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Covid-19, #ClimateEmergency and Lockdown

- Vishwas Satgar

The coronavirus is an opportunity to end the war with nature.It’s a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order.

Covid-19 has pushed an already weak and crisis-ridden global economy over the edge. Massive value has been erased from crashing stock market prices. Many commentators are talking about the return of economic conditions similar to the great financial crash of 2007-2009. The most powerful countries in the world from China to the US have ground to a halt. 

This pathogen, possibly from delicate creatures like a pangolin or a bat, has engendered the worst global pandemic since the Spanish flu (1918-1920), which killed 100-million people. Death rates are going up globally. Right-wing nationalists in Europe and the USA have been confused as this virus has jumped racist border regimes, and infected all populations. Citizens are no longer concerned about their racist messages, but rather about how to survive. 

Governments all across the world are seized with the challenge of protecting their populations, at least that is what it seems like given the people-centred rhetoric. The geo-politics of Covid-19, engulfing the entire globalised world in its rapid spread, is also a shot across the bow of carbon capitalism. Elite consumption of exotic animals, at high prices, in Wuhan, China unleashed the swift and lethal revenge of nature. 

This does not mean that this is a “Chinese virus” as the racist Donald Trump has suggested. We are all susceptible and are trying to live through the fear, paralysis and risks brought by this pandemic. Overnight, jobs have disappeared, paycheques have shrunk, loved ones are in critical health situations fighting for their lives and hunger is knocking on the door of many. Healthcare systems, weakened and commodified through decades of marketisation, have or will be overwhelmed.

Yet the very same elites that caused the problem are not carrying the burden of the consequences of their actions. For climate justice politics, these injustices are not new. Elite use and consumption of fossil fuels is linked directly to extreme weather shocks such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and cyclones, for instance, which impact those most vulnerable the hardest. Yet there is no consequence for those responsible and the fossil fuel industry, carbon-addicted states, and the wealthy carbon-based consumers continue as though climate science does not exist.

‘Black Swan’ event, or worsening systemic crisis

In the business world, Covid-19 tends to be reduced to a “black swan event”. A sudden or unforeseen happening, with great consequence and rationalised after the fact. The idea was initially popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s five volumes on uncertainty including the famous Black Swan, which has been described as one of the most famous books since World War II. While in his work, the concept has a richer philosophical grounding, it has become part of  everyday risk management discourse. Business risk analyses missed the likelihood of a Covid-19 pandemic and it certainly was not a concern. Its occurrence, however, cannot be explained as a black swan event. 

From an ecological Marxist perspective, it has to do with the contradictory relationship between natural and social relations, has a historical genealogy within how eco-cidal capitalism works and can be causally attributed. Simply, for Covid 19, this means it’s a dangerous problem that is engendered by capitalism’s persistent domination of nature. 

It spread from a “wet market” involving organised crime syndicates, linked to shadowy global poaching, and smuggling networks that steal wild creatures from their habitats and place them on elite menus. Avaricious Chinese capitalism, with its appetite for resources and capturing markets, like the West, understands nature as a site of extracting value; nature must serve the juggernaut of accumulation.

South Africans are now familiar with the appetites and reach of this capitalism due to the annihilation of our rhino population merely for their horns. Wet markets also exist in other parts of South and East Asia, and have not been restricted, leaving open the possibilities of new waves of pandemics. 

For many years, epidemiologists and environmentalists have been concerned about the public health consequences of such markets, given that animal to human transmission of deadly viruses is a known fact and has been implicated in avian flu (from birds), MERS (from camels) and ebola (monkeys), for instance. These animals are also traumatised and kept in unsafe conditions. 

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has unleashed land grabs in the Amazon – one of the most bio-diverse habitats on planet Earth. Industrial farming, mining, logging and wild animal poaching are ending the natural protective barriers between human society and ecosystems, heightening the risks of pathogens spreading, but in this case also contributing to climate change, given the role the Amazon plays in a planetary ecosystem to sequester carbon. 

