With necessary state-imposed lockdown, where’s yet-more-necessary relief?

While SAFTU welcomes the decision of the national government to institute higher restriction levels to curb the current third wave of the coronavirus in the country in the light of the frightening increased levels of infections driven by the Delta variant of Covid-19, we have been dismayed by government’s breath-taking failure to protect people’s lives, and the social and economic well-being of the country.

We take very seriously the Delta variant’s deadly progression from India through Gauteng and many other South African hotspots of Covid-19. This march of suffering must come to a halt, and a Level-4 lockdown – with the proper wearing of masks, social distancing, isolation when spread is suspected, and a temporary end to travel to and from Gauteng – includes the first apparently necessary steps to beat it.

We are terribly worried by the soaring rate of national hospitalisations and worry worse is to come because three populous provinces – Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape – are yet to be hit hard by the Delta variant. Also terribly troubling is the rate of excess deaths, which is a better measure of our mortality than Covid-19 death reports, thanks to ongoing state incompetence in tracking, tracing and treatment.

Although the provincial excess death rates have dropped from the high levels recently witnessed in the Delta variant epi-centres, the Northern Cape and Northwest – which encourages us that we can get through this wave in coming weeks even as it spreads elsewhere – it is tragic to see the rapid rise in the economic heartland of Gauteng. Thousands are now dying, unnecessarily, due to state malfeasance.

This recent rise means unnatural deaths for the country as a whole since last April are at least 173 000, or 288 per 100 000 people. The Economist magazine records only nine other countries with higher death rates: Peru (highest at 503), Bulgaria, Mexico, Russia, Serbia, Lithuania, Ecuador, North Macedonia and the Czech Republic.

Our shockingly-incompetent, corrupted public health leadership

This is a record that should lead politicians to resign in shame. With by far the highest rate of excess deaths in Africa, this statistic alone shows how terribly poorly South African leaders have performed when it comes to keeping our citizens alive, the most elemental function of a state.

If President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointees were neglecting their duty of care and instead spending time grabbing tenders for themselves and their mates, as appears to be the case even after last August he warned them to stop, the country’s top health officials should be rotting in jail, prosecuted for-profit manslaughter instead of doing their jobs. State Whistleblowers are too few and far between, and given the widespread corruption, to have a Department of Health managerial job listing on your c.v. during this pandemic period, will become a mark of malgovernance.

As one example, the state’s inability to prevent and then to repair April 16 fire damage at the massive Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and to keep open other hospitals and clinics, should be grounds for resignation of provincial health MECs in Gauteng and indeed across the country.

Our point of departure is that our country should not have been where it is now, making it unavoidable to impose Level 4 restrictions. Since this will have an even more catastrophic impact on the economy – therefore killing jobs and general wellbeing of the citizens of the county – we take seriously the need for society and especially trade unionists to intensify our scrutiny of Covid-19 management.

The logic of imposing lockdown was to help the government prepare its health infrastructure to cope with the expected flood of patients into our public institutions. Not much has been achieved despite 15 months of crisis:

  • there are still not enough beds and oxygen cylinders, especially Intensive Care Units, available to cope with increased demand;
  • there is still chronic staff shortages – in part thanks to Treasury underfunding – which puts a disproportionate burden on the few remaining doctors, nurses, specialists and other healthcare officials;
  • there are still chronic infrastructure backlogs that make working conditions in all public institutions stressed and sometimes impossible;
  • while 2.9 million people have had their first jab, full vaccination protection is enjoyed by only 500 000, less than 1% of our population.

We reiterate that, from this point of view, the imposition of Level 4 – while now logical – could have been avoided had government used, first, its more than 27 years in power to prioritise quality healthcare for all, and second, its 15 months of Covid-19 crisis management to prepare the country for this third wave.

Lockdown is necessary

We recognise the need for tighter measures on gatherings, alcohol sales and freedom of movement, given the appalling failure of the health system, including its privatisation for the wealthiest 14% of the country who enjoy private insurance – covering half of all medical spending – while 86% suffer terrible conditions with the other 50%.

