Southern perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 is changing our lives and has forced us to break with our normal. The lockdowns prevent any form of organised protests. Some authoritarian leaders took the opportunity to crackdown on opposition groups or anyone who is critical of the measures being put in place or casting limelight on government mistakes and incapacity to address the crisis. The restrictions and continued spread of the coronavirus, however, are also causing new misery, deepening poverty and inequality and producing new waves of discontent that could result to social unrest. For the world’s working poor and marginalised, hunger is a more imminent danger

In this collection of interviews we will focus on news and analysis from leaders and representatives of social movements and progressive groups from Southern countries that are collectively addressing the pandemic. More importantly, we are sharing how they are imagining and shaping the world anew after the pandemic.


South Korea

In this interview, Lee, Dae-hoon, one of the founders of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and founding director of Peace MOMO, talks about the situation in South Korea.

South Korea’s mass testing, tracing and quarantine measures are viewed as one of the more successful government interventions to the coronavirus pandemic.The South Korean government’s high level of transparency and efficiency are products of several waves of people’s huge mobilisations for democracy and against corruption over the last decade. This activism forced previous officials and prime ministers to resign or brought them to prison. Despite the pandemic the country recently held a parliamentary election. It was one of the East Asian countries earliest hit by Covid-19 virus. It has recorded more than 10,000 cases of infection and only just over 200 deaths. It was able to slow down and avoid social and medical collapse. However, despite this good response, there are, of course, still social impacts and economic hardships to some sectors of society.


Ecuador

Ecuador is experiencing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with a death rate thought be twice as Brazil, which is a far larger country. It is struggling to cope. Its epicenter is the port city of Guayaquil where residents compare their condition to be similar to being hit by bombs in a war. There are corpses in the streets and others in cardboard boxes distributed by the authorities. The government is broke, and the health system is broken. The current government of Lenin Moreno made it its mission to dismantle everything that was achieved under the previous, left-wing government of Rafael Correa. Those in the social movements argue that staying at home will not be enough as there are no complementary measures to support the poor and vulnerable to access food, medicines and basic services. There is no widespread testing and the government has no control over its economic policies.

The policy restrictions that are making it difficult, if not impossible to fully address the pandemic are self-inflicted. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and other international financial institutions dictate the country's internal policies and ensure that Ecuador cut health, education, public sector jobs and other public services. Ivonne Yanez, a founding member of the Ecuadoran organisation Accion Ecologica and a campaigner for Oilwatch, which is calling the government to “keep the oil in the soil” for many years and Larry Lohman explain more in this interview. Larry is with the UK organisation CornerHouse. His work is on the politics of climate change, land rights and environment issues.


South Africa

In this interview we talked to Vishwas Satgar from South Africa. Vish has been an activist for over three decades. He founded the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center, a grassroots development organisation, which is working with social movements since 1999. COPAC co-organised the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign. He is also an associate professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.  

In South Africa, like elsewhere in the developing world, it is simply impossible for shack-dwellers and other poor residents to self-isolate, practice physical distancing or stop working. The country’s response to Covid-19 is being featured in the news as effective although ruthless. It appears that it has successfully managed to avoid having enormous numbers of deaths and registered cases, at least for now. However, the police and army have, at times, violently enforced the lockdown - humiliating, beating, and even shooting civilians on the streets of the commercial capital, Johannesburg, and elsewhere. Similar things are happening in many countries. The lockdowns being implemented, especially without adequate support to people and preparations on the part of governments are undermining core human needs. Vish discussed here what must be done to improve the situation.


Bangladesh

According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the government of Bangladesh appears to have been cracking down on free speech since the middle of March 2020. Instead of providing accurate and timely information about the virus, the police are arresting people, including students, activists and even doctors, and charging them for spreading rumours and misinformation about the impacts of Covid-19 on the population. The Information Ministry is now using a draconian Digital Security Act to monitor social media and various television outlets for “rumours” about Covid-19 cases.

As a result, we have decided to withhold the names of the people who took part in these interviews, and their organisations, to protect them from possible arrest.

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Kerala, India

The “Kerala model” is being held up around the world as among the very few success stories in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. This state in the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent enjoys higher literacy rates and strong public health system than the rest of India. Kerala was the first of India’s 36 states that reported a Covid-19 infection case and it managed to flatten the infection curve in a quick, efficient and humane manner. It’s community-oriented and people-centric approach, which encourage engagement from citizens, not just in the current crisis but in previous ones (ex. Nipah) as well is important to share and learn from. Kerala’s government is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but what makes it unique is the fact that the party is functioning under the conditions of liberal democracy.

In this interview Aswathi Rebecca Asok from the Students Federation of India and Democratic Youth Federation of India explains that the key factor is the state government of Kerala’s commitment to put primacy on life and people’s health above all else. Aswathi is a researcher in Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies (CSES), an institute focused on Kerala's development experiences.


Brazil

The global challenge of the pandemic brought about unprecedented responses from governments. There is now varying degrees of restriction of people’s mobility and near cessation of economic activity in almost all countries today. In this interview my focus is on Brazil, which recorded grim numbers of death cases recently. Cassia Bechara from the International Relations Collective, of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores sem Terra (MST) or the Landless Workers’ Movement shared with us how they are overcoming the restrictions imposed by current conditions in Brazil. 

MST was formed at the height of the struggle against the Brazilian military regime during the 1970s and closely worked with the Partido Trabalhadores or the new Workers’ Party. While Brazil’s current president Jair Bolsonaro views the coronavirus as a mere flu the MST is mobilising and giving much needed services to their communities and settlements. It is running the MST cadre school, its own health service (with MST Doctors trained from Cuba) and giving health advise through their community-based health system. As a political organisation it is continuing its political and strategic work as a social movement with an explicit class movement and internationalist character. 


Democratic Republic of Congo

Covid-19 has now spread to nearly every country since it was first diagnosed in early January. For this interview I will focus on the challenges it is posing to the Democratic Republic of Congo where the first confirmed case was reported in early March.

This central African nation is facing deep problems. Its health system is crumbling and overwhelmed. It already faced an onslaught of deadly diseases in recent years, including measles, polio, malaria and Ebola, on top of the new deadly enemy in the form of coronavirus. Very few tests are being conducted in the country so far. There is only one laboratory that can analyse test samples in the capital Kinshasa, which has a capacity of executing 100 test per day in a population of 80 million. 

I discussed this with Salomé Elolo an organiser from Synergie des Femmes Solidaires (FESO), a coalition of 24 women’s groups from across the DRC, which is advocating for equal energy access and the democratic participation of women in Congolese society. Feso is building a women’s movement around the Congo River for the protection of the river and  people who will be affected by the Inga dam.


Philippines

The Philippines is experiencing the health and economic impacts of the pandemic under what social movements there call “the worst new normal”. The lockdown is one of the longest and toughest in the world. Filipinos, especially the poor, who were caught violating lockdown curfew regulations were beaten up by the police and put in overcrowded prisons at times. The government is now easing the general community quarantine and this shift is happening without substantial measures for health protection, no mass testing and contact-tracing are being done. There are no procedures to address over-crowding in public spaces and services in big cities.

We talked to Luke Espiritu, national president of the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino - BMP or Solidarity of Filipino Workers and the Solidarity of Unions in the Philippines for Empowerment and Reforms (SUPER), a trade union federation. Luke shared their experience in union organizing, rights education, campaigns, and organising direct actions and negotiation to win workers’ demands in the time of pandemic.