Climate scientists have already warned humanity that further warming of the Arctic, for instance, will not only release deadly greenhouse gases such as methane, but also pathogens that have been frozen into ice sheets. Like Covid-19, the worsening climate crisis and its global shocks, are not black swan events, but dangerous systemic crisis tendencies produced by a hard-wired logic based on the duality of capitalism versus nature. Science has provided us with understandings and warnings, and yet the global capitalist system persists in driving us towards harm and destruction. 

Carbon capitalism and imposed collective suicide

A world led by those who place profit above human and non-human life, is placing us all in jeopardy. We are not given a choice as the eco-cidal logic of global capitalism destroys the conditions that sustain life. Our planetary commons – biosphere, oceans, forests, land and water sources – are all being commodified and destroyed to make a few wealthy. 

On a planetary scale, we are living through an imposed collective suicide. As neoliberalism becomes authoritarian and mutates into the second coming of fascism to defend the wealth of the few, it is revealing a simple fact: It’s not learning lessons about the harm it is inflicting. Instead, it wants to defend at all costs a life-destroying system. 

Karl Polanyi in the social science classic, the Great Transformation (1944), drew attention to such elite behaviour when the ship is sinking. In the late 19th century, based on marketisation through the gold standard, the world was driven into World War 1. Lessons were not learned and the world was again locked into gold standard marketisation in the 1920s, and this gave rise also to fascism and World War 2. 

This time, we are all dealing with the failure of capitalism’s conquest of nature through treating it as capital through financialisation. The science on biodiversity loss, climate and water, for instance, are all unequivocal that we are breaching limits and surpassing boundaries that endanger everything. At the same time, the raw and infinite power of nature is gathering pace. The present generation of young people understand the dangers of this very well. One of my former students, an extremely intelligent and sensitive young person, placed this public post on his  Facebook page in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak:

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I cried. I felt everything inside of me: the depth and immensity of my pain, my sorrow, my grief, my lament, my worry, my confusion, my longing, my despair – I felt it all and wept, wept for the sadness I’ve kept hidden so long, wept for the loved ones I miss so dearly, wept for the suffering and uncertainty of the world, wept for reasons I don’t even understand. 

Many of us weep for the collective suicide we are living through. This is not about victimhood, but about understanding the depth of crisis and the urgency to overcome this universal challenge of our extinction. It is a conscious knowing rooted in deep wells of pain, anxiety and existential suffering growing in prevalence among the young because of the collective suicide being imposed by financialised carbon capitalism. 

Greta Thunberg and many of the young climate activists in South Africa such as Raeesah Noor Mohamed, Nosintu Mcimeli, William Shoki, Awande Buthelezi, Jane Cherry and Courtney Morgan, to name a few,  understand this. They carry their pain, their understanding of injustice as they protest. 

But is the present resistance enough? The cry of 1 degree Celsius movements – Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, #FridaysForFuture and the Climate Justice Charter process in South Africa – are all coming up against power structures and ruling classes not willing to break with the imposed collective suicide of financialised eco-cidal carbon capitalism. Yet in the context of Covid-19, not only are global populations shocked, but it has rocked, assailed and unhinged the very same power structure standing in the way of addressing the climate crisis. Covid-19 is forcing, even reluctantly, ruling classes to try to act with concern for life.

Lockdown and the ANC’s epidemiological neoliberalism

Covid-19 has thrown us into a state of exception. From a climate justice perspective, this is a dress rehearsal for a world that breaches 2 and 3 degrees Celsius in which climate shocks on a global scale imperil life-supporting socio-ecological systems such as food, water and  health systems through unbearable temperatures. Waking up then is too late. 

This is the underlying premise of climate justice activism, given that climate science is telling us what is arriving with business as usual or low mitigation trajectories. With the Covid-19 crisis, our governments seem to be suddenly realising markets and corporations are not more important than human life. Is this the case?