SAFTU and all trade unionists worthy of the name – and all South Africans who have a heart – are in complete solidarity with the toiling masses who are being battered now. We believe that the virus is ravaging mostly in poor and working people’s communities, but it is a shocking reminder of the state’s incompetence that unlike even a racist society like the United States which provides information on the victims, we still do not know.

We call on the state to release information that will tell us in greater geographic and also class and race detail, who is being infected and who is dying. At SAFTU, we are making the assumption that a South African capitalism that has created the world’s most unequal society, also infects our working-class and black citizens with Covid-19 at a far faster rate, leaving much greater damage and death than in the wealthier, paler layers of the economy.

We are still outraged that around 70% of our people are technically poor – surviving if they can, below the Upper Bound Poverty Line of roughly R50 day (higher than what the notoriously-undercounting StatsSA reckons but consistent with University of Cape Town SA Labour and Development Research Unit estimates) – and that this vast majority is getting sub-par treatment from an insensitive state.

Still, we recognise that the government has no other choice now, given its incompetence, but to slow down the capitalist economy so as to slow the Delta variant’s deadly march. But what it is failing to do is ramp up the caring economy, specifically both vaccination rates, and financial support for the mutual aid that – led by women in our households and communities – has allowed our masses to survive the past 15 months of hell.

Vaccine anti-imperialism is overdue!

To slow capitalism with a Level 4 lockdown now requires the government to speed up social welfare and healthcare spending, starting with a rapid rise in vaccinations. It is vital to open more vaccine outlets and ramp up provision to all working-class people – starting now with all over 40 years old (not just 50+ in mid-July) – given how few people are taking advantage of the current availability.

The state was wrong to assume that, given our society’s deep “digital divide,” an electronic registration system would prepare the state to serve the vast majority of citizens, who in any case have been subject to reactionary social-media disinformation, with very weak state media rebuttals to anti-vaccination propaganda.

Thanks to former minister Zweli Mkhize, the Digital Vibes tsotsis abused the information budget. Given how slow Ramaphosa has been to discipline Mkhize, transparent investigation and prosecution are now urgent so as to restore society’s confidence in public health leadership. When the budgets for health information dissemination were being abused by Digital Vibes, where were the other state officials who know how important good information is to fighting this disease?!

The Ramaphosa government must also work doubly hard to undo its other vaccine damage. It is shameful that throughout the carnage of 2020, there was no plan whatsoever to access vaccines beyond the terribly-underperforming Covax gimmick. That scheme relies on a dubious Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation strategy for the World Health Organisation in turn dependent upon the imperialist powers’ generosity and the Indian government’s Serum Institute – at a time their vaccine hoarding and Intellectual Property fetish continue to unveil self-destructive European and North American race-class bias, all in the name of profit for their own multinational corporations which put their leaders into power through campaign contributions.

(And in the case of Narendra Modi’s regime, it was always foolish to believe his government would allow the world’s largest producer of vaccines to continue supplying the poorest countries ahead of his own political self-interest, so Modi’s turning off the Serum spigot was predictable.)

The humiliation of our state’s acquisition of millions of failed doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines has been compounded by regulators’ failure to proactively test and then authorise the best non-Western vaccines from China, Russia and Cuba, not waiting for bureaucratic communications of data during this emergency. Our SA Health Products Regulatory Authority should not have repeated the AIDS treatment chaos in which regulators were far behind the curve, requiring activists to illegally import anti-retroviral treatments and face arrest at OR Tambo Airport – did they learn nothing?

We realise that South African state capacity to produce our own vaccines has been degraded by neoliberalism since democracy dawned – and that must be reversed, not through a mythical BRICS Vaccine Centre promised with hot air in 2018 when Ramaphosa hosted the BRICS summit, but in reality.

We also appreciate that government has attempted since last October to achieve in the World Trade Organisation what our AIDS activists – closely allied with trade unionists – did twenty years ago: exempting emergency medical supplies from tyrannical Intellectual Property restrictions so as to undermine vaccine imperialism.

