In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
In ordinary times we all live with the risk that we, or someone we love, may suddenly drop out of the flow of ordinary life and into the kingdom of the sick. Dread is an individual matter. But in times of plague and war, that “other place” rushes towards us all. Dread, and destiny, suddenly become collective matters.
When people develop an urgent sense that their destiny will be shared, extraordinary forms of collective action become possible. We regularly see this when workers face retrenchment or residents on occupied land face eviction. We also see it after disasters.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 an orgy of racist reporting, including papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and indulging the most base prejudices of American bigotry, depicted the city as having collapsed into barbarism. The people who had suffered the most were repeatedly depicted in zoological terms, as animals bent on plunder, rape and murder. In reality, the breakdown of the everyday flow of life led to extraordinary forms of mutual aid. In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Disasters are extraordinarily generative.” As the established order collapses “in its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society”.
Mutual aid can also extend to new forms of political organisation. On 18 March 1871, after a six-month siege of Paris by the army of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, ordinary residents took control of the city electing a council to manage public affairs on 26 March. The Paris Commune lasted for 72 days before being drowned in the blood of as many as 20 000 communards. It continues to inspire experiments in direct democracy around the world.
Of course, new forms of collective action that emerge in response to a shared form of crisis can also take the form of dangerous, and at times even murderous, panic. When the Black Death swept through Europe in 1348, Jews were massacred in cities across what is now France, Germany and Spain. When the killing finally came to an end, more than 500 Jewish communities had been completely destroyed.
The first choice that confronts us in times of collective crisis is whether we confront that crisis collectively, or whether we turn on each other. Donald Trump’s attempts to ascribe a nationality to a virus, a virus that has the same relationship to the human body everywhere, is, along with the prejudices festering here at home, an ominous sign that solidarity cannot be assumed and will have to be struggled for.
To effectively reduce the harm Covid-19 will do, we need to resist all attempts at scapegoating. On this matter there can be no compromise. Every racist and xenophobe must be effectively, immediately and decisively confronted. In The Plague, a novel first published in 1947, Albert Camus wrote that “on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences”. We need to be clear that any attempt to scapegoat a particular group of people for a virus is as much a pestilence as the virus itself.
We also need to learn to think and act collectively, from the local to the international level. Irresponsible actors, from Virgin Active, whose decision to keep their gyms open is an outrageous dereliction of responsibility, to right-wing demagogues on the global stage like Trump and Boris Johnson, need to be directly confronted.
For more than a quarter of a century, the ANC has effectively built a counter-elite, while leaving millions to languish in squalor. Under Jacob Zuma, the failure to address the social crisis degenerated into a political elite simply stealing from funds allocated to housing, health and other basic and urgent social imperatives. We found ourselves living in the sort of postcolonial dystopia depicted in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.
Inequality and impoverishment have both worsened since the end of apartheid. Millions of people live in dangerous conditions, without access to decent housing or easy access to water and sanitation. When people have organised to affirm their dignity, and to demand access to land, housing and basic services, they have repeatedly been misrepresented in terms of criminality and conspiracy and subject to serious repression, including torture and murder.
The longstanding social crisis of mass immiseration has been compounded by an economy in precipitous decline. Our recession, which was already resulting in a devastating wave of retrenchments, will be significantly worsened by the economic costs of Covid-19 here and around the world. A serious and sustained depression is a real possibility.
Those most at risk
Under these circumstances it is vital that we see the current crisis in social and economic terms as well as a matter of public health. All possible resources and energies must be mobilised to protect the people who are most at risk. Water and sanitation must be provided as a matter of urgency. People who live in crowded conditions must be given safe and dignified places to self-isolate when that is required. The work that is already under way to get all HIV-positive people onto treatment must be escalated. Wherever possible retrenchments need to be stopped, and there must be an immediate halt to ongoing state violence against impoverished people in the form of evictions. Protection must be sought for people who will lose their income and not be able to afford food, medical supplies, repayments for work related expenses and rent or mortgages.
Yesterday’s announcement by the Reserve Bank of a cut in the interest rate is a welcome, although insufficient step. There will need to be further cuts, and a real stimulus package needs to be implemented. The announcement that sites are being identified for people living in shack settlements to self-isolate when necessary is also welcome, as are the firm measures that have been taken to oppose hoarding and profiteering.
Unlike right-wing demagogues like Johnson and Trump, our government has begun to confront the threat to public health in a serious manner. This must be acknowledged. But the same sense of urgency now needs to be brought to the social and economic crises, both of which may soon become entwined with the health crisis. If the virus continues to spread in the months to come, the intersection between it and mass impoverishment, which already means that millions live with compromised immunity, irregular and difficult access to water and no viable means to effectively self-isolate, could be catastrophic.
The old cliché about crisis being a time of both danger and opportunity has – despite its inaccurate reading of the characters that signify the Mandarin word for “crisis” – remained in vogue since the 1930s because, like many clichés, it carries some truth. We inhabit a moment in which real dangers must be confronted. Some of them, like Covid-19, are novel. Others, like the failure of the state to meet people’s most urgent and basic needs, including access to water and housing, have their roots in colonial dispossession and have rapidly metastasised into the new order. Although these realities force millions of people to live in extremely dangerous situations, they have not been treated as a generalised crisis because they do not directly affect elites.
Historically the upside to crisis is that people and states have, at times, recognised that business cannot continue as usual. Measures that would ordinarily be seen as impossible or unacceptable by entrenched interests suddenly become possible. We are already seeing this around the world with new forms of mutual aid and solidarity emerging from below, and states acting to suspend rents, mortgages and utility bills, stop evictions, pay a proportion of workers’ wages and nationalise private health care. Three months ago, these kinds of measures would have been seen by many as fantastical and unrealistic. Today they seem like common sense.
This new common sense, which of course is not uncontested, carries with it the prospect of a broader social transformation in which the interests of capital and elite are no longer assumed to also be those of society, and capital and the state can be subordinated to the interests of society. If we can put people before profit during a crisis, we can also do it when that crisis has passed.
Our state has begun to implement a set of important public health measures. We need to continue to have a public conversation, grounded in the best available scientific evidence, on how to continue to implement measures in the interest of public health. But we also need to realise that our serious social and economic crises require equally urgent attention, and that business as usual needs to be suspended as we confront an uncertain but shared future.