The disaster capitalism of Covid-19, as Naomi Klein reminds us, brings forth profit-making opportunities even from the suffering of the people. Trump is leading the way. His first crucial move was to build up fossil fuel reserves thus keeping oil prices bolstered, then he unleashed the privatised healthcare system and is now keeping pharmaceutical companies “free” to manipulate the prices of essential medical equipment instead of repurposing production through the Defense Production Act. However, this is not the end of the story and struggles inside US society will certainly determine if Trump’s epidemiological neoliberalism will triumph or not.

In South Africa, we have been witness to a sea change from kleptocratic state and neoliberal austerity policies (including cutting billions of rands from health spending), announced by Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni, to cross-subsidise corrupted and failing parastatals, to the war on Covid-19. 

The country is going into this government-declared war with a dualistic healthcare system, with the vast majority dependent on a public healthcare system gutted by corruption, mismanagement and austerity. This healthcare system, with these specific features, is what is going to be overwhelmed not just by Covid-19, but by over two decades of ANC misrule. The lockdown of South Africa has to be understood in this context. 

Put more sharply, the warped rationalities of commodified healthcare for a few and failing healthcare for the many is clearly the frontline the government is trying to avoid in the country’s Covid-19 response. For most South Africans, in a state of shock and panic, this lockdown crash-landing of the economy on the wretched lives of a precarious working class and poor seems like the best response. 

Of course, this shock therapy has been administered repeatedly since neoliberal strictures informed the first democratic budget in 1994 and the macro-economic shift of 1996, kleptocratic neoliberalism of the Jacob Zuma project and now the new epidemiological neoliberalism of the ANC. In this context, the so-called China success story of shutting down Wuhan peppers government-speak. 

But the other epidemiological success story of South Korea is not referenced. South Korea did not lock down its economy, but put the emphasis on: (1) intervening fast through test kits produced (100,000 a day), on a mass scale domestically; (2) test early, often and safely (it has conducted over 300,000 tests), such that detection happens quickly; (3) contact tracing, isolation and surveillance, which has used smart apps, mass messaging and has prevented an overload on the healthcare system; and (4) enlist the public’s help. While not perfect and easily replicable, it’s nonetheless an important alternative to lockdown.

South Africa’s lockdown has not been preceded by mass testing despite the two-month lead time the South African government had since the outbreak in China. Even as the country goes into lockdown, the costs of tests are prohibitive, there has been no clear communication about international partnerships to get testing going on a mass scale, there is no clear messaging on testing details and grassroots civil society has not been mobilised, despite its enthusiasm to rise to the challenge. 

Instead, the lockdown has shifted the focus to managing economic chaos, mitigation measures and privatised charity through a “solidarity fund”. Deep anxiety, fear and insecurity is running through society. South Africa is going into the lockdown as one of the most unequal countries in the world. 

The crisis of socio-ecological reproduction is deep as expressed through high levels of structural unemployment, intra-African income inequality, hunger and water inequalities (54% of South African households do not have access to clean water through a tap in their homes). 

Lockdown means South Africa’s precarious working class and poor are now responsible for solving the Covid-19 problem because they carry the burden. Lockdown is meant to save their lives while worsening their already wretched life worlds. Hence the ANC government is off the hook with this cunning move of epidemiological neoliberalism while taking Covid-19 disaster capitalism to a new level. 

Ending the war with nature 

Covid-19 is an expression of contradictory natural relations. On the one hand, it is devouring the most vulnerable in our society and, on the other hand, it is prompting humanity to slow down collective climate suicide. Carbon emission data is certainly going to register deep drops since the onset of Covid-19, with airlines, shipping, cars and other carbon-emitting technologies brought to a halt. 

Covid-19 has achieved what almost three decades of UN multilateral negotiations have failed to achieve. If governments can take the Covid-19 emergency seriously, they can take the climate crisis seriously. The UN climate meeting in Glasgow this year has to open with lessons learned from Covid-19 to address the global climate emergency. In this context, South Africa will have to tell its story to the global public. However, there is a lot the South African government should consider as this pandemic unfolds, including its war-on-Covid-19 approach.

