The world against the virus: 7 things we've learned from talking to our allies

15 June 2020

During lockdown, Global Justice Now’s series of webinars, podcasts and interviews have been exploring what coronavirus means in the global south. Here are 7 things we've learned.

1) First comes practical support

With everyone we have talked to, people’s first response and reaction has been to reach out to provide immediate practical help to those around them. In the UK, mutual aid and street support groups sprang up and it is the same elsewhere. Ivonne Yanez from Accion Ecologica in Ecuador explained that activists have started many initiatives focused on protecting people’s basic wellbeing – food for those who can’t go out, support for elders, helping to spread core messages about the virus. Jean Enriquez from the World March of Women, talked of similar efforts in the Philippines which are a matter of survival for the most vulnerable.

As Mercia Andrews from the Rural Women’s Assembly in South Africa says, the phrase we’re all using is ‘social distancing’ but that’s not quite right. Physical distancing is what we mean, but social solidarity is what we are doing and what we need.

2) The fault lines of inequality are revealed

As Shalmali Guttal, director of Focus on the Global South, wryly highlighted, the inequality between countries is horrifyingly visible when hit by something like Covid-19. The crisis is going to hit the global south hard.

Gyekye Tanoh from Ghana reminded us of the reasons for the south’s vulnerability. In so many countries “basic thresholds of health care and public services have been devastated – not since yesterday, not since last year, but in an onslaught for twenty or thirty years.”

That onslaught started with structural adjustment and was then built on by liberalisation of trade through the World Trade Organisation and free trade agreements, until we reach a situation where it seems unremarkable that African governments should be trying to respond to the crisis on a shoestring and fill the gaps with donations from people like Jack Ma or Bill Gates.

But, as Gyekye says, it is not unremarkable: “It is unconscionable that you should have the levels of inequality where 54 countries cannot afford what one or two billionaires can afford. Or that those 54 countries have to appeal to the IMF and World Bank and G20 for a pittance in terms of arrangements that can free liquidity for them.”

None of this was inevitable. As Gyekye declares, “It is the deliberate choices, the policy priorities that govern the use and distribution of resources that are decisive.”

The case of Kerala, in India is a counter example. The response of the regional government there has been effective in countering the virus, and Aswathi Rebecca Asok from the Student’s Federation of India explained how a history of public investment in health, education and social sectors has enabled this.

Shalmali quoted Dr Larry Brilliant who helped to eradicate smallpox: “Outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional”. She went on to say: “Structural adjustment has long been a chronicle of a disaster foretold. In our generation humanity has created the conditions for pandemics”

3) The virus is not the whole crisis

When the Indian government announced a lockdown with literally hours’ notice, Shalmali told us it rapidly became apparent that people were going to die of hunger before they died of the virus. Food, income, water, all are as much a part of the crisis as the virus itself.

Shalmali explained that there should not be a shortage of food in India. There is food grown by local farmers. But it is sitting rotting because there is no way to get it to markets. Ivonne reported similar in Ecuador.

In South Africa, Vishwas Satgar from COPAC observed that long term inequality in access to food for millions is now being revealed even more starkly, and there have been food riots. The food sovereignty network in South Africa has been campaigning to set up ‘people’s pantries’ as a short term measure.

Vishwas further shared that activists have set up a water stress community tracking tool. More than half of households in South Africa do not have access to clean water in the household, and in this crisis the government has promised water tankers and other measures. Community reporting is trying to hold them to account on this.

4) We are not all in this together

Shalmali bluntly points out that class, social privilege, race, gender and ethnicity are important in determining who is exposed and who experiences the worst impacts of the pandemic. How can people practise social distancing when they live in crowded conditions? How can they wash their hands when they have no water?

Or, Vishwas adds, how can the huge numbers of people in the informal sector, who live from hand to mouth, not go out each day to make a living? Ivonne reports that 70% of the people in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil are in this position. Many of those people are now trying to flee the province.

Shalmali adds that four million Indian migrant workers were stranded in cities by the sudden lockdown with no means to support themselves. Many desperately walked hundreds of miles to their rural homes with no food, water, shelter, or healthcare.

5) Racism is an ugly threat

In a crisis, some people seek a scapegoat and blame the outsider. This is the situation in Thailand for migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos who are facing immense prejudice, Shalmali told us.

In South Korea, Lee Dae-hoon (Francis) from Peace MOMO highlighted the xenophobia that blames the virus on China. This has led to abuse targeting either Chinese nationals or others coming from China to Korea.

Blaming the outsider is a deliberate tactic of some far right governments, and they have doubled down in this crisis.

6) Authoritarians are exploiting the crisis

Shalmali pointed out that the virus is cementing authoritarianism. In India, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines and Myanmar, draconian measures have been passed appointing governments emergency powers without democratic oversight. And those powers are being enforced by the military and police.

Vishwas and Mercia both highlighted army brutality in South Africa where several people have been killed. In the Philippines, where there have also been killings, groups that Jean works with have documented cases of rape and sexual abuse by army and police at checkpoints and targeting women living on the streets.

Jean also explained that in places where communities have long been struggling against mining operations, the crisis has been taken advantage of by the military to crack down.

Shalmali and Jean both consider that the scapegoating and crackdowns are in part to distract attention from the fact that figures like Duterte and Modi do not actually have a plan. It is a global narrative of blame and narrow nationalism that we all face and must challenge.

In contrast, Francis considers that South Korea’s effective response was made possible three years ago when massive demonstrations brought down the previous authoritarian government and replaced it with a democratic one.

7) The battle for the future is now

As a long-term climate campaigner, Vishwas comments that Covid-19 is achieving things we haven’t been able to achieve in the climate struggle. Oil demand has crashed; governments are stepping up and taking responsibility for their populations; an appreciation that we are one humanity is emerging.

Yet obviously it’s not all good – militarisation and further steps on the road to fascism are also present. And Ivonne explains that the Ecuadorian government is looking at the wrong solutions as a route out of the crisis – expanding oil activities and changing the law to allow mining in currently protected areas. In Vishwas’ words, “the battle for the future, for what comes out of Covid-19, is now”.

Shalmali calls on us to seize the moment. We need to block the response that would lead to more austerity by pointing out how disinvestment in public services and privatisation has made us vulnerable. And we need to steer away from a return to a carbon-centric world. Instead we need to take the opportunity offered to control big pharma, secure migrant rights, change our food system and build a green recovery.

Francis asks us whether as a society we will accept that the coronavirus pandemic will be repeated unless we change our systems. We created the conditions for a pandemic, as Shalmali said. Will we take up the challenge to change them?


Ninety-Nine issue 17 cover


This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.

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