We will not return to normal, because normal was the problem
But is abnormal possible?
Covid 19, the associated lockdowns, wearing of masks and social distancing have disrupted society. On the one hand, there is the obvious desire for things to return to normal. But there is also much talk of the “new normal”, in the knowledge that these conditions are going to be with us for some while. And ironically, the second wave of infections, spreading fear and anxiety in many parts of the world, is the result of the premature return to normality. There are signs, as we go to press, that in the Eastern and Western Cape a second wave has begun – just on the eve of the festive and tourist season.
Lives and livelihoods
As provincial and national governments discuss ways to contain the spread, the debate on where the balance lies between lives and livelihoods will return. Firstly, we must acknowledge that unequal South Africa, under “normal” circumstances, cannot guarantee either lives or livelihoods. Having said that, there is no doubt that the hard lockdown which we endured between March and August flattened the curve and saved lives. But it is equally true that the lockdown’s destruction of livelihoods led to an accelerated loss of lives. And that’s without taking into account the lives lost from gender-based violence, exacerbated by the lockdown.
Probably the truest picture of lives lost in this time is the measure known as “excess deaths”. This is the difference between the total number of people who died, on the one hand, and the number of deaths that would be expected in the period, according to historical patterns. These are not only deaths directly from Covid-19. They are also deaths from collateral damage such as the disruption of normal healthcare, including HIV programmes. The number of excess deaths from natural causes (i.e. not homicide, suicide, or accident) for the period between 6 May and 13 October 2020 stands at just under 47,000.
Even before the arrival of Covid-19, South Africa faced a national health crisis. Some of the most important features of this crisis are the very high burden of disease, enormous disparities in health and its social determinants, deep inequities between public and private sectors, a crisis in human resources for health, and weak mechanisms for popular participation in health.
The death of the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s (ACC) chairperson, Sibusiso Mqadi illustrates death in unequal South Africa. He woke up in the middle of the night with extreme abdominal pains. He was in his rondavel in the isolated village of Mtentu, on the Pondoland coast. No ambulance service is available and he had no cell phone reception. He had to wait for daylight and the Kia van, the only form of taxi that can manage the treacherous water-logged gravel roads.
The 65 km journey to Port Edward took over 2 hours. On arrival in Port Edward, the private doctor (which he only could afford because of the support of the ACC) referred him to the hospital in Port Shepstone. As his situation worsened he was put on a ventilator, which damaged his wind pipe to such an extent he was transferred to Albert Luthuli public hospital in Durban for an emergency intervention. In the process, attention was diverted from the underlying problem and when that worsened, the emergency operation to drain litres of puss from his abdomen, which was not detected at the Port Shepstone hospital because the CT scanner wasn’t working, sent his body into shock. And the militant Chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee died.
Millions of South Africans can recount similar stories, very far from the experience of a medical aid member in the suburbs.
The scale of the social and economic crisis that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic has made us forget how deep the crisis was before Covid-19 came to South Africa. The Cry of the Xcluded, an alliance of social and labour movements, set out the real state of the nation in their launch statement in February, a month before Covid hit:
South Africa finds itself on a precipice. The economic malaise currently being experienced places the nation at a point of no return. The levels of poverty, unemployment (in particular amongst our youth and women), inequalities, corruption, crime etc. have reached such proportions that the country can be plunged into another civil war and strife if nothing is done. Our schools, hospitals, public transport, in particular rail, the justice system, correctional services centres have become dysfunctional.
As if this is not enough, our country is being battered by a wave of ecological crises that creates absolute havoc through heavy storms that have left the poor more vulnerable with greater parts of the country engulfed in long spells of drought that further threaten livelihoods and food security and sovereignty.
We risk losing another generation of youth to drugs and vicious cycles of crime. Women, including the aged, live in fear in their homes and streets. Government is collapsing, overrun by cronyism, corruption and neglect. Almost every state owned enterprise is facing a death spiral or financial collapse. Eskom, SAA, Autopax, PRASA are all on their knees with more workers’ jobs and services to the poor on the line.
There is a strong intention by key officials to sell the family jewels to their friends at the expense of the poor for whom these state assets are vital. Every day that passes these crises get worse and the suffering of our people intensifies.
So going back to normal for black working class people, and for women enduring such high levels of violence, is intolerable.
The elite new normal
The ruling class is not slow to exploit this situation. They too don’t want to go back to normal. They are looking for ways to advance their interests by defining a new normal in their image. So, they are using the current financial and economic crisis to pile the pressure on the state to impose structural reforms. These structural reforms are about creating conditions for sustained and enhanced profit accumulation. They are demanding the privatisation of most state owned enterprises, greater tax breaks, free movement of capital, deregulation of the labour market and the right to hire and fire at will. And they want even deeper austerity and a harsher assault on public sector wages – no doubt so they can follow suit in their own enterprises.
And it is the elites who are winning. Government has promised the liberalisation and privatisation of parts of the electricity and transport sectors. Austerity is deepening. The ANC government is even prepared to alienate Cosatu and its public sector affiliates by reneging on the existing wage agreement and imposing a further three year wage freeze. And if that is not bad enough, they will retrench thousands of public sector workers in order to placate big business’ demand to reduce the public sector wage bill. This is a key aspect of reducing the budget deficit and government debt – which the moneyed classes see as an anathema.