But it has been a half-hearted campaign, full of too-polite diplomacy such as was on display this month at the G7 summit, where the likes of Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau – three of the world’s worst vaccine-hoarding imperialists – were treated with kid gloves by President Ramaphosa.

Regular and vibrant calls for international solidarity – and protests where appropriate – are needed to open the taps on vaccines and medical treatment, but have not yet properly begun, allowing the Biden regime to lead a Western go-slow on improved vaccine production in countries like South Africa which have vast underutilised generic-pharmaceutical capacity. President Ramaphosa is apparently too close to – and chummy with – the Western elites including Big Pharma capitalists, to give the leadership needed.

Demands: replace cruel Treasury and corrupt officials with a caring state

As capitalism-as-usual threatens tens of thousands more deaths – given how the virus spreads like a veld fire through our country’s vulnerable working class and poor masses – what must the state now do to provide a backstop?

We demand an immediate commitment of at least R1 trillion of relief to mitigate Level 4 lockdown. The R500 billion in “fiscal stimulus” offered a year ago was, in retrospect, a scam – with only R100 billion or so actually delivered.

What must happen now is a reversal of Treasury austerity, using immediate Reserve Bank Quantitative Easing powers – as occurred in March-April 2020 at a low level – so covering state debt with central bank financing in South Africa occurs at the same level it has in comparable countries such as Thailand and Brazil.

That means the state must:

  • intervene to ensure that no worker will now be retrenched in Level 4, given that at least 1.5 million jobs were cut over the course of 2020, with much higher levels – several million – at the worst points of lockdown in mid-2020;
  • rapidly punish any employer who disobeys these restrictions, unduly benefits from the crisis, and opportunistically exploits workers;
  • ensure all vacant posts in the public sector are immediately authorised to be filled and return to – and enhance – the October 2020 promise of 800 000 new state public works jobs;
  • immediately introduce the Basic Income Grant at a level – at least the R50/person/day required – that can get society through this crisis. The welfare payment system (for the tokenistic R350/month) tried in 2020 – based on means-testing was a failure – so we need the Treasury to authorise immediate funding of all in society, to be clawed back through taxation of the richest in society. The latest Credit Suisse Bank study of inequality shows that South Africa’s richest 1% now hold about 41% of the country’s total wealth – R10.7 trillion – which is “up significantly from the 35% recorded in 2019”;
  • guarantee all workers who need to isolate be ensured they do not suffer from temporary cuts in income not covered by standard sick leave arrangements;
  • beef up Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers, including police and correction services, who along with all others serving the public every day (e.g. taxi drivers, all workers at health facilities, retail outlets, the mines and industry, agriculture, and the security labour force no matter their age), must also be all be prioritised for vaccination;
  • provide free masks, sanitisers and other vital preventative supplies;
  • ensure all public and private hospitals and clinics are prepared, adequately staffed and stocked, and sparing no costs for overtime, to properly welcome an influx of patients and not leave them to wait hours in ambulances and waiting rooms;
  • open new temporary healthcare facilities especially in rural areas;
  • order the SANDF not to enforce lockdown regulations, given the mistakes witnessed in the first wave, their brutality and their biases against the poor; and
  • vaccinate all those above 40 years of age as soon as possible, with employers granting special time off without punishment so workers get vaccinated.

With these measures, we will survive. But without them, our society, communities, families and economy will be degraded, and the needed trust we must rebuild in the government – already rock bottom – will be reduced to the point no one can control the public revulsion and, no doubt, increasing popular revolts against injustice.

A capitalist economy will also exploit ordinary workers and benefit the rich. During a pandemic, with all the lip-service given to healthcare workers, teachers, frontline workers and the necessity of functioning public services, we implore the national government and employers in general, to put their money where their mouth is. Only a collective effort can defeat this invisible enemy. This virus does not care if you are rich or poor; it infects and kills the weakest among us, but also those who appear healthy and fit. Only with a collective and humane approach can we protect our loved ones – i.e., all of us here and everywhere.

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