortably in the rising heat – and then ended his life. His neighbors pitched in for his last rites, because his family had no money. Sudarshan Rasal, a 49-year-old taxi driver in Mumbai, died of acute respiratory distress after being turned away by eight hospitals. Despite coming from a locality officially declared a Covid-19 hotspot, Rasal remained undiagnosed, because doctors cannot take a swab from a dead man. 

The image below, of a starving man, was taken near the Yamuna river in North Delhi on April 15, by Sunil Kumar Aledia, whose Facebook profile identifies him as convenor of the National Forum for Homeless Housing Rights:

Aledia also took this picture of hungry men rummaging through rotting bananas dumped in the Yamuna:

There are two parallel Indias at the best of times, but the Covid-19 pandemic is making it harder and harder to avoid what we pretend not to see most of the time. One India is missing its maids and drivers, virtue-signaling about paying them through the lockdown, rediscovering the kitchen, and cheerfully taking on the challenge of trying to recreate from its limited pantry the taste of that amazing crepe they had that one time at that tiny creperie in Paris. The other India is trying desperately not to die.

Tomorrow I plan to go out to buy essentials. I don’t expect to find the coffee filters or vanilla extract that I “need”. But I think I’ll be okay. 

New Delhi, April 20, 2020

(Video credit: YouTube/ Scroll) (Photo Credit: Facebook / Sunil Kumar Aledia)

Covid Operations: The laws be damned, evictions continue. Stop them now!

On Tuesday, April 14, Alexandria City Councilmember Canek Aguirre introduced a resolution to the City Council to freeze rents, mortgages and negative credit reporting: “No resident who has lost income should be required to pay rent during this public health emergency, nor should they accumulate debt for unpaid rent.” The City Council unanimously approved the resolution. Across the United States and around the world, the good news is that governments at all levels are enacting bills that freeze rents and mortgage payments as well as banning evictions. The bad news is that eviction notices are still going out and, even worse, evictions are still ongoing, in the very places where they have been banned. We have to talk about evictions and try to understand what’s going on.

First, the good news, from the past week or so. On Tuesday, in California, the San Jose City Council voted to extend a local moratorium on residential evictions until May 31, along with other renter protections. (Earlier in the month, California’s state legislature passed an eviction freeze that will last until 90 days after California’s state of emergency is lifted. While that in itself would be good news, better is that the legislature’s action took an earlier moratorium, by the Governor, and gave it sharper teeth and more muscle.) On Thursday, Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, expanded and extended Washington’s eviction moratorium, and added additional protections. In Massachusetts, on Friday, the state legislature passed legislation that would ban evictions and foreclosures, and sent that on to the Governor to signOn Friday, David Ige, Governor of Hawaii, declared a moratorium on evictions; and Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, extended Michigan’s eviction moratorium until May 15

 In India, on Friday, the Indian state of Maharashtra “asked landlords to postpone rent recovery from tenants for at least three months … [and] not to drive tenants out of their homes if they fail to pay rents during the current period.” On Monday, the South African government reiterated the national suspension of evictions during the national lockdown. Finally, in the United States, that national government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka the CARES Act, which precludes being served with an eviction until July 25, 2020, along with a few other protections. With all these bans and moratoria, everything should be fine, right? Wrong.

On Thursday, Pro Publica reported that in at least four states – Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida – landlords continued to file eviction notices, despite the national ban, and suffered no negative consequences. What’s that you say about ignorance of the law being no excuse? Not when it comes to evictions, apparently. In California, in violation of both federal and even stronger state laws, landlords are threatening to evict and are evicting tenants. While both are illegal, actually evicting tenants means local law enforcement actually arrive at the residences and forcibly remove tenants. In Michigan, a landlord sent seven-day eviction notices to 80 tenants and explained that he had to, so as to “fulfill fiduciary responsibilities” to lenders. The law of lenders supersedes the law of both Michigan and the United States. The same story in LouisianaArizonaMissouri. Despite local and national legislation, across the United States, people are being evicted.

Likewise, in South Africa, despite a national moratorium on evictions, local jurisdictions have sent in police and special forces, colloquially know as Red Ants. to evict residents, most egregiously perhaps in Durban and Cape Town where they entered informal settlements, destroyed shacks, and `removed’ entire populations. Why does that sound familiar?

What is the investment in evictions? There’s the financial investment, but there’s more. In this period where staying at home, whatever that home looks like, can mean staying alive, what `inspires’ police and their avatars, who are just people like you and me, to render individuals, families, communities homeless, to turn fellow human beings into raw material for the global manufacturing of death and destruction? While the excuses and explanations are manifold and easily available, they all fall short when you put them face-to-face with the people who actually do the deed. What is our investment in evictions that, despite everything we know and think we know and feel and think we feel, we let them go on, a little dissipated in volume and velocity, perhaps, but as lethal as ever? 

(Credit for Everett Shinn, Eviction (Lower East Side): Smithsonian American Art Museum)

I write this from northeast London, in lockdown now for three more weeks, in a working class and diverse neighbourhood of people of colour, where government inaction has put fear in people’s eyes

Around April 10, 2020, it became all too clear that the UK Government had been advancing a faulty set of numbers concerning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the population. Over the following week, it would backtrack, confess shortcomings, and curiously ‘discover’ that very old administrative and statistical procedures had not been factored into the death total numbers. The biopolitical crux of the problem was that, while deaths in hospital due to C-19 were being daily reported by the massively under-funded and austerity starved NHS, deaths out ‘in the public’ were being reported once a week and not being factored into the daily totals. Which meant that anywhere from 10-50% of C-19 deaths around the UK were not being reported or integrated into overall figures. 

The revelation of this bureaucratic glitch came as a bit of a shock to most people, as the mortality numbers for the UK were already grim, and well on track to match the numbers in Italy and Spain, European countries particularly hard it by the virus. But wait! Britons are not in the EU! “We gained our Independence from Europe with blessed Brexit!” Oh, wait, that’s right, viruses give fuck all for national borders, and nationalism. Even Boris, that prevaricating, racist side-kick showman who helped to gut the NHS and slash doctor and nurse salaries (he led the cheers in Parliament on the day the Tories won that vote)–even bouncy Boris had to admit that it was the NHS that saved his life, in particular two nurses, one from Portugal and the other from New Zealand. 

Many people in the UK just slightly older than the clown PM were not so lucky, as the many people who could have been saved if he and his government had acted swiftly and with care and solidarity with the most vulnerable perished needlessly. But today around 80% of the UK’s nursing homes and elderly care facilities have reported infections, and the death toll for these elders is rising sharply. On April 14ththe Financial Times published a piece that outlined the coming horror: “Britain’s care homes are struggling to cope with a wave of [C-19] cases, with thousands of residents at risk of dying as the disease spreads. Operators say official figures misrepresent the extent of the critis and complain that they are short of protective equipment.” The article noted that around 400,000 older people currently live in UK care homes, and up to two-thirds of the facilities are reporting that elderly and frail residents have contracted the infection. 

Statistical modelling–dodgy at the best of times, seriously flawed in the case of the UK’s mortality numbers–optimistically suggest that around a quarter of this elderly population, that is around 100,000 people, could die if C-19 ‘becomes endemic in care facilities’. But it is clear these are not real numbers, and the statistics we have for actual deaths are not real numbers precisely because of how the statistics are compiled. Coupled with the lack of resources and protective equipment for front-line workers, the situation in the UK continues to be very serious. As of today (April 16), while Boris continues to convalesce at his Chequers residence, the UK is reporting more daily deaths than either Spain or Italy. Of course, it is easy to say that this world health crisis could have been handled better, and that should be said and also strongly debated in parliament. But what is harder to grasp, very difficult to model, and easy to manipulate in populist talking points, is the long-term effects of austerity on a society structured in different kinds of racial, class, social, embodied, and regional domination. The numbers of front-line staff dying of C-19 are disproportionately people of colour…

I write this from northeast London, in lockdown now for three more weeks, in a working class and diverse neighbourhood of people of colour, where the government’s inaction and, specifically, Boris’s absurd bravado (a small nasty shadow against Trump’s looming idiocy) has put fear in people’s eyes, and (sometimes racist) anger in their distancing. Well, at least capitalism has been put on a kind of hold for a couple of months; we’ve all gotten a taste of what it would mean to overthrow it.    

(Image Credit: Steve Bell / The Guardian)

Covid Operations: The ticking time bomb has a dangerous history

In the era of Covid-19, in the current pandemic moment, the world has “discovered” that prisons, jails, immigration detention or removal centers, juvenile detention centers, and any place of confinement is predictably overcrowded, under-resourced, and, suddenly, dangerous to our public health. This “discovery” is described as the time bomb or, more dramatically, the ticking time bomb. While the ticking time bomb scenario suggests concern for the incarcerated and those who work within incarcerated spaces, the phrase “ticking time bomb” has its own history, especially in the last twenty years, a history we would do well to recall.

Here are some ticking time bomb scenarios from the past 24 hours or so. Across the United States, “rural America is left with not only a health care crisis but a potential ticking time bomb if these jails become hot spots of contagion.” Meanwhile, there’s a “health time bomb that could all too easily detonate in locked juvenile facilities.” In Wisconsin, the local ACLU explains, “Right now Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons are a ticking time bomb that threatens the health of all Wisconsinites, especially people of color who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration”. In Mexico, the shelters along migrants’ routes understand that lack of information and misinformation can create its own time bomb: “We try to avoid this sort of mass panic among the people in the shelter, because that could be a time bomb.” In Panama, “overcrowding in prisons is seen as a time bomb”. In Haiti, “the prison network is an epidemiological ticking time bomb.” Peru’s prisons are “a time bomb” as are those in Colombia, the Dominican Republic. In the Philippines, “jails are a COVID-19 time bomb”.  Overcrowded Cambodian prisons and drug detention centres “are a ticking time bomb for the country and potentially its neighbours.”

That’s 24 hours, and that’s 24 hours. Remember the television series, 24, in which counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, every week, found himself in a situation in which he had 24 hours in which to stop a massive terrorist attack? The fact that there was a finite, definite and even definitive time frame meant that Bauer could ethicallytorture suspects in order to gain the vital information. That, in a nutshell, is the ticking time bomb scenario. From September 11 on, for well over a decade, a subject of passionate debate among some was whether or not torture was ever justified, much less ethical. Despite so-called liberal traditions, some claimed that within weeks, the U.S. populace overwhelmingly embraced the logic of the ticking time bomb. 

While the ticking time scenario lit up the recent and long dark night of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and beyond, its origins are said to Jeremy Bentham’s 1804 essay “Means of extraction for extraordinary occasions”: “Suppose an occasion to arise, in which a suspicion is entertained, as strong as that which would be received as a sufficient ground for arrest and commitment as for felony — a suspicion that at this very time a considerable number of individuals are actually suffering, by illegal violence inflictions equal in intensity to those which if inflicted by the hand of justice, would universally be spoken of under the name of torture. For the purpose of rescuing from torture these hundred innocents, should any scruple be made of applying equal or superior torture, to extract the requisite information from the mouth of one criminal, who having it in his power to make known the place where at this time the enormity was practicing or about to be practiced, should refuse to do so?”

For over 200 years, so-called liberal democracies officially took on that supposition and rejected it. In 2001, that all seemed to change. What changed was not the practice of torture but the official practice of torture; what changed was also the ostensible vox populi. The point is that, historically, the invocation of a ticking time bomb has been more than a warning of impending and catastrophic violence and harm. The invocation of the ticking time bomb has been used to justify the abrogation of due process, of Constitutionally protected rights, and of both humanity and a sense of humanity. Remember that. Those currently living in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers face the real and immediate danger of deaths in epic number. They need neither discoveries nor metaphors; they deserve dignity and respect, and they need to be released now.  

(Image Credit: San Francisco Gate)

Covid Operations: Where is the State that practices grace?

For many religious and faith-based communities, these are days of thanks and reflection. Easter. Passover. Ramadan. Days of grace, days of saying grace. Where is the State of grace, where is the nation-State that practices, that is made of practices of, pardon, forgiveness, clemency, mercy? Where is the nation-State whose actions form a daily and constitutive prayer of grace? Where is the State that is grateful for humanity?

Here’s some news from the past day or so. Predictably, the national iterations of the global lockdown has “resulted” in a spike in domestic violence, especially in home-based violence against women and girls: ZimbabweSouth Africa,  Trinidad and TobagoMexicoIndiaChinaFranceSpainItaly,  across the United States, and around the world. This spike was predictable, and national governments did nothing, often did less than and worse than nothing, to address the “shadow pandemic”. In many ways, the reporting naturalizes the situation. Boys will be boys, men will be men, women will be beaten and sacrificed. It’s a shame, but really … what can we do? We can shut off access to reproductive health, GBV survivors’ support, and HIV testing. We can do that. While some have noted the ways in which individual national responses “are failing women”, the situation is more direct, aggressive and violent. Nation-States have sacrificed women, en masse and particularly, reprising the femicidal practices of witch hunts, replete with sanctimonious speeches of rule of law, morality and faith. These are days of thanks and reflections, days of grace.

Where is the State that practices grace? While Governors and individual state Departments of Correction debate releasing prisoners to avert a prison-based massacre, at the national level, the United States government has “quietly” ended asylum processes and sped up deportation proceedings. In the past couple weeks, the United States has expelled 6,300 “undocumented migrants”, including unaccompanied children. Children at the border are being turned away rather than turned over to shelters. Children already in shelters are being forced to go to court, often without any legal representation, and then are shipped off like so much cargo. First, we reiterate the witch hunt, then we repeat the human cargo ships of the slave trade. And then we say grace. 

A while ago, Korean-American poet Emily Yungmin Yoon also reflected on how `we’ say grace, how the nation-State says grace:

Say Grace

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.”

Amen.

(Image of Lantern Tree by Georgia O’Keeffe: Wadsworth Atheneum)

As Black folks are dying from Coronavirus at disproportionate rates

As Black folks are dying from Coronavirus at disproportionate rates, we cannot just talk about co-morbidities. We must seriously discuss medical racism and how once you are diagnosed with Coronavirus, you are isolated. And there is no one with your best interest at heart to advocate for you. Black folks, all of us, have at least one horror story about how if we hadn’t intervened or if someone had not intervened on our behalf with a doctor or team of doctors, the outcome might have been fatal. 

I know I have my share of stories even going so far as to pull a Ralph Ellison “Invisible Man” and open a sealed envelope that a pediatrician gave me to hand off to the emergency room attendant because I questioned the pediatrician’s treatment of my son in her office. Lucky for me that I opened the letter because that racist pediatrician, who happened to be Pakistani, had recommended that social services intervene (you know, even foreigners see Black women as inept mothers. And how dare I question her treatment protocol). When the pediatrician came to visit my son in the hospital after attending a cocktail party, I not only ran her the riot act and obtained a new pediatrician, but I reported her for being intoxicated on the job. If you are on call, you are not supposed to be consuming alcohol. 

So, let’s make sure that we have a margin of error for the fact that some of these deaths can be attributed to race-based biases that often do not promulgate positive outcomes for our health.

(Photo Credit: Praxis Center)

Covid Operations: I want to talk about compassion … and the compassionate state

i want to talk about gratitude.
i want to talk about compassion.
i want to talk about respect.
how even the desperate deserve it.
                                    Lenelle Moise

Haitian American poet Lenelle Moise begins her poem, “quaking conversation”, as follows:

“i want to talk about haiti.
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

how this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
i want to talk about disasters.

how men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt and cold shoulders.”

I want to talk about compassion. Like “kind”, “compassion” was once an active, transitive verb, meaning to have compassion on and with. You could compassion someone, we could compassion one another. Today, compassion is supposed to suggest that we suffer together, that seeing the suffering of another, one suffers if not identically equally. I want talk about compassion and ask, “Where is the State that is compassionate? That suffers with the suffering?”

Here’s some news from the past 24 hours. Law enforcers kill and brutalize during SA lockdown. Still in South Africa, municipalities defy Covid-19 eviction moratorium. Those evicted want to know how can children wash their hands if they’re homeless? National governments watch and do nothing concerning overcrowded, toxic conditions in refugee `camps’ in Greeceimmigrant detention centers, prisons, and jails across the United States and elsewhere. Corporations force workers to show up for work and then provide little to no protection and no consideration or benefits: AmazonTargetFedEx. Meanwhile gig workers, casual workers, `informal’ workers across the country experience erasureUndocumented workers become the new generation to live Silence = Death, which begins as Invisibility = Death. Exclusion is a death sentence. We continue to debate who is an essential worker, essential workers continue to die. Meanwhile, across the United States, Coronavirus is “ravaging Black communities”; African Americans are “dying at an alarming rate during the pandemic”. This is a partial list of less than 24 hours in the day in the life. Exclusion = death. It always has.

In the current state of exception, we must dream, demand, and create exceptional states, states that refuse the necropolitical, exclusionary diktat of acceptable collateral damage. At the end of March, as the death tolls rose and rose, Spain extended unemployment benefits to domestic workers. While it’s not perfect, it is an expansion of rights and recognition by the State. In South Korea, the city of Ansan decided to extend “livelihood security support benefits” to all residents, including foreign residents. Again, it’s not perfect, but, again, it is an expansion of rights and recognition by the State. Anything less is a death sentence. A status quo built on exclusion is a death sentence and always has been. We must talk about compassion and we must work to build a compassionate State. I want to talk about compassion. 

(Image by Mimi Zhu: National Museum of Women in the Arts)

There shall be

There shall be

There’s a Manifesto
There’s a Party Political
There’s a Charter and 
a Statement too 
of some intent

There shall be
the usual smoke
come election-time
(and no doubt after)

Plenty for all
All for plenty
in the many
Lands of Plenty

Plenty of material 
for PhDs and movies
cartoonists and satirists 
and even for comedians
to stand up

Plenty now dressed
in their appropriate
Aims and Objectives
(no red carpet here)

from this stage
to every other stageist
in this phase or that
in this queue or that

There shall be
no walking of dogs
says a talking hat
(face on straight)

But
There shall be
Post-COVID-19
Elections 
and the beyond

There shall be
Plenty for All
to remember 
here and beyond

Dogs walking or not

Lockdown Day 5 went by, with a weekend Zapiro cartoon (Daily Maverick 4 April).

(Photo Credit: The South African)

COVID-19 And the Death of Common Sense

Marc Chagall’s The Falling Angel

COVID-19 And the Death of Common Sense

Yes
Apparently part of the plan is
That I
A Black Man in America, am going to put a mask around my face
A bandana
Leave my house
And then go outside.

Where there are policemen with guns.

Who do so well with Black men without masks.

With the ascent of fear
Comes the death of common sense.

Why do we wait for liars to tell us the truth
And doubt our own insight and experience?

And then he started to scream.

It was a low guttural growl at first
Changing gradually to a sound one might expect to hear
If the doorway to Hell were left ajar
And like an idiotic lovecraftian eavesdroper
You to put your ear to the crack to hear sounds
That would leave scars.

And after hearing what could not be unheard
You will ask yourself for the rest of your troubled life
What was worse:
The screaming
Or what was being done to cause it?

I mean, you would ask this
If you could stop screaming!

Safety gear is just for your psychology
Just like headgear in full contact sparing
Or like football gear that DOESN’T prevent chronic traumatic encephalopathy
In lifelong players

Transmission of a virus occurs through contact
It doesn’t matter how much safety gear you have
If you are in constant contact with a virus

Said the doctors in Italy

Isn’t that written somewhere in children’s school books?

Presentes mis doctores que luchan en la vanguardia de esta batalla

The common cold is a virus
And there is no cure or vaccine against it
Because of how a virus changes vectors

How, then, will there be a vaccine for COVID-19?

People take flu shots every year
And every year people still get the flu
A flu that is always from somewhere else
And never from “here”.

I’m not a doctor
Or in medical school
And I don’t play one on T.V.
But I know that.

Tactically, they know people can’t deal with the truth
They are bringing the population along
Spoon feeding us lies incrementally
Inch by inchTo prevent a wide spread panic

And suddenly there are daily Presidential press conferences
But still no uniform national strategy

COVID-19, Kidney Stone, Chemo
The new rock, paper, scissors
And COVID-19 beats Chemo

As healthcare professionals
And Samuel L. Jackson urge us
To stay the fuck at home.

This is what I’m lookin’ at.

Good news takes care of itself
Don’t tell me about 5 minute tests
(Five minutes abs didn’t work either)

As bodies gather in hallways
And are loaded on to refrigerated trucks

Good news takes care of itself.
And there is no good news.

Today they are hoarding toilet paper
What will it be tomorrow?

Maybe I do need a mask.

May the angel of death pass over your home.
מי ייתן מלאך המוות פסח לביתך

(Image Credit: Marc Chagall)

State power in the time of Corona: To protect and serve … whom?

At the time of writing, nearly half the world has closed down or is waking up to an unfamiliar world of  encroachments on physical mobility in ways not seen since the War of  1914 to 1918. Covid-19 has exposed existing fault lines in public health care provision and in  public health crisis in both the global South and the global North. The realities of socioeconomic exclusion have exposed ongoing inertia in public service provision and the rescinding role of the State in those provisions. Race, gender and class have been foregrounded in this time of crisis.  Whilst the Corona virus offers a critical moment to rethink and reframe the social compact between state, citizens and residents, it is also a dangerous and alarming time of enforced mass  enclosure. This is not the first time that humanity has been here though the scale and reach are unprecedented

Following Hurricane Katrina, many people sought to answer the question of whether its social effects and the government response to the country’s biggest natural disaster had more to do with race or with class. Media images broadcast from Louisiana showed nearly all those left behind to suffer and die were Black Americans—it looked a race, gender and class issue because it was. A few years later during Hurricane Sandy, it was clear that the US had learnt nothing from the traumatic upheaval wrought by Katrina. In this instance, it appears that nearly all might be left behind, but that the social  binaries of race based poverty and gender would endure, starkly. 

Though often hampered by  resource constraints, most African countries have a better track record of deploying state support and resources to deal with the upheavals of disease and the aftermath of war. The Ebola virus, the ongoing HIV/AIDs pandemic and malaria have provided lessons in the folly of denial, the importance of protecting health workers, of accessible and low-cost medication, robust public education, and open and consistent communication. So much of what seems like basic sense has been found wanting in the handling of Covid -19.  The news that British Prime Minister   Boris Johnson has tested positive after robust handshaking  whilst we have been advised to keep a distance and wash our hands shows a reckless leadership deficit during a defining moment.

The last forty years of globalisation as market orthodoxy has commodified health care. The globalisation of trade is  central  to  health services that have become a tradeable commodity  in an era in which many States have disinvested from health services altogether. Like education, access to water and electricity,  health provision  has been a casualty of structurally  adjusted States and the curve between the global South and the North has been exposed during this crisis as the UK and the US, often considered to be ‘developed’, have again been found weak and unprepared for a health trauma of this scale. The prescripts and onerous impacts of conditional aid and state disinvestment in social provision  have long been felt by African and Latin American countries. 

Globally, states are all experiencing the impacts and limits to free market logic. Though  characterised by many as the great equaliser, a time when States are equally fragile across the global north and global south, the true genesis of this global devastation is northern capitalism and demobilised  States. Structural adjustment as a project has evolved and is a continuing mantra of the  International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Both  recently unveiled their market driven response of emergency loans targeting developing countries  primarily in the Global South. The depleted  health and sanitation systems in many  countries  is testimony to the devastating success of neoliberal globalisation in immobilising national  state capacities.  

Following structural adjustment programmes, most health care and essential services – including water, energy, education – may be removed from state purview for cost recovery  arrangements. In this scenario private companies invest their funds in return for state guaranteed monopolies and price control, further dispossessing and excluding vulnerable communities. Public Private Partnerships – which are essentially polite privatisation – have existed for centuries,  thriving even more when States are weakened. These have also  become the easy allies of disaster capitalism as seen in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy where education and energy supplies were privatised, monetised and removed from the domain of public good.  

Despite decades of state neglect, social apartheid and various global traumas, consensu has formed on closing down public movement and curbing personal freedoms to address the War called Corona. The introduction of “lockdowns” with no tangible provision for social safety nets has posed significant risks to workers in the parallel economy, internally displaced persons, the working poor, fragile urban communities and other marginalised sectors. 

Notwithstanding  outsourcing their most fundamental functions to the private sector and ignoring their duty to distribute social and economic benefits to the most vulnerable in society, States are now  calling on us to trust them as they invoke martial law. This has  resulted in the largest shutdown of the last century. Unlike the two European wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) the impact of this situation is not localised to a few European nations, the Soviet Union, Australia,  Japan and the United States. Globalisation has transmitted both the disease and uniform approaches to problem solving. 

Students of civil liberties, human rights and social cohesion have opined on the politics of enclosure in times of war and peace.  Even during enclosed times, States exhibit inherent biases and weaknesses that maintain privilege for corporate and masculinised interests.  South Africa has lived through public control  in living memory, and distrust of the State and state security is still embedded in social discourses. Like many other  countries, the spectre of securitisation of human mobility sits badly, particularly as we still recall the dehumanising policing of colonial Apartheid exemplified by the Sharpeville Massacre, Soweto Uprising and Uitenhage massacres among many.  Troublingly, the Marikana Massacre  and the violence against the #FeesMustFall activists illustrates that the State can be a brutal  personality regardless of the supposedly progressive underpinnings of the Government in power.

At the time of writing, South Africans are required to carry Identity Books in case we are stopped by the police or army when going to buy  groceries or medical supplies. Once more, personhood is linked to a form of the much reviled Apartheid Passbook.  It is deeply unsettling, albeit necessary, that states are containing us to  control a warlike virus that might have been prevented had the same States not neglected  and commodified health care  so shamelessly. The same could be said of nearly every country battling the Corona pandemic.  

Whilst allowing already problematic Father States to lead us through very complex terrain, we recall that States are often inclined towards repression. Public order policing and martial law have often been the retreat of authoritarian regimes, evoking public safety, order and emergencies real or created to control citizens and residents . Late last year the Chilean government clamped down on high school protestors who demanded that the State provide  cost effective public transport. The escalating rage resulted in something resembling a nationwide, cross-issue movement against price increases, poor social services, and unemployment. It remains to be seen whether  the promise of a constitutional reform will quell public dissent. France has faced similar protests on public pension funds  and the retreat of the State in maternity clinics and postal services . Macron  effectively  ‘closed down’ France nearly two weeks ago. In the midst of their lockdown, thousands marched against him the day before local government elections. While States might have found the opportunity to indulge their regressive impulses during the time of Corona, not all of us are amnesiac about how we got here.  

(Photo Credit: Daily Maverick / EPA – EFE / Kim Ludbrook)