COVID-19 pandemic: Statement by the Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN) as Southern Africa faces a socioeconomic catastrophe we must break with capitalist globalisation and neoliberalism
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a great danger to the SADC region. If the spread of the virus is not urgently arrested and is allowed to spread to high-density arears, slums, refugee camps and other centres of impoverishment, Southern Africa will face a health, economic and social disaster on a scale never experienced before. The developed world is being over-run by the pandemic and their economies driven into recession. The chances of Southern Africa, therefore coping are remote, as most of the region’s economies are already in a desperate state.
It is crucial to understand that the coronavirus is not a ‘natural disaster’ as often claimed. It is the outcome of human actions which have created a system of agriculture which subordinates animal and human welfare to profit. The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that our current food system is unsafe as well as unjust and unsustainable. It is unsafe because it involves massive ecosystem disruption which causes pandemics and new pathogens.
The most obvious example of such disruption is the destruction of habitats for mono-crop production. Scientists have established that excessive habitat destruction (especially deforestation) is driving a massive extinction in which three quarters of different species of life will disappear. Furthermore, it is clear that climate change driven by human production of fossil, fuels makes pandemics more likely.
Capitalist globalization implanted within the legacy of colonialism, neo colonialism and elite driven cronyism has locked Southern Africa into a multi-dimensional economic, social and ecological crisis and has rendered the region ripe for another social catastrophe. The COVID-19 pandemic is that long predicted catastrophe. The impact of this on women, as the primary care givers needs to be highlighted and rural women in particular.
Causes for concern
SAPSN is greatly concerned with the dire state of the region’s health system. Although uneven across the region, the public health systems cannot cope with the current burden of disease. State coffers in most parts of the region are in deep crisis with government budgets unable to meet existing challenges and completely dependent on donor aid. We have already seen the failure to deal with several cholera outbreaks, Ebola, which struck the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in Central Africa, showing the incapacity of the governments to deal with crises of such magnitude.
The public health system, on which the majority depend, is on its knees. Zimbabwe has only a combined 20 ventilators across both private and public health sectors. Malawi has about 25 ICU beds for a population of 17 million people. In 2001, in Mozambique, there were just 2.4 doctors and 20.5 nurses per 100,000 population. Swaziland has no laboratory to process tests for COVID-19. And in South Africa, while one doctor sees 2,457 people in the public health facilities, the estimated ratio of doctors to people in private health is 1 to 429.
The state of health in Southern Africa is rooted in the region’s history of underdevelopment and domination. Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by IMF and World Bank eroded the initial post-independence gains in building a public health system responsive to the needs of the majority. In the face of harsh economic conditions, health budgets and the budgets critical to the social determinants of health were cut, as governments adopted neoliberal programmes of austerity.
The precarious state of health in Southern Africa, like most parts of Africa is also rooted in the system of patriarchy which has given rise to an extensive and informalised system of care weighing on the shoulders of women. This manifests in different forms, including health care provided for the sick, elderly and children by women at home; unpaid community health work and in some instances women health practitioners are working for very low wages without decent benefits. These women will be at the frontline of dealing with the pandemic and the intensification of the worsening condition for social reproduction and gender based violence.
SAPSN strongly feels the Extra-Ordinary Meeting of SADC Ministers of Health, which took place on 9 March 2020 is a totally inadequate response to deal with the current crisis as it fails put in place practical measures to ensure that every country can intensify testing as well as ensuring that the region secures adequate health equipment, medicines, protective clothes and sanitizing materials.
What must be done
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a new global recession which is plunging economies around the world into crisis. For an export, heavily indebted and aid dependent Southern Africa the looming crisis will destroy livelihoods and further cripple already ailing SADC economies. The economic dimensions of this crisis require a comprehensive emergency response by SADC. We need, now more than ever, a regional response as opposed to countries responding in isolation because the virus knows no border and its implications are of a transboundary nature.
The threat posed by COVID-19 cannot be treated solely as a health risk but must be seen as a threat to the overall development of Southern Africa.
In this regard we are calling on SADC governments to implement a debt moratorium and divert resources meant for debt repayments towards rebuilding the public health system and investing in critical social service sectors including energy, water, sanitation and housing infrastructure to build the resilience of SADC people to withstand the impact of the crisis.
SADC, like many corporations must declare force majeure, i.e. the existence of unforeseeable circumstances which make it impossible to fulfil the terms of trade and investment agreements that stand in the way of local production of vital health equipment, medicines and other inputs necessary to address the pandemic. SADC cannot continue to be bound by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) embedded in various trade regimes such as in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).
Whilst SAPSN agrees that every effort must be directed towards flattening the curve of the spread of COVID-19, primarily through social distancing, exercising personal hygiene, we strongly believe imposing lockdowns without addressing the social welfare of workers and citizens is disastrous. Furthermore, social (physical) distancing during lockdown is difficult to exercise in the region’s populous high density suburbs. Again, implementing lockdowns without vigorous awareness raising amongst citizens is likely to cause violent confrontations between citizens and security forces. In any case, lockdowns must not be militarised and must be undertaken with the support ordinary citizens.
SAPSN calls for SADC to urgently put in place a regional emergency fund towards social relief and ensure the provision of medical equipment, medicines and protective clothing for health officials and take care of workers affected by the lockdowns through the implementation of a regional income grant.
SADC must urgently increase subsidies and support for small-scale farmers producing food crops. Small-scale producers must be integrated into the mainstream food supply chains to ensure regional food security.
SAPSN calls on the peoples of Southern Africa, including faith based organisations, trade unions, peasant formations, women’s’ movements, land rights movements, social movements and progressive NGOs to unite and stand in solidarity in the face of the new threat we face from the COVID-19 pandemic.
We must stand in the frontlines bringing awareness of the threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and what can be done to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. We must go to the people, by whatever way possible to bring relief. We must reject all forms of discrimination and stigma. We must redouble our efforts to fight racism, xenophobia and sexism.
And, most importantly, we must rebuild our movements to fight for a Southern Africa free of inequality, disease, hunger and homelessness.
Southern African People’s Solidarity Network Secretariat
C/O Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD)
No 9 Bargate Road, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe
Tel: +263 242 776 830-1
Follow us: @SAPSN2003
Facebook Page: Southern African People’s Solidarity Network