South Africa’s government declared Covid-19 a disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. It has unleashed an important coordination capacity in the state, preventative regulations, is disseminating information, has imposed a 21-day lockdown and introduced economic mitigation measures. The command structure is led by the president. The Disaster Management Act was not kicked into gear during the worst drought in South Africa’s history (2014-till now), which ravaged numerous communities, collapsed part of the globalised food system and pushed up food prices. Many communities still have acute water needs and are being challenged to maintain basic hygiene. 

As Covid-19 transmission spreads, water-stressed communities are going to be hotspots as these are poor communities and very likely to also have many with compromised immune systems. If the drought was handled properly by the ANC government, water issues would not have been a problem now. 

Moreover, if the ANC government did not get caught up in the tides of populism around the land question and listened to the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, including taking seriously their Peoples Food Sovereignty Act handed over to Parliament, we would be sitting in the midst of Covid 19 with more communities, villages, towns and cities having localised agro-ecological food sovereignty pathways to cope with the current situation. Instead, we are living the drama of a war-centred crisis management approach.

The war approach to Covid-19 is limited in three respects and holds out dangers for how leadership is practiced now and what capacities we build in this defining moment. First, war works with a simple logic. There’s an enemy, militarise (build war-making capabilities), mobilise your society in the effort and deploy this to destroy the enemy. It is a reductionist way of thinking; it is not a systems view of the world.

Covid-19 is manifesting in our midst together with other systemic crises, such as economic crises and climate crises. Financialised capitalism has produced an unstable global economy and grotesque inequalities. It has not worked. The climate crisis is worsening with a lack of will to phase out fossil fuels and decarbonise. 

We are facing a 1.5 degree celsius increase in planetary temperature most likely in the next five years, accompanied by intensifying climate shocks. These crises are interconnected, cascade into each other and push our socio-ecological orders towards collapse. A war mentality does not appreciate the interconnectedness of all of this. 

Put differently, even if Covid-19 is addressed with war-like precision and the epidemiological curve flattens globally and in South Africa, we are not returning to a new normal. We are returning to a world in permanent crisis; a new abnormal. Hence, how we address Covid-19 and reconstruction after it, must lock in democratic systemic reforms that cushion us from more crises. 

South Africa will need an eco-justice stimulus package to tackle the impacts of Covid-19, the economic crisis and worsening climate crisis. South Africa’s climate justice charter is a crucial point of departure in this regard.

Second, a war approach to Covid-19 is based on dangerous philosophical foundations. It continues the anthropocentric conquest of nature, central to capitalist thinking. Killing Covid-19 in this frame is about us being the dominant species. We demonstrate to the forces of nature our superiority. This is really a conceit which fails to understand that nature has been and will always be more powerful than us. 

Moreover, we are extremely dependent on nature as a species to ensure our reproduction. With Covid-19, we are really trying to mitigate the revenge blow from nature. It’s a moment to be humble and realise our finitude in a wondrous and infinite natural order. We are just one little part of a vast and delicate web of life. Ending Covid-19 should be about ending the war with nature. This includes ending wet markets for exotic animals, ending globalised industrial agriculture and rapidly phasing out fossil fuels.  

Third, the war on Covid-19 keeps us bound up in an ethical knot and derives from deeply oppressive ways of thinking. Violence whether colonial, imperial, patriarchal, racist or eco-cidal is not what the world needs. Modern industrial scale violence that is calculated, instrumental in its reason and deadly is breeding a fast violence from nature. A violence we cannot match. Everyday violence of poverty and structural inequality has to be addressed as we come out of this pandemic moment. 

Complex and holistic systems thinking, grounded in an ethics of care rather than war has to prevail. Put differently, if Covid 19 helps jettison the Thatcherite neoliberal subject – competitive, greedy and possessive individual – for a more humane state of being and solidarity-based society, it would have produced our strongest defense against a crisis-ridden world. It would have also affirmed an ethics of care for our natural relations that nurture us, feed us and enable us to have life.

Dr. Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations, Wits. He edits the Democratic Marxism series, is the principal investigator for Emancipatory Futures Studies and has been an activist for four decades. He is the co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Climate Justice Charter process